The Last Voyage of the Lady Chilel Jawara
In 1984, the popular Gambian ship sunk off the Farafenni coastline, killing three tourists and a little Gambian girl. A survivor recounts the ordeal
By Dave Farrow
This is the tale of a near-death experience, many years ago and in another country. Arriving in the steaming West African heat was heart-lifting in itself after my departure from a cold and grey England. However, little did I know what adventures lay ahead!
Setting Sail to Basse
I made my way to the home of the N'Dow family home on Atlantic Road in Fajara, where I stayed for the majority of my four-week stay, using it as a base for assaults on the birding locations in the coastal area: Fajara, Camaloo, Old Cape Road, Bund Road, Abuko, Yundum, etc. Many other birders from UK were also visiting The Gambia at this time, and it was in the company of some of these that I set out on board the 'MV Lady Chilel Jawara'. This ship plied its way from Banjul on the coast, to Basse, situated some 250 miles up the Gambia River, and was the best way to see many of the birds in the interior such as African Finfoot and Egyptian Plovers. So off I went, feeling like Captain Willard going in search of Colonel Kurtz.
Lady Chilel Jawara A stamp picture of the ship "Lady Chilel"
We left on Tuesday 4th December, 1984 riding on this 6-deck vessel, birding from the open decks and the bar. It was quite a sizable ship, not unlike the MV Scillonian that ferries between Penzance and the Isles of Scilly, apparently coming from the same Glasgow shipyard.
Lady Chilel being tested in Glasgow waters (1978)
The following day, Wednesday the 5th, was one of the most exciting days of my life. I woke at dawn after sleeping on the steel deck in a drunken heap, and immediately commenced an orgy of fantastic birding. The boat zigzagged from bank to bank, following the channel in this huge wide river, going so close to the banks that the ship scraped the trees at the side, and in view, warthogs, hippopotami, a few crocodiles, baboons, chimpanzees, Green Vervet and Red Patas monkeys, snakes, turtles, and so many birds. I was concentrating on scanning the banks for African Finfoot, and in the late afternoon one came swimming across the river. From a distance it looked like a large Moorhen, with its head on a skinny neck tugging its way laboriously across the open water. It seemed so fragile when it nearly collided with this huge ship, having to fly out of the way to avoid being rammed! Absolutely crippling views!
A Tourist's Attractions: Green Vervet Monkeys; the African Finfoot
After a few hours spent in Basse watching Egyptian Plovers, it was back onto the ship, which left at 2pm and started sailing back towards Banjul. I slept on the funnel deck that night on a bench, and woke with the dawn on Friday December 7th. I began the day birding from the very top deck, pausing only for a slap-up breakfast.
When the Ship Begins to Tilt
It was at 10:10 am that it all started happening. I was sitting on the port side of the very top deck, in a plastic chair, taking it easy, when the boat started listing to port. Making jokes about reclining chairs and 'having a big list', the ship went over to about 13 degrees. I came out of my chair to check the angle of lean as registered on the spirit level at the front of the deck. Meanwhile, the boat was turning sharply to port. Watching the spirit level go back to 8-9 degrees, the ship suddenly tilted back to 15 degrees. Ray Turley, who was closest to the level, said "Christ! It’s gone to 20 degrees!" and then everything started going sideways. All the tripods with (telescopes attached) went over the rail, and at that point I realized this was serious, serious enough for birders to ignore the fate of their telescopes! No-one could stop them simply because they were all hanging on for dear life.
Ray and I were on the downside, others were on the right side, now lifting above us, and ended up hanging parallel to the deck from the handrail by their fingertips. As the boat continued to turn over, I managed to clamber along the front and onto the starboard rail. It then came to the point where the ship was over to 90 degrees, the port side was going under, and Ray shouted for everyone to jump before the ship took us under with it.
So I tore off my heavy Zeiss 10x50 binoculars and dropped into the water after them. I must have somehow swum clear of the ship which was rolling over and still moving forwards. The next thing I recall is treading water unsuccessfully, fully clothed and shod with 10 hole Dr. Martens boots, brown water, people screaming and shouting to each other, crashes as the cargo on the ship fell about and into the river, water churning, steam and a roaring noise from the bowels of the dying ship as the engines flooded and fire threatened to come belching forth to complete the scene of disaster. I kept afloat for what must have only been a very short time, and then I lost control and went under, thrashing about. I surfaced again, and as Ray who was nearby cried 'can you swim?' I managed a 'No' before ducking under again. As I came up for the third time, Ray was swimming just in front of me and I pushed on him, pushing him under. I then went down for the third time, and somehow managed to surface once more, just in time to grab a floating gas canister that Ray grabbed for me as it had gone floating past him. Phew! Thanks mate!
The Escape ...
From this position, I took a look at the situation. The ship had rolled 130 degrees or more, the superstructure resting on the bottom. People had scrambled back onto the upturned hull; I was just floating about, letting everyone else get sorted out. When I tried getting back to what remained of the ship, I kept kicking but didn’t seem to be making any progress against the strong current. It reached the point where everyone in the water had climbed back onto the boat except for me. I was caught in the current, getting further and further away from the ship, I just couldn’t get anywhere by kicking, still with a big pair of boots on that I dare not try and remove for fear of losing the gas bottles I had wedged under each arm. Help! I weakly waved cheerio, thinking my next stop would be the mangrove swamp that lined the banks. I need not have worried, having such a stalwart companion such as Simon Jackson, who spotted me heading for the Atlantic and dived in again, clutching a lifebelt, swam all the way out to where I now was and towed me, against the current, back to the upturned hull. Wow! Thanks mate! (Again!)
