Rum Running in East Africa: Yes We Can!

Rum Running in East Africa
After overstaying my visa and cruising permit in Madagascar, I needed to find a way to revamp my papers. The Madagascar government had been having a “civil war-light” for the last several months leading up to a power sharing agreement. In the villages there were no signs of violence or even awareness of political instability. On the moderately populated island of Nosi Be in the north of Madagascar things had been going on, business as usual unaffected by the news of riots and violence in Anatanarivo, the nations capital. Large flat-bottomed boats still sailed cargo under lateen rigs with home sewn canvas sails into the loading wharf of Hellville. Strong Malgash men with perfect white teeth unloaded rice sacks of sand, dried palm fronds, logs all for construction as well as anything grown or raised for sale at the central market. The bustling indoor vegetable market forming the center of Hellville was packed with Vanilla, Saffron, Peppercorns and Cinnamon just as it had been under previous governments. Brightly colored Renault-4 taxis in varying degrees of dilapidation rushed around the streets competing for position on narrow dirt roads with Zebu pulled Ox-carts. Well-dressed Malgash youth still swarmed out onto the beach every Sunday at Ambatoloaka near Crater bay where Dancyn rested at anchor. All day they drank, played music and danced Sele`ge. Aviator sunglass-wearing men filled the local pubs, drinking the local brew THB and leaving piles of empty brown liter bottles on the floor beneath the tables like fallen soldiers. Even though abnormal in Madagascar would be difficult to define, being there with out papers in light of the political situation was a bad idea! The French naval outpost of Mayotte was the easiest place to acquire an updated ships clearance and a new stamp in my passport. It was an easy couple day motor across a windless stretch of sea; all I needed was some fuel!
The folks of Madagascar speak Malagasy but French is the language of business and education. I fumbled around Hellville for about a month repairing Dancyn from her Indian Ocean passage and restocking after 4 months away in paradise. There I luckily met a Chinese merchant who spoke English. Mr. Chee was a man who knew how to get things into Madagascar and this is no easy task with every uniform or badge being a license to steel! His store catered to the specialty needs of the tourism businesses for Europeans, mostly French and Italian. After some time chatting about life in an African country as a Chinaman he mentioned he exported as well. Primarily he moved drums of locally made rum and spices. Recognizing the glint in his eyes I asked for a liter. After I bought a bottle of water, for the plastic bottle, Mr. Chee dutifully ladled in the rum from one of many 55-gallon drums behind his shop. It was a deep rich brown and smelled of Vanilla and Cinnamon. I resigned myself to the single liter in order to experiment with the possible after affects of this fine elixir! With great ease and delight, some fellow sailing compadres assisted me in finishing that rum. We survived the following morning with no more than the due discomfort. I knew then, paperwork or no, I was not going anywhere until I had tankfulls of this Madagascar Rum!

I arrived at Mr. Chee’s Mercantile with two 5-gallon fuel cans and a hip pocket full of Ari-Ari, the Malagasy currency. I haggled down a bright yellow 70’s era French made Renault taxi for a lift to the village of Dar a Salem with my investment. After some exchanges with the driver in my not so eloquent French the driver navigated past town out the rocky trench of a road to Crater Bay. Once deposited roadside near Crater Bay I skiffed out to Dancyn, which was patiently waiting on anchor. I tied the two fuel cans inconspicuously amongst the other red 5-gallon fuel and water cans. After my contraband and provisions were properly stowed I reviewed the chart and plotted a course to the Comoro Islands a few days to the north west. Mayotte is the first Comoros Island in the chain between Madagascar and Tanzania. The French have occupied it for some time and use it as a naval out post. My plan was to seek temp work as an English teacher, get updated ships papers and use the rum to pay for the expedition out to the islands. The official currency in Mayotte is the Euro. I had heard life was astronomically expensive there but that would make my rum all the more valuable and possibly my pay higher.

Once you sail across a few oceans 2 and 3 day hops in open water become increasingly easy, especially when it is as desolate as this stretch. Shipping along the East Coast of Africa has decreased greatly with the rising threat of pirates from Somalia. So thankfully I could relax and sail the light winds will little threat from large container ships or fishermen. Pirates? Well I’m sure they’re nice folks too. After a few stops to dive and fish on the outer islands of Madagascar I jumped off for Mayotte. Dancyn and I made it in 3 days and encountered mega pods offshore of short beaked common dolphins enroot. During the lazy days at sea, thousands of dolphins took turns eco-locating against Dancyn’s hull to say hello. I toasted to their health regularly just before sunsets. I had gallons of beautiful rum that might about to be confiscated! What else should a sailor do but enjoy these moments?

