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.
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."
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.
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
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!
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!)