Adventures with ‘Dirty Dietmar’ in Cabo Verde

Our sail down to the Cape Verde islands from Gran Canaria was pretty ‘normal for Cesarina.’ What that means is – we reefed down and sailed like the clappers at the beginning in the stiff breeze out of Las Palmas, and actually really enjoyed the 3 metre swell and force 7 gusting force 8 winds. With waterproof jackets on over our shorts and taking it all in our stride, we were a little alarmed to see other participants around us doing utterly crazy things like hoisting their parasailor in nearly 30 knots of wind. We weren’t sure whether they were just a little less experienced at long ocean passages, or whether they had misunderstood and thought that the ARC+ was really a race? We obviously watched them then have to douse it again almost as fast as they had got it up – a massive amount of work in those conditions for probably no gain whatsoever. Poor crew. There’s always one…

After the first eighty miles or so, the wind dropped and so did our speed. For a day or so we tried various sail combinations, finally hoisting our parasailor when we only had 6 knots of wind…

Eventually, the wind simply stopped blowing and walking would have been much faster than sailing, so we put the engine on.

Cesarina flying her parasailor

To hell with counting engine hours – for us it’s all about getting there (wherever we are going) in a sensible amount of time and without breaking anything. (We didn’t, but one of the winches in the cockpit punished Dietmar for leaving a service a bit late – rebuilding a winch is incredibly complex work in a marina, but Dietmar pulled it off at sea. Did I mention that I bl**dy love this man?) Anyway, Cesarina is a big and heavy girl and needs a blow to get her moving. Light winds drive her – and her crew – a little crazy. Better just to get there so that we can get on with the important part of ARC rally cruising – enjoying the destination, discovering the country, getting to know people and making new buddies (read: getting to the bar ;)):D

Dietmar mending one of the two big electric winches underway…

Our arrival after 850 miles was entertaining. Both of us have been to the Cape Verdes before – Dietmar from the south and me from the Canaries. We both have previous experience of the incredible wind acceleration zone under Santo Antão (the island just to the north of Miindelo on São Vicente). We knew that it can break sails, probably even rigging, so when we saw the water surface change ahead of us, we reefed quick sharp, just in time for the wind to increase by 15 knots over the next 100m.

It’s a crazy thing.

Chris Tibbs had mentioned it in the weather briefing to the fleet and so had Mark Burton in the skipper’s briefing, but I realised, as I looked behind us and could see at least half a dozen yachts calmly flying dirty great big spinnakers, that it had perhaps slipped some people’s minds… they didn’t look at all ready for what was coming. 

At this point, I put to use something that all sailors know but don’t usually admit to ever doing : if they hear an interesting beginning to a conversation on the public VHF channel 16 that everyone monitors (or should) all the time, many sailors will follow the conversation and switch over when the channel is changed. You’re not meant to if you are not the vessel that has been addressed, but people do.

With the ARC, we are all also meant to monitor channel 72 and I very much hoped that everyone would be ear-wigging when I called up friends on a yacht behind me to warn them of the massive wind increase coming their way. And then I was tickled to see half a dozen other spinnakers being doused within the next 5 minutes.

Job done 😀

I was even more tickled when another yacht, crossing the finish line at a similar time to us, stated their finishing time in ‘UHT’ instead of ‘UTC.[1]’ I was laughing so hard that I forgave them immediately for the total mangling of Cesarina’s name on the radio. I’ve never heard her name sound weirdly like a cross between a surgical birth procedure and a pop star before…

The Cape Verdes – where the blue dot is

Anyway, Ariana Grande aside, we charged over the finish line between the striking, guano-streaked islet Ilheu dos Passaros (with its ancient lighthouse and these days uninhabited keeper’s cottage) and the headland, round the corner into Mindelo’s harbour, past the cargo ships and the wrecks and the boats anchored and waiting to die, and into the marina,straight onto our perfect berth (thank you to the ARC team this time :D) – alongside that massive catamaran Arabella again!! There was a thunderous sound of clapping and drumming as we tied up. I know Cesarina is pretty well known and I like to think that I’m slowly acquiring a reputation as an international artist, but this was an unexpected honour! I looked around for the paparazzi and, with a shiver, thought that I probably ought to have brushed my hair a bit…

