A few days ago one of our boats sank. Anchored on the water on a busy Sunday, the stern took on water from a freak swell which tipped the balance between buoyancy and submersion. Without anyone aboard to grab a bailer, it overturned and slipped beneath the surface, stern and heavy outboard motors first, within the time it takes to count to three.
If there is ever a good time for your boat to sink, it wasn’t then. Fifteen slightly grumbly German journalists (they complained of getting splashed on the boat-ride over) were on a tour of the country conducted by Sierra Leone’s national tourist board to make Sierra Leone the next top undiscovered destination, like Myanmar (Burma) is, Costa Rica was, or Gabon was supposed to be (still no one’s heard of the place). But then Sierra Leone has been the next top undiscovered destination for pretty much as long as I can remember, and I’m rapidly approaching middle-age. The country’s only dedicated guidebook, though good, is four years old and without any clear plans for a new edition.
In the five weeks on which I have been in the country, I have not seen a Salonean (a contraction of Sierra Leonean) move anywhere near as fast as when the boat upended. It’s generally too hot for me to attempt to move at all. Yet when it counted, the staff here at the guesthouse moved with the speed of Usain Bolt, Flash Gordon and Greased Lightning combined, getting a rescue boat from beach to breakwater in no more than half a minute.
With nothing more than a line of rope and a lifetime of experience on the water what looked to me to be a futile task led to the stricken boat being dragged to shallower water where additional hands could take over. The concern was not for the boat itself, but its outboard motors, which despite their job, don’t like getting wet.
But for a few expensive luxuries such as an outboard motor or an electrically-powered (generator-supplied) water pump (and even then most of the Dublin population haul their water from the village well with a rope and bucket) life on the islands is still very much on a human scale, measured in bmp: brake man power. The traditional diet of rice and fish (no fat, no sugars) that still predominates allows them to put on muscle like most of us put on a pair of slippers.
What impressed me about the events of that day was not so much the speed of action (although it was striking), or the work itself, but the enthusiasm with which everyone rushed to our aid. Guesthouse staff, guests, and Dublin villagers all worked together as the news spread (the other ‘neighbouring’ island village is a two and a half hour walk away through jungle; news doesn’t spread quite that fast). I by contrast was able to do little more than admire their rescue attempts, having seemingly missed the ‘what to do when a boat capsizes’ lecture during my time at university studying Biomedical Sciences. All in all, it strikes me that anyone who believes small islands are isolating completely miss the point.