The lads

Tell me if I’m being patronising.

The other day, I wrote about the desperate situation for people in The Gambia – the economy on the floor, everyone scrabbling for just the basics of life – and how I felt obliged to take on all manner of guides and interpreters and pay over the odds.

Here’s something else: one evening, I anchored at Kuntaur, 133 miles up the river. This is where you stop to visit the ancient standing stones at Wassu. Inevitably a small canoe appeared alongside with a couple of lads offering their services. By this time, I knew better than to refuse – I’d only get hassled by another pair.

Of course, the following morning, four of them turned up. They were called Badou, Bilali, Del and Ibraima. Together, we set off on the dirt road for Wassu.

It was a fair old walk on a hot day, but they showed me the shortcut and pumped water so I could drink from the village well. We got to talking: they were all between 18 and 20, and not one of them had ever had a job. They just hung about the waterfront, hoping for someone like me to turn up.

To stoke the sympathy a little further, they got Ibraima to take off his scarf. In these days of COVID, it hadn’t occurred to me to wonder why a young man would wear a scarf around his face. The reason was because he had been standing over a petrol generator when it exploded – and no-one at the local hospital had heard about skin grafts. Maybe if I took a picture, someone in England would help…

Believe me, you don’t want to see that picture.

But it did move the conversation on to their situation, and before I had thought it through properly, I said something like this: “Look at it this way: you’re four young men who ought to be working. Working gives you self-respect. Working gives you a reason to get up in the morning. Your problem is that nobody wants to give you a job.

“But that doesn’t prevent you from working. Even if you don’t get paid, having to get up in the morning and go to work – relaxing at the end of the day after a job well done – that’s a good feeling for a young man to have.

“So how about this: Find your own work.”

At this point, they reminded me there was no work – none, nada, niente – or, as they say in Wolof dara.

“But look around you,” I told them. “Everywhere there is rubbish – garbage.”

And it was true. The whole country is one enormous rubbish dump – for a very obvious reason: if your first priority is finding enough to eat and the second is getting a roof over your head before the rains come, the little matter of putting a plastic bottle in a litter bin comes way down the list.

That’s if there are any litter bins…

Rubbish everywhere in a country where clearing up is not the top priority.

So here was a suggestion: “Get up every morning, the four of you, six days a week and clear up the village. Collect the rubbish, and take it out into the bush, and burn it. What won’t burn, you can bury.

“Of course, nobody will pay you for doing it. Probably, nobody will thank you for doing it. But I can promise you this: after a while – a month, a year – whatever it may be, somebody will give you their empty plastic bottle instead of throwing it on the ground. They will ask if you wouldn’t mind taking it away and burning it.

Then some more people will do the same, and – since you’re still busy clearing up – gradually, the streets will start to look better. People will notice this. You will feel a sense of pride. The town will thank you for it – trust me, if you keep on clearing up, people will appreciate living in a place that doesn’t look like a tip.

“And here’s the thing: People in the next village will get to hear about you – and the local town. Heaven’s above, you might even end up on television.

“And one day – it might be a year, it might be five years – along will come an entrepreneur – somebody who owns a business, or maybe many businesses, and they will be looking for four new employees. Will they give those jobs to four young men who have never worked but just hang around the waterfront – or will they give them to the four who decided to make something of themselves and cleaned up their village and earned the respect of their community?

“Then you will get your jobs, and you will get paid.”

It was a difficult concept to take in, walking along a dirt road under the hot sun, heading for a bunch of stones people had put up 1,400 years ago – all in the hope that the old foreigner might give them a handful of grubby notes.

I plunged on: “Here’s something else. You want to be rich, right? Here’s how to get rich. It’s easy – but that doesn’t mean everybody’s going to do it.

“Here’s what you have to do: the first week your boss pays you, take 10% of that money (they understood percentages) and put that 10% in a secret place. Do the same next time you get paid – in fact, every time you have some money coming in after that, 10% goes in the secret place.

“When there’s enough, you put it in the bank – earn a bit of interest. One day you’ll have enough to invest it in something – maybe start your own business. But whatever happens, you keep adding 10% every time you have money coming in.”

“If you do that, one day, the money you’re earning from your investment will be more than the money you’re earning from your job or the income you’re taking out of your business. In other words, the money will be doing the work, not you.