My charts showed a south entrance into the inner lagoon of Mayotte. But some of my outdated sailing directions described the need to call the French military for clearance before entering the north pass while the south pass was closed to foreign traffic. Being as respectful as I am about regulations especially at French occupations, I made the south pass and saved a few hours. Once a mile or so inside the lagoon a large gray inflatable appeared on the horizon and it was closing fast.

Dancyn is a small sailboat but she is clean and tidy. I also keep a crew cut in the tropics and have no tattoos or earrings. This has always allowed me to hide in plane sight. Naked with a hat is my usual attire while onboard but I had enough time to slip on my bikini swimsuit. The military inflatable came off plane next to Dancyn and 5 very large, very African men in French Customs uniforms greeted me alongside Dancyn. I quickly unclipped the lifelines and invited them onboard. I maintained course and speed with full sail up in the flat water of the lagoon. 2 of the big fellas stepped right up into the cockpit. In French I greeted them and invited them to go down below for a peek if they wished. The biggest concern of the authorities in Mayotte is illegal immigrants from the Comoros seeking the euro. They didn’t linger as Dancyn’s heel and movement was not what they were accustomed to. Some brief scolding about the south pass while my French purposefully went as blank as my facial expression dissipated when I smiled and gave them a bag of fresh mackerel fillets. The well costumed fellas pitched some phrases back and forth in the local dialect then were off with a wave and a smile! “Mercy Bou Coup”, I shot off as they jump ship. Why would they want to sniff gasoline cans on a tiny rolling sailboat? I set the hook down off Dzaoudzi wharf and no I never figure out how to pronounce it either. Reacquainted with some old sailing mates over a bottle of rum sitting in Dancyn’s cockpit, I got the scoop on the island.

The following morning I cleared in with customs, immigration and the port captain, I was legal again for 3 months. None of the well groomed officers in any of the 3 departments seemed concerned about having cleared the Port of Hellville 6 week’s prior. All were happy to meet the solo American who entered the south pass under full sail in that “petite botu vuoliare”, tiny sailboat. I had filled a few jam jars with rum for testers or bribes so after my official obligations were completed I went off for a tour of the local watering holes. The native inhabitants are mostly non-drinking African Muslims but the civil employees are overpaid French nationals on 2-year contracts. I figure there was not much to see after the first month after moving there. This is good for the pub business. The first pub I walked into was filled with schoolteachers. One of them spoke English and we became friends over a very overpriced but cold beer. I spoke with the owner/bar tender and gave him a jar of my smuggled hooch. I had a few beers while the owner David, sipped my rum over ice with lime. Philip, the English speaker gave me details of applying as an English tutor and encouraged me to pursue it. About the time I figured I had a job David asked how much rum I had on board. I figured I had around forty liters I could part with. He offered me 10 euro a liter and as I had paid less than a buck a liter I gleefully accepted. My trip was already a success!
David met me at the wharf the following day and we returned to his pub to decant his newest acquisition. I met his beautiful wife and her very lovely friends. Ahh the French! David’s wife asked me if I could drink beer like Homer Simpson. Pronounced “O mare Sim-Son”. Confused I said yes, then with ooohs from the ladies David asked if he could sponsor me in a beer-drinking contest the following evening at the pub. I never studied “beer chugging” in college but what sailor says no to free beer? Prompt as ever I met Philip and some of David’s wife’s friends that Friday. My French was better and most of the schoolteachers enjoyed the English practice. 20 hearty French contestants lined up and we sectioned off in 2’s. Each pair would chug and the first would move on to the next round. I just kept winning! As I chugged the crowd would chant, ”yes we can” in honor of President Obama’s speech heard around the world. Finally, barley able to stand, I lined up next to the best and last French “chugger” in the bar that night. Bell rings, bottoms up and glass down before that young buck was even half way. Cries of ‘yes we can” and “Homer Simpson” filled my head as the room spun and I made my way to the bathroom! I took a wiz, washed my face and gathered my composure or at least some of it! When I opened the door, two lovely ladies pushed me back into the bathroom then followed me in. So much for composure!

That night ended in a blur! Memories of the chants, going somewhere to a beach, drinking more beer and sleeping in a very uncomfortable position coincide with a stranger set of images! Somewhere I acquired a sarong with Obama’s headshot inside a map of Africa. I apparently invited everyone out for a sail in the lagoon and it took 3 days to take all those that accepted my offers out for a jaunt in the lagoon! I left Mayotte with orders for more rum, furniture,honey and even marijuana from Madagascar! I had half concocted a plan to return bypassing the “gray inflatable”. Unfortunately I was committed to leaving Dancyn in South Africa in order to fly to Alaska for work. The slog 1500 miles south through the Mozambique Channel would be difficult and time consuming, therefore I refrained from a repeat performance of Mayotte. Back in Madagascar I did however drop in on Mr. Chee’s mercantile for some freindly conversation and a refill. This insured “sunsets and cocktails” all the way around the Cape of Africa and across the Atlantic to Brazil!

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