'I need a cigarette!' was my immediate thought on reaching the comparative safety of the wreck. And to my surprise, I found a dry one and shared it with the donor of this rare commodity, who happened to be the barman. He hadn’t even got wet, and had simply strolled around the side of the ship as it had turned turtle. As we sat dragging smoke into our lungs, he advised me 'Only God can help us now'.
Crossing the Gambia River at Basse
Now the time came to sit and contemplate the loss and count the cost, and wait for the cavalry to come rescue us. I'd lost all my possessions, except for my passport, money and air ticket, house keys, and a bic biro. Laughing and joking with joy at having survived such an awful mess, it still didn’t seem real. The awful truth was that four people were missing: a baby girl and three birders, all from Coventry - Brian and Janet Wright and John Baldwin. Some people had very narrow escapes - Tim was in the toilet of his cabin when the ship began to tilt. He was up to his neck in water in his cabin before he managed to get out of the porthole, which was on the side that the ship was rolling onto.
... And Evacuation
We all sat under the blistering sun on the steel hull, covering ourselves as best as we could for protection. Some of the survivors were in shock; withdrawn, shivering, crying. The captain and some of the crew spent a while pulling out and righting one of the lifeboats from under the waterline and then paddled it upstream using pieces of wood, to get help. As far as the eye could see on this huge kilometer-wide river, both banks were lined with forest; there was no sign of another person. The reality of my own situation here was that no-one knew I had been on that boat for the return part of the journey, as my original plan had been to continue on from Basse and go into Senegal. I'd even acquired the visa, which however had all but disappeared, leaving a multicoloured smear of water-soluble ink running down the pages of my-now sodden passport. As I attempted to dry out my Senegalese money on the sun-baked steel hull of the boat, two lads came up to me and asked if they could have it, so I said yes. Tim sat on the wreck using the sun to dry out his notebook out, holding each page up until it had dried, and then onto the next one. He repeated this action with his field-guide. I had lost my binoculars, notes and paintings. A local fisherman in a log canoe came paddling past and I'm sure he was trying to ignore us. He started paddling in the other direction when he thought we hadn't spotted him; and it took 90 people on the wreck to catch his attention, shouting and urging him to go and give help.
Still waiting. By 3pm a small launch came speeding around the bend, with a soldier and two white men aboard. So it looked like the word was out. One of our rescuers was an English doctor, and they took off a 79-year-old English woman who had been injured when she got herself jammed between the rails as the ship had flipped over.
Mangroves Along the Gambia River
It wasn’t until after 4pm that the rest of us were rescued. We were taken off the wreck by the roll-on roll-off ferry that served the Trans-Gambian highway just upriver; and as we sailed away watching the sad sight of the hull of the ship just poking above the surface, I watched it get smaller and smaller until it was no longer visible as we rounded the bend. I wanted to cry out and weep at that moment as I felt the shock and sadness welling up inside me, but I was determined to keep it down, at least until I knew it was all over, at least until my feet were on dry land again. We were taken to a jetty a couple of miles up, on the north bank. The army had rushed here and with no further ado we were rushed off at high speed in land rovers. I recall thinking with some degree of amusement that having cheated death thus far, it would now all end as some Gambian squaddie piled his car into a large spreading acacia! We were driven in no time at all to the medical station in Farafenni, where we got cleaned up and slaked our thirsts. All the white tourists aboard, of whom the majority were birders, were eventually taken to the doctors home, for a nice cup of tea, and I witnessed first-hand the incredible effect a nice cuppa had on a collection of English people!
Dusk came and so did all the top brass from Banjul in their Range Rovers. They provided an army truck for us which we pulled ourselves into the back of, and they drove us back down to the river towards the ferry crossing. We had gone about halfway when the truck pulled over in a small village of straw huts, with the clinging red dust billowing around in the light of the full moon. So poetic a scene, which was completed by the figure of a Priest approaching, hailing us in a rich Irish accent, decorated with broken nose and cauliflower ears, and accompanied by two young Australian nurses. Right there in the back of the truck, I dined on one of the finest meals of my life, hot soup served from a huge cauldron with big hunks of bread for dunking. Dining with fellow survivors and new friends, forgetting the trauma and sadness of the last few hours as we filled our bellies till they felt happy again and strong enough to continue on our journey back to the coast. We were taken over the river on the same ferry, an unnerving experience to be back on the water again so soon. A bus had been arranged for the 22 surviving Britons, and we drove for several hours until we reached the coast, and everyone was dropped at their respective hotels, except for me. I was dropped at the N’Dow home, where I surprised my hosts by appearing on their doorstep at 1am. They of course expected me to be in Senegal, and not banging on their door in the middle of the night! I slept in a big soft bed, with crisp white sheets and a mosquito net to complete the feeling of security.
Most of the other surviving passengers went home after a day or two and I chose to stay on for my intended period of four weeks. I never did find out what caused the accident, but I do have a theory that the ship did not have a full load of ballast making it top heavy, so that when the ship did a sharp turn, over it went. No more watching 'The Poseidon Adventure" for me! When the time came for me to fly home, it was with my passport in tatters, the clothes on my back donated by my good and kind hosts, and my only luggage, a large bag of fruit!
Dave Farrow is a bird watcher and traveler. He lives in Norwich, UK.
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