“At that point, you can call yourself rich, and you won’t need to work anymore.

“You can hang around the waterfront.”

All this happened in the week before Christmas. On Christmas day, I was invited to lunch with the crews of two other boats – all of them retired. I told the story of the four lads who took me to the stones and the advice I had given them and asked whether I had been patronising (other people’s feelings not being my strong point).

But, “Oh no,” they said. It was good advice. Besides, I am an old man, and in the Gambia, the old are respected. Maybe it would make all the difference. Maybe this one small germ of an idea would change the course of four young lives. It was a lovely thought.

Of course, it would be better if they had a mentor. Otherwise, how long would they keep at it – that’s if they got started at all.

Who knows?

But, on the other hand, we’re all on WhatsApp.


11 Responses to The lads

  • I wonder. It’s an outsider’s view. Reminds me of when I lived in Johannesburg. Many areas you could park your car and come back to find it washed. Also not broken into. Sometimes really well, others, badly. The washer would come up and ask for a couple of Rand for doing the car. Pretty enterprising, especially as there was a time of year when the mulberries would colour the bird poo and leave wonderful purple stains on your white paint if it wasn’t removed quickly.
    I came back to my car one day, sure enough there was a guy asking for money for cleaning and guarding. I paid up and as I was getting in the driver of the car in front of me arrived. Usual discussion, I thought. But no, this guy wasn’t prepared to pay and told the guard/washer to do something useful…..

  • Not patronising at all – but it’s Africa – the women work hard and the men sit around drinking beer – one wonders if anyone in the Government is working to improve their country or just hoarding money in foreign bank account!

  • I also love this story and the good advice you gave them.

  • John, I still love your blogs, and especially the last two. The ‘lads’ have already displayed the ‘right stuff’ by latching on to you. You are not being patronising at all. It’s what the whole of Africa needs to be told. For too long we have been shovelling money down there without any follow up, mentoring, management etc. Much of the Charity money never reaches the parts where it’s really needed anyway. Those folk will never move forward unless a few locals take the initiative and start with simple, everyday tasks like you suggest. All it takes is a good idea and some effort. Keep on doing your bit. It’s worth a lot more than just handing out money.

  • I have a question – what will they live on while they are clearing rubbish?
    Have you seen them since?

  • It sounds like they are already entrepreneurs. This particular group were already making the effort to be up and about (before rivals) to catch your eye, and some of the contents of your wallet.

  • You are so right, and when they have a beautiful rubbish free village they will attract more tourists and consequently there will be more jobs.

  • Certainly not patronising, but they might see the goal as to far off in the future to directly affect their lives in the here and now. When the culture and way of surviving is food, shelter and trying to keep safe, it’s a tough nut to crack. Also, when you have nothing, saving is a concept that is difficult to conceptualise let alone do. However…, setting up an old ‘pen pal’ type mentoring program from afar might work. I hope it does 🙂

  • I love the story, and what good advice.

  • Well adviced to the young lads. Hope they realise the meaning of it all.



His name was Ibrahim. He was a Baghdad taxi driver, and he drove an ancient orange Toyota the size of a tank.

He drove it like a tank too.

However, as far as I remember, Saddam Hussein’s Russian-built T54s did not boast detachable dashboards. It was behind the dashboard that Ibrahim kept his international currency exchange.

As a keen young reporter for the Daily Mail in 1980, this was my first big foreign trip – and my first experience of employing a “fixer” – that essential combination of guide, translator, bodyguard and banker.

Over the years, I went on to know a variety of fixers. There was “Pipa” the rock-star (as far as the Czechoslovakia music scene was concerned). “Pipa” is the Czech word for the tap of a beer barrel – although his real talent was a fantastic news sense as he translated the morning papers over room-service breakfast.

“High-Tower” was the Beijing student (so-called because, unusually among the Chinese, he was well over six-feet tall). He made me sound authentic by peppering my copy with Confucius.

There was the taxi driver in Sri Lanka who took me to see the Tamil Tigers with an open can of petrol between my knees. We couldn’t put the cap on it because this was the fuel tank ever since the one at the back got full of bullet holes.

But whatever risks they ran (and whatever risks I ended up sharing with them), there was one cardinal rule: They all got paid an enormous amount.