Turns out though- not terribly surprisingly – that it wasn’t for us. Our arrival had coincided with a goal being scored by the hometown heroes in the nearby football stadium – the Cape Verde national team were beating the Central African Republic in a World Cup qualifier match. Definitely not clapping and cheering us after all. Disappointing… 😉 [2]

However, lack of applause aside, we were greeted very warmly by our new friends from various boats as Cesarina elegantly slid alongside the pontoon, plus the wonderful Yellow Shirts and also – an absolute pleasure and honour – by the amazing Gilson from BoatCV. Gilson is from Mindelo and you’d struggle to find a better rigger, particularly anywhere near that part of the world. When Cesarina had some significant problems with her rig after a surprise night squall on the way up from St Helena in 2018, Dietmar had to put into the Cape Verdes to save the rig and Gilson replaced most of her standing rigging. Cesarina’s rig has been faultless ever since. Parts aren’t easy to acquire in the Cape Verdes, but there is an extremely competent make-do-and-mend culture, with stores of materials that would put Steptoe to shame. I’m sure there is probably bailer twine involved sometimes, and certainly little regard for the official manuals or warranty constraints. your problem will be fixed in good time and the solution will work really well, but probably not the way the manufacturer intended!

Gilson – and his colleagues – can mend pretty much anything, which is a good thing as the boats that came in around us had snapped spinnaker poles, broken spreaders, malfunctioning generators and engines, ripped tracks out and all sorts of issues…

We had sailed into an historic port, steeped in interesting history.  The Cape Verde islands (Cabo Verde) have a long seafaring and trading tradition. There’s no real evidence that the islands were inhabited before the arrival of the Portuguese in 1462, but there are suggestions that there had been earlier visits by Phoenicians, Moors, and Africans in previous centuries. The islands were first mentioned by Portuguese and Genoese navigators in the mid-15th century, shortly before the first settlers from Portugal arrived and founded the oldest European city in the tropics on Santiago – Ribeira Grande, now known as Cidade Velha. They planted sugar to try to emulate their success on Madeira, but the dry climate didn’t lend itself so well to this enterprise. The transatlantic slave trade, however, brought great wealth to the islands, for a short while.

Mindelo is still the only proper deepwater port in the entire archipelago of ten islands. (If you’re interested, there’s a potted history of Mindelo and the Cape Verdes in the footnotes)[3]

These days, poverty is not far from the surface in this proud little nation and Covid definitely did not help matters. The Portuguese colonial influences are evident everywhere in the language, the architecture and the ubiquitous music, but Africa is figuratively – as well as literally – not far away.

350 miles of ocean separate the eastern Cape Verdes from Senegal in west Africa. Don’t tell my mum this, but it’s not a super safe place to sail. It’s not even that safe a place to hang out – you have to keep an eye on your belongings in public places (ask Mario, who ‘lost’ his phone at the bar) and make sure your boat is securely locked up when you’re not on it, or even when you are. Several boats were broken in to while the fleet was there. We are grateful that we weren’t one of them…

I’m not sure with whom we had a drink first after arriving. I think it might have been Latobe. At some point though, our neighbours on Arabella invited us on board for a drink. A glass of whisky magically turned into most of a bottle – mostly drunk by my almost teetotal husband, I might add – and then somehow we ended up in the marina bar.

At about 9pm onthat first night, after 6 days and nights at sea and fairly sleep-deprived as well as ‘lubricated’ by the gin and tonics earlier, then the whisky, then the local rum punch, four of us wandered out of the safety and confines of the marina, attracted like moths to the sparkly lights and excellent music of the club night taking place on the next door jetty. Turned out it was the Cape Verde football team’s celebration party – they’d finally won, hurrah! – but our attempts to gatecrash were scuppered – I think – by the fact that we all looked like rum-soaked and very salty sailors -Dietmar and I had neither showered nor changed since arriving :/

There’s shabby chic, beach hair, the global nomad look… and then there’s just plain stinky…

The very conscientious young security guard quickly identified that we were not 4 extremely attractive young ladies, and as a result, our names were definitively not on the list, despite all of our best attempts to wheedle our way in. It was very funny trying though, and the first time that I have ever been refused entry to a club (although, to be fair, the last time I went to one was probably 20 years ago now!).

Dietmar and his new brother from another mother

We wove our way back to the marina bar, determined to make the best of the evening, and set about getting the party really started. (It was probably a good thing that we went back as we found out the next day that someone had been stabbed outside the irish bar a street away over his phone… :/)

The bar by now was filled with sailors and hookers of every gender and persuasion, attracted by the sudden influx of life into the marina. A lot of alcohol was being consumed. It was getting pretty lively.

