British Empire Article

Courtesy of OSPA

by J. D. Kelsall
Passage from Mwanza to Kisumu
Kavirindo Bay
It was on an occasion in the early 1950s that my wife and I were on passage on Lake Victoria from Mwanza, Tanganyika to Kisumu, Kenya in the Lake Victoria Fisheries Service's motor fishing vessel 'Heron' for an overhaul at the Department's headquarters. This was a comfortable three-day voyage and, on the evening of the second day, we anchored for the night in a bay on the mainland south-east of Mfwanganu Island near the mouth of the Kavirondo Gulf, some 55 miles from Kisumu.

Passage from Mwanza to Kisumu
Widdop Diesel Engine
The following morning we were all set for an early start. From the wheelhouse I called down to Omari the engineer (always known, in accordance with nautical custom, as "Bwana Chifu"), telling him to start up the engine, a big Widdop diesel. His cheerful shout of acknowledgment and the whirr of the electric starter were followed by a resounding crash. Clearly, something serious was wrong. It did not take long to discover that the heavy bronze rod driving the piston-type cooling water pump had fractured. This was something far beyond the possibility of an on-board repair. The immediate question was what should we do?

For mobility while at Kisumu, I had with me on board my Triumph Speed Twin motorcycle. My first thought was to get this ashore and to make my way through the bush and over the nearby mountains to the nearest road and thence to Kisumu to summon assistance. However, a brief reconnaissance ashore ruled this course of action out. The terrain near the shore was simply not conducive to motorcycling - and that was without going anywhere near the mountains.

It was at this point that Sadiki, the Cox'n., came up with a suggestion. "Bwana", he said, "we have that old tarpaulin in the hold and the big bamboo that we use for punting the boat in shallow water. I think that we could perhaps make up a sail and sail 'Heron' to Kisumu."

Passage from Mwanza to Kisumu
SS Nyanza
We examined these limited resources and discussed the technical problems associated with their use. In the end, we decided to give Sadiki's idea a try. From the outset, however, it was clear that sailing a heavy 45 ft. vessel without a proper keel would only be possible with the wind dead astern, or, at worst, fine on either quarter. With the only rig we could set up, there could be no question of working across the wind. Fortunately, at that time of year, a strong south-west wind blew straight up the Kavirondo Gulf every day from around midday until evening. The immediate problem would be to get into the Kavirondo Gulf from where we were. With the limitations imposed by our anticipated sailing capabilities, there was no way that we could get out northwards to the west of Rusinga Island and round the northern tip of that island into the Gulf. The only possible route was through the Mbita Passage between Rusinga Island and the mainland. This was a narrow, shallow and rather twisty channel, normally used only by native craft, though I had heard that S.S. 'Nyanza', the E.A.R. & H.'s cargo vessel, did occasionally use the Passage.

We worked all morning to set up the somewhat tattered tarpaulin on the big bamboo as a yard, with guy ropes from the bottom corners of the tarpaulin. Hoisted on our short mast, this did, however, bear some resemblance to a square rig, and we lowered it again to await the afternoon wind. Once it began to blow, it was obvious that we should not be able, under sail, to get 'Heron' out of the bay where she was anchored. The pump drive having been disconnected, we decided that, if the engine's cooling system could be filled manually with water, we might be able to run the engine for long enough, before it heated up, to get the vessel offshore to a position where we could turn before the wind. Working with a bucket and a tin mug, Omari managed to fill the engine's water jacket. Starting the engine at the last possible moment, we weighed anchor and headed out offshore. We just managed to get a reasonable offing before Omari called up to me that the engine was getting too hot. At that point, Sadiki, assisted by Shabani and Juma, the other two crew members, hauled up our tarpaulin sail and guyed down the bottom corners. At the wheel, I turned 'Heron' before the wind, the sail flapped and filled and, rather to my surprise, she began to move slowly through the water, even answering the helm - if somewhat reluctantly, the rudder being designed to steer a boat driven by power.

Passage from Mwanza to Kisumu
Mbita Passage
During the afternoon, we crept up towards the narrows of the Mbita Passage and we were still a mile or so short of it when the wind began to die away. This was no time for choosing the most sheltered anchorage and we dropped anchor where we were, to await a fair wind on the morrow which would enable us to tackle the tricky part through the Passage. We could only hope that no fierce squall would blow up during the night and blow us ashore!