Partly, this was because the exchange rate into the local currency was heavily weighted in my favour – but mainly, what I needed was loyalty.

Anyway, it wasn’t my money.

Now I think about it; there was also the man with dreadful teeth and a wall-eye in the fly-blown tea house on the Jordanian border who offered to get me a ride into Iraq in a sanctions-busting lorry if I came back at midnight…

This was the era of the hostages John McCarthy and Terry Waite. Midnight found me back in the bar of the Amman Intercontinental drinking brandy and sodas out of half-litre glasses.

All of this comes to mind because I am back in the third world and, once again, I need a fixer. I sailed from the Canaries directly to The Gambia, that tiny country on the west coast of Africa which consists of nothing much more than the river – up which (130 miles up which) I would see hippos and crocodiles and the legendary Baboon Island.

The aspect which seemed to get lost in translation is that The Gambia is now a very, very poor country. The previous president (now in exile in Equatorial Guinea) sought to get a leg up by accepting Beijing’s offer to build roads and bridges. They needed roads and bridges to service the fish meal factory they had slipped into the small print.

To support the factory, a veritable navy of Chinese trawlers moved in to hoover up a little fish called the sardinella – which just happened to be the Gambians’ staple food.

No more sardinellas also upset the ocean food chain and killed off the big game fishing industry – which, in turn didn’t do a lot for the tourism industry (the smell of fish meal drifting over the beaches didn’t help).

So last year, the locals set fire to the factory and 40 Chinese fishing boats – although the only building they managed to destroy completely was their own police station.

One way and another, the country is in a desperate state, and it seems that everyone is looking for a job. Never mind, Passmore arrived looking for a fixer – several, in fact.

The first was Muhammad who navigated me through the byzantine process of checking into the country (Port Authority, Health Department, Immigration, Customs, back to Immigration, back to Port Authority for the river permit… come back on Tuesday to finish with the man in the Health Department, then pick up the river permit..)

Muhammad was brilliant. He knew everyone. It was only later – after we had settled on a price for his services – that I remembered it wouldn’t be coming out of Lord Rothermere’s spectacularly deep pocket but my own rather modest cruising budget. Checking with Facebook friends, it appeared I had promised Muhammad many, many times the going rate.

Too late, he’d already shown me a picture of his baby daughter – they all do this. Ibrahim in Baghdad had a daughter who was diabetic. When I got out to Jordan, Lord Rothermere invested in a year’s supply of insulin (which probably ended up with the wall-eyed man in the fly-blown tea house.)

As I progressed up the river, I toughened up my negotiating skills, but it’s no good, the boat kitty would keep a family for a year – and the children are terribly cute.

But I did get to see the chimps on Baboon Island (well, one of them) and heard a hippo in the night – they sound like Winston Churchill getting out of the bath. I missed the crocodile, though – despite rowing out at dawn in the little inflatable.

Maybe that was just as well. I’m not sure a little inflatable is recommended for a crocodile hunting.

Now I’m back at Lamin Lodge – the wood and corrugated iron restaurant open on all sides to catch the breeze above the mangroves. Mahmood, the waiter, keeps me supplied with refreshments, and Bamba, the drummer provides a background rhythm. As a temporary office, it beats all the Hiltons and Intercontinentals into a cocked hat.

The office

If you look closely at the picture, you can see Samsara anchored just next door – where Karim turns up every morning on his paddle-board to deliver fresh bread and collect the laundry.

Karim with the bread (and the laundry)

What did  I say about leaving…

Bamba on rhythm

5 Responses to Fixers

  • Very interesting information. Thank you

  • “Lamin Lodge”, what a fantastic venue, back in the 80’s, my wife and I holidayed in The Gambia”, and one of our trips was to Lamin Lodge for breakfast, brilliant. I didn’t receive your book for Christmas, but am working on it. Love your posts, long may they keep dropping in my in-box.

  • Gambia now that’s a bit different, would make a great YouTube story. Please keep us updated. PS i really enjoyed your book.

    • Thank you. May I ask a favour: if you haven’t done so already, would you leave it some Amazon stars (five would be most welcome – I’m trying to get past the 4.75 average so they all light up!)