We worked on getting the DJ to sharpen up his act and then I just remember dancing my feet off with all manner of unsuspecting punters who had probably just gone there for a quiet drink and found themselves whisked onto the dance floor by a slightly mad Englishwoman, smelling of ocean and diesel and rum. The evening went by in a bit of a haze but I remember meeting the amazing Eugenie Nottebohm there – a single-handed female sailor, definitely not with the ARC – such an inspiration – and dancing with some of the boys from SY Daisy. Also, Dietmar, for the first time since I have known him, got properly drunk. He was hysterical. Occasionally, I could hear his epic and wonderful laugh over the top of the music. He even danced with me briefly – this happens only on very special occasions after much pleading by me but this time, he was there entirely voluntarily!

Of course, since his liver is effectively a virgin, he was positively spritely the next morning, despite having consumed half his body weight in gin. I was a little more tender around the gills 😉

After similar antics on the second night, he acquired a new moniker, christened ( I think ) by Gavin from Latobe: “Dirty Dietmar.” I think it rather suits him 😉

Over the next few days, in the lulls between partying in the bar, we went on a tour of the island, had some washing done, bought fuel, cleaned the boat, went to the ‘supermarket,’ and did all the things that you do when you’ve arrived from a long passage and just before you set off on another one. We also hung out with our lovely friends on various boats, spent a lot of time on Latobe, walked around the town a little (but not for long. The begging near the port was as aggressive and persistent as any I have known and it was deeply uncomfortable. It was difficult to know how to help or to identify to what degree the need was genuinely for food, especially when you see people on their new iPhones that, I am sure, were not provided by the state. It didn’t matter whether any of us were in fact millionaires – anyone rocking up on a yacht there is considered to be one. Anyway – we gave people something to eat rather than money, but were pleased to get back to the marina.)…

There was an awards evening during the week. We went along to cheer on the other boats who had taken the “it’s-not-a-race” racing a bit more seriously than us – Cesarina, who had been ranked as the 7th fastest boat overall and been given a handicap accordingly, would have had to arrive well before most of the other boats had even left Las Palmas to get on the podium!

We all dutifully cheered all the people who had obviously taken a more competitive stance than we had. A song written by the captain and crew of another boat was performed (unfortunately not loudly enough that everyone could hear properly), Mark (the ARC Event Manager in the Cape Verdes gave a speech and handed out some other awards, and then something happened that was distinctly surreal. First there was drumming. It was loud and tribal and captivating, echoing in your chest in the historic building on the waterfront. And then the drummers were followed by three dancers – local people of colour, blacked up with some kind of tarry, oily substance and dressed in feathers and chains and fur and leather, looking pretty terrifying – and it promised to be amazing but actually they were clearly out of practice and it was difficult to identify any kind of choreography. It was a bit weird, and then when one of them had a wardrobe malfunction and lost his skirt to reveal a part of denim cut-offs underneath – a bit cringe, a bit awkward, pretty uncomfortable to watch. It got even more cringe when, once they had finished, they were asked to pose for photos with various sailors. The troupe had looked like authenticity but delivered a ratty version of cruise-ship-lite entertainment. I wandered off. One of the dancers talked with me briefly afterwards – my Portuguese is almost non-existent and his English not much better, but I did understand “Can you get me a beer?” and then handed me his headress to put on and his ceremonial dagger, to pose for another photo. It was all a bit sad, to be honest. Last time I was here (in 2016), it was very different.

One of the dancers from the Prizegiving Evening
Sao Vicente has some stunning coastline. The sand has been blown over from the Sahara…
Looking back towards the town from our pontoon in Mindelo

Apart from that, we had an absolutely wonderful time – and …

…four days before we were due to leave…

… I got so ill that I had to be put on a drip. And then go to hospital.