Next morning, we went out in the dinghy taking our sounding line with us, in order to assess the safest route through Mbita Passage and to discover where the bends were. The chart showed that the narrow channel shoaled to only 8 feet in one place. While this was twice Heron's' draft, the channel shallowed quickly at its edges and if we were to run aground under sail, we might have great difficulty in getting off again. By the time we had completed our survey of the channel and I had made some notes to guide me, it was nearly time for the afternoon wind to get up and we hastened back to 'Heron' to get everything ready for departure. The wind, when it arrived, blew more strongly than on the previous day and we set off in great style.

In the event, our transit of Mbita Passage was almost an anti-climax. Shabani was in the bows with the lead-line and his soundings, combined with my notes, enabled me to cut the corners slightly when we came to the bends, thus avoiding having to alter course to steer round the bends and thus to bring the wind forward of the quarter. Almost before we realised it we were clear of the narrow channel and in the mouth of the Kavirondo Gulf. It was only when I looked at my watch that I realised that the short transit of some three miles had taken us an hour and a half. We were able to carry on for a further five or six miles before the wind began to die away and we had to anchor, fortunately a little to the south of the fairway used by the Lake steamers. Nevertheless we took the precaution of hoisting a hurricane lamp on the mast that night to make sure that we were not run down by a passing ship.

We were now in a position where we could set a direct course for Kisumu and, at the same time, keep the wind almost directly astern, 'Heron's' best point of sailing. Next day, the wind arrived rather later than usual, but we made good going. At times I could even hear the propeller being rotated by the movement of the vessel. During the afternoon, my wife came up with a suggestion for improving progress. Her idea was that, if we could manage to hoist our hessian cabin carpet above the tarpaulin, we should be increasing our sail area by an appreciable amount. With Sadiki and Shabani I investigated the possibility of doing this and by using our boathook as a further yard we managed to achieve a somewhat disreputable-looking 'topsail'. It must have done some good because I estimated our day's run at about 11 miles.

Passage from Mwanza to Kisumu
Lake Victoria
The day after that, we had a punctual and strong wind and did some magnificent sailing, the day's run being an estimated 12 miles. However, both my wife and Omari (who did most of the cooking for the crew) made it known to me that provisions were running out. We ourselves had budgeted for four days at sea and we always had a small reserve of tinned stuff on board. The crew, relying on fresh provisions, had no such reserve. However, we had a few gill nets on board and we decided to set these when we anchored for the night in the hope of getting some fish. My wife had a basket of beautiful mangoes which she was taking as a present for a friend in Kisumu and we decided that it might become necessary to use these to eke out our supplies. By now, we were reaching a point where it would have been possible to get my motorcycle ashore in the dinghy at Homa Bay or some point near there, whence I should have been able to reach the main Kisii/Kisumu road and thus have been able to summon assistance from Kisumu. However, it had now become a matter of pride to try to get 'Heron' to Kisumu under sail, without calling in outside help. The following afternoon provided a moderate breeze and we held on as long as possible, finally anchoring at dusk some 4 miles short of Kisumu. Our only worry now was that someone might have seen us and raised an alarm with our Headquarters. However, nobody seemed to be looking our way and we had an undisturbed night, making some inroads into the mangoes for supper!

Passage from Mwanza to Kisumu
Kisumu Docks
Next day, the morning seemed to be unbearably long and we expected to see, at any moment, a boat putting out to salvage us. Nothing came before the afternoon wind arrived, blowing very strongly here at the head of the Gulf. I had decided that it would be impossible to sail right in to the old flying boat dock at our office and that we should have to repeat the exercise carried out on the first day of filling up the engine's water jacket by hand, so as to give us a few minutes' running to enable us to dock. This Omari did and when we arrived off the dock, he started up the engine and, running at a tick-over, we were able to creep in and tie up, eight days out from Mwanza! My boss was on the dock side, anxious to know what had been happening and (being an RNR Lieutenant-Commander) looking askance at our motley rig! No matter - we had made it under our own sail and honour was satisfied.

(After this demonstration of sailing capability, the Department's three MFVs were all equipped with big bamboo yards and proper lateen sails, for use in an emergency. In a good breeze, 'Heron', under this rig, could make about 4 knots - provided that the wind was from astern!)

Colonial Map
Lake Victoria Map
Colony Profiles
Originally Published
OSPA Journal 63: April 1992


Armed Forces | Art and Culture | Articles | Biographies | Colonies | Discussion | Glossary | Home | Library | Links | Map Room | Sources and Media | Science and Technology | Search | Student Zone | Timelines | TV & Film | Wargames

by Stephen Luscombe