  • Now that’s cruising! Shades of books written 60 and more years ago – like Millars’ “Isobel and the Sea – and a host of others on my shelves, venturers all beyond the confines of so-called civilisation. And yet you have the internet; such irony.


I was going to be a Spitfire pilot. We all were – backs to the wall, fighting to the death against a merciless invader…

This was 1959, an English prep school; War Picture Library with a torch after lights out. For the price of a Mars Bar, you could borrow Boddington’s flying helmet. It had P/O Boddington inked on the inside and smelled of rubber and sweat and excitement.

Ten years later came the film – Battle of Britain. I went to see it every night until the money ran out. Edward Fox with his silk scarf. Susannah York, fetching in her WAAF officer’s cap.

It remained a fantasy, of course – until now.

Admittedly, I’m not in a Spitfire, climbing through Angels Ten. But the fight for survival – the merciless invader. That’s all here.

And just because I’m a hundred miles up the Gambia, not at Biggin Hill – and I’m up against cockroaches instead of the Luftwaffe, it’s still as desperate a struggle as anything Michael Caine, and Douglas Bader and P/O Boddington had to face.

I knew they were coming, of course: the books and Facebook groups are full of warnings about not bringing cardboard packaging aboard (they lay their eggs in cardboard). There is advice about Boric Acid and Nestles Milk – but that’s no good in a dogfight.

Nobody forgets their first contact with the enemy: I was chopping onions, had discarded the papery outer skin and suddenly, out of the corner of my eye, a movement – a flash of scuttling shiny brown carapace.

Wheeling instinctively onto the attack, I stabbed with the vegetable knife. It went wide, but the enemy banked and ran for cover under the engine casing.

That’s when the training kicked in: Don’t let him get away. He’ll be back with his chums, telling them I’m a pushover – won’t last two weeks, just as Kurt Jurgens told Ralph Richardson.

So, fight like hell! Off with the engine casing. There’s the bastard, running for cover along the ledge above the CAV filter. Gun button to “fire”. Press the tit – but, Oh no! Out of ammunition (I’d put the vegetable knife down).

I grabbed a spoon, but a spoon is not a precision weapon. It wouldn’t fit into the corner.

Bare hands, now: slapping and missing until, with a cold and steely deliberation, I bring out a forefinger and crush him into the woodwork. Still, he won’t die: A mess of legs and whiskers stuck to the skin, waving defiance. The coup de grâce, then: I bring down the thumbnail; grind him in two.

Total war.

Yet this is just the beginning. Over the ensuing days, the raids increase both in size and frequency. I keep a daily tally in the back of the logbook. The Nine o’clock news begins with Alvar Liddell reciting the day’s score as if it were a test match.

For a time, it is touch and go. The blackest day brings eleven incursions, eight kills. The cockroaches don’t give up. They come in numbers. I adapt my tactics: don’t go for two at once. Nobody can catch two rabbits…

Tally-ho! The carpet comes up, then the cabin sole: I burrow into the tins of chickpeas and bottles of mayonnaise until – there he is – backed up against freshwater manifold. Out with the forefinger.

It’s relentless: ten, a dozen sorties a day and no quarter given. After the early clashes, I would flick my victims into the galley waste bin – until I found one of them, mortally wounded, yet still trying to escape. After that, over the side, they went – over the stern, in fact – into the two-knot tide sweeping them away with the river. I wouldn’t trust the buggers not to climb up the anchor chain.

Of course, it couldn’t go on. Not at this level of attrition. There had to come a time when one of us would crack. Remember the scene right at the end, when the pilots are waiting at dispersal, lounging in broken armchairs, sleeping on the grass?

Edward Fox (he survived) folds his newspaper and looks up at the sky.

And the sky is empty.

Cut to the Luftwaffe packing up and heading for Russia.

It has been ten days since a cockroach has shown its face aboard Samsara. The battle is won. I’m not a hero – somebody had to do it – and yet the war grinds on: when I restocked the onions the other day, I sat in the dinghy peeling off the outer skin, dropping the pieces carefully over the side.

Do you think they sell Boric Acid in the market?