I wish this was a joke, but it wasn’t. Not from liver damage, but from salmonella poisoning which I probably picked up in the Canaries :/

They brought a wheelchair for me in the hospital. I was too wobbly on my pins for their liking. I lost well over a stone that week. Great if you like seeing your ribs… :/ (I don’t)

No more partying for me – only a fever so high you could have poached eggs on me, repeated chats with God down the big white telephone and the need to be no more than 3 seconds away from the loo. It was horrible. The wonderful Barbara from ‘Nova’ is a doctor and she came and stuck me on a drip, and then another one, and then when it was obvious that I wasn’t getting that much better, suggested that a) we really shouldn’t leave with the fleet on the Friday as scheduled, and b) I ought to go to the hospital and find out why I was still so ill. The party was abruptly over, and we were about to be left behind in the Cape Verdes. The thought was not a happy one.

As the fleet left on the Friday, I was still in bed. I’d been (weedy as anything, with my blood pressure in my boots so I kept thinking I was going to pass out, particularly in the heat) to the hospital, had a load of blood tests which revealed two kinds of salmonella typhae and proteus, had antibiotics stabbed (injected) into my backside by a thoroughly sadistic nurse and been given enough tablets to cure any disease you care to mention and a bunch that haven’t been discovered yet. I felt like Bambi and now I know how I will look when I’m 70.

I was ill as hell and Dietmar was beside himself. This was all his worst nightmares coming true… getting stuck in a port on a remote island with his wife seriously ill, as all the other boats leave…

Thankfully, we have good friends. I’ll tell you more in the next blog…

[1] Ultra High Temperature (ie, pasteurized, like milk), versus Universal Time Coordinated, which non-sailors know better as GMT or Greenwich Mean Time

[2] Allllll the irony here!! Just in case you thought I was being remotely serious, I wasn’t 😀

[3] Over time, Cabo Verde – and Mindelo in particular as a natural deep port, well protected by the bay and the islands around – served an increasingly important role as an offshore trading post with the development of the triangular trade, by which manufactured goods from Europe were traded for slaves, who were sold in turn to plantations in the New World in exchange for the raw materials produced there; with these the ships returned home. It was a centre for the trade of cheap manufactured items, firearms, rum, cloth, and the like –  in exchange for slaves, ivory, and gold. Tens of thousands of slaves were exported from the African coast to Cabo Verde and then on to the New World, especially to northern Brazil.

The waning of the slave trade—the Portuguese rulers and merchants eventually reluctantly abandoned the industry in 1876—coupled with increasing drought slowly sapped the islands’ prosperity. In the early 1800s, Cabo Verde experienced not only recurrent drought and famine but government corruption and maladministration as well. In the mid-1850s the islands enjoyed a period of economic optimism as the age of steam replaced the age of sail, and large long-distance oceanic vessels needed strategic coaling stations like Mindelo. It began operating as a coal deposit and fuelling station for ships of the British East India Company in 1838, followed by the Royal Mail Steam Packet Company in 1850. In 1884 a submarine communications cable was laid between Europe, Africa, India and North America, making Mindelo an important communications centre for the British Empire. As a result, the island of São Vicente was briefly the site of great port activity, although the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869 cut severely into this business, followed by stiff competition from emerging ports in the Canary Islands and Dakar in Senegal.

However, the beginning of the 20th century and the rise of oil (rather than coal-)-powered vessels spelled the beginning of the end for the port of Mindelo. The ships came less frequently, the port infrastructure was allowed to age and the competition grew stronger. Mindelo’s importance for transatlantic navigation waned and a slow but inexorable decline in fortune began for this tiny island. A terrible drought followed during and after the second World War and São Vicente disappeared from the world map, back into relative poverty and obscurity.

2 thoughts on “Adventures with ‘Dirty Dietmar’ in Cabo Verde

  • Nick Cameron

    I was looking on AIS and somehow came across Cesarina and with a bit of defective work found your blog!
    We had dinner aboard Cesaina with you and Dieter in Nara inlet in the Whitsundays in I think August 2017. You may recall I had lost my sailing buddy Jonathon who had taken off in the dingy in search of a phone connection and hadn’t returned by dark. Dieter and I went out in your dingy to search for him. After ducessfully finding him you cooked us all dinner and I have dined on the story of your journey and how you met ever since!?
    If you ever get to Queensland again give us a call.
    SV Santé

    • flipping heck, Nick, that’s a blast from the past!! We have told the story of that evening many times since – what an adventure! We will definitely get in touch if we’re ever over that way again although it’s unlikely that we will sail that way again – but who knows? We are in Guadeloupe currently, enjoying the Caribbean sunshine and the French cheese 😀
      Thanks for getting in touch and stay safe!
      All best wishes from us both,
      Emma & Dietmar x


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