*You can read more about Boddington and his flying helmet in Old Man Sailing, the book:

9 Responses to Invaders

  • Merry Christmas JP, I was keenly looking forward to reading your update from sailing in the Gambia. Seems like you have been busy with your ‘invaders’. I wish you fair winds and safe passage on your adventure, hopefully without any “Freeloading Cockroaches”. Kind regards Bill

  • I remember in the 70s regularly swimming in the (then) abandoned volcanic Turkish baths on the island of Lesbos where we used to lie around the pool when too hot and were always joined by legions of cockroaches though they never touched us, recognising that we were alive. I rather enjoyed watching them pursue their busy lives… but I didn’t have to live with them!
    Happy Christmas to you all!

  • “We will fight them on the beaches……we will never give up!” Merry Christmas!

  • “Exterminate! Exterminate…!”

  • Nadolig Llawen John from Penmachno Snowdonia… love reading that little ‘espionage’ story ……. How are you and hope you well ?
    You put a smile on my face on Xmas eve especially as I’m just recovering after one hell of a 2 week suffering with chest infection/respiratory illness etc but thankfully the ‘magic pills’ antibiotics has started working and I can smile & laugh without my ribs hurting me… I have survived and feel I feel ready to fight another battle ‘peel the onions’ ready for cooking a Xmas feast maybe…

    Chilli powder is good


  • Well done John what hero you are. I was far more timid back in December 2015 when Arctic Smoke was attacked between the Canaries and Cape Verde. We simply deployed poisen and traps but didn’t finally get rid of the swine until our return to the UK the following year when they died of the cold!

  • Good luck, John. One of the ships I served on in the Royal Navy was a very happy efficient and clean destroyer without any unwanted creatures onboard – UNTIL we arrived at Gan on our way to the Far East where our Supply Office decided to buy sacks of potatoes because they were cheap, ignoring the protests of our Victualling Petty Officer who had enough to last until we arrived at Singapore. As the spuds were swung onboard, one sack split and lo! and behold! we had spuds everywhere and tropical cockroaches (Bombay Runners) running in all directions. Needless to say we were infested from that moment and the filthy creatures were everywhere – open your clothes locker and they were in residence, leaving messy marks on one’s neatly folded clean tropical whites. UGH! and UGH again.
    It took a while in dockyard for the ship to be de-infested. Cheap spuds! Nothing is cheap in this life – we get what we pay for but nobody had impressed that on our SO’s mind.
    Bon chance with the cockroaches, John. They are the very devil to eradicate.

  • If no boric acid, I hear that activated yeast and sugar are the weapon of choice by those in the know….. . Apparently the little fockers are unable to fart or belch; so the gas builds in their tiny shiny case until they explode…
    typically back at base, where their remains are canabilised by their comrades, thus creating, with careful timing, the potential for several for the price of 1. Good luck, old chap…
    tally ho!

  • Splendid stuff! As one who has spent half his life in the tropics and subtropics and who will on principle go as far as two steps out of my way to stamp on a cockroach, I applaud and commend your approach, which is positively Churchillian. Écrasez le cafard!

    (Be warned that they probably laid eggs).

Oars and outboards

What does an old man, sailing on his own, do for an outboard?

Well, l’ll tell you what a young man does – at least, what I did when I was in my 40’s on Largo: I had a little two-stroke Suzuki and I took it in one hand and climbed into the dinghy with it, swinging it around as if it weighed no more than a can of extra strong lager on a Saturday night.

So, when I started sailing alone again as an old man, I bought another little two-stroke Suzuki (it wasn’t easy – they don’t make them any more because of the emissions).

However, nothing else was the same. Somewhere over the intervening 30 years, my muscles had disappeared. My little stick-thin 72-year-old arms can no more lift an outboard than my head can cope with extra-strong lager. I could see that it would only be a matter of time before both of us ended up in the water – which do no good at all for the outboard (and not much good for me).

All of these changes have come together to contrive what I believe is a very neat solution to the problem of getting ashore, saving the planet and keeping the beer cold (the 3.8% Heineken).

At the end of last season, I was going home for Christmas and had everything loaded into the dinghy ready for the two-mile trip up the river to Waldringfield.

You will probably remember last Christmas and the prospect of it being cancelled with another lockdown: If I had the boat hauled out as I usually did, it might be moths before I got back into the water. Instead, I borrowed a friend’s mooring at Ramsholt.

When I say I had everything in the dinghy, I mean the bicycle and everything I could get on it for the five-mile ride from Waldringfield to Woodbridge. That is to say, I had my rucksack and the carry-on bag which just about fits on the front.

The dinghy, with its pump, outboard and oars etc. could stay on the beach. I would come back for them later in the car.

You can see, I had thought this through.

The only thing I had not considered was the outboard failing to start.

Which was why I was a day late home for the holidays – having had to wait for the following day’s flood tide (you don’t row a tiny inflatable for two miles against the River Deben’s three-knot ebb.)

It was pretty much the final straw for me and the outboard. Over the years, I had spent hours with it in pieces in the cockpit. I had pored over YouTube videos on how to service a carburettor. I had spent enough on repairs,  practically, to buy a new one…

There had to be an alternative. Well, of course there was. I could have an electric outboard. They come to pieces. You can load them into the dinghy one bit at a time. They don’t break down. They need no maintenance. They’re kind to the environment. You don’t have to find somewhere safe to store the petrol (or buy it, come to that). What I needed was an electric outboard.

The only problem was that the ones made for the yacht market cost the predictable arm and leg.

But there was an alternative. It was called a “trolling motor” – designed for little boats on lakes. Top speed is about three knots and you need a 12-volt battery to power them. But you could get a brand new one for less than £150. Best of all, they weighed only 7kg – I really would be able to swing it around in one hand.

I’ve had it for a year now. It’s called a Haswing  Osapian 40 and I have an 80ah “marine and leisure” battery which plugs into the ships’ batteries to recharge (and when it’s not running the outboard, it pushes the little electric beer-cooler.)

The battery does weigh 17kg and has to be lifted in an out of the dinghy but it’s compact and has a proper handle and somehow that makes it manageable.

Obviously, you have to learn to think like a WW2 submarine captain – you can go further if you go slowly – about three miles, I reckon. But in emergency top gear, it has pushed me across Falmouth Harbour against a 20knot headwind.

So why does that picture at the top show me rowing?

It was taken in the enormous anchorage at Las Palmas, Gran Canaria, where it’s the best part of a mile into the marina and all the way down to the other end to the dinghy dock – or five minutes in a RIB with a 10hp four-stroke which two people had to hoist aboard with a purpose-built derrick.

Although, I did notice that in between the criss-crossing wakes, there would be the occasional little old man rowing a tiny cockleshell dinghy. It would take him twenty minutes – but old men are seldom in a hurry.

I’m an old man – and my little electric trolling motor in low gear would take me all of twenty minutes.

So why wasn’t I rowing?

The upshot is that now I have new, longer oars and stainless steel rowlocks in place of the broken plastic ones. Admittedly, I still can’t punch into a 20knot headwind like a rigid dinghy – or even a collapsible one – so, when there’s the prospect of a strong headwind, I take the motor just in case. Then I can clamp it amidships and set it to half-speed and row with a little help. It’s like pedalling uphill on an electric bicycle.

My biceps are coming along splendidly…

11 Responses to Oars and outboards

  • Very good to see you happy

  • It’s a lie John – you like whisky!. Happy memories of the evening at Titchmarsh. Safe passage and keep updating us on your ramblings marine and cerebral.

  • Wonderful stuff John keep it coming so many of us can relate to this…
    I remember my father with his Seagull outboard, you could hear it coming for miles !

  • As always very entertaining. I guess the minerals are helping those biceps come along nicely.

    • I think they must be helping – after all I can row (and winch) five months after the dislocated shoulder and the NHS website says recovery can take a year. Still need to do the exercise, though…

  • Love reading about your adventures – I’m in bed with really bad bronchitis – wish I had half your energy!

  • I’m not a boating person but your comments in this post resonate John.
    I too have moved onto low alcohol beers and my legs are not what they were, I enjoy ‘electrically assisted’ cycling these days.
    I really enjoy your postings John, keep them coming.

  • I cannot agree more with using an elderly – but well maintained – 2 stroke outboard, in my case a Mariner 2hp which has lasted since 1988 and several inversions. When I first tried lifting a new 4 stroke I thought ‘ OK, what joker has bolted this to the floor ? ‘

  • I love reading your blogs. Please keep them coming.

  • Old men and their electric toys eh JP – Onwards n Upwards John 🙂