Careening in Kenya

One of the attributes of voyaging in Third World countries is the necessity of improvising when normal facilities are lacking. My wife Joyce and I had the opportunity this summer at 3° South latitude in Kilifi, Kenya, with our 44-foot Alden cutter Lyric. Normally these boats, at least when new, are treated with kid gloves – paid laborers, factory refits, and the best service facilities are none to good as far as Alden owners are concerned. Kenya, however, is about 4,000 miles back to an appropriate haul-out facility in Thailand, and about 2,000 miles upwind and up-current to a similar facility in South Africa. So, when we needed to repaint the bottom, after a 20-month voyage from Brisbane, Australia, in tropical waters, we looked around the Kenya coast where we were moored and asked what others had done. Without hesitation, the response was, careen the boat on the beach. Do what? Joyce summed up our feelings about this in her note to friends: Lyric was never built to lie down on the beach like a European tourist worshipping the tropical sun. She was never meant to turn pink with sunburn.

For workboats in many lands, careening is the only way to go – run the boat up on the beach at high tide, let it tip on one side, and scrape and paint that side at low tide. Repeat the process for the other side. However, we struggled with this dilemma for days – doesn’t a yacht deserve a proper haul-out? – but no alternatives presented themselves. Ah, there was one idea: tie up alongside some rickety concrete pilings and let the tide go out with the boat hopefully strapped to the piles tightly enough to withstand the considerable side currents that pass that area. Also, there was the problem of the throngs of local people who used that particular beach as a staging point for fishing – the potential for confrontations discouraged us on that score. And then there was the "boatyard" across the harbor from us, but on inspection it appeared that the yard had done almost no maintenance on its own facilities in years, let alone serve any boats. Word had it that the yard was so in debt that it couldn’t get even beer delivered to its tiny pub due to lack of credit.

So we took advantage of the welcome suggestions of our Kenya hosts, Tony and Daphne Britchford, who guide many of the boats sailing in the Indian Ocean to safety in East Africa on ham and SSB radio. A very gradual sand beach, and a virtual absence of both rocks in the sand and waves on the beach, made this an ideal place. In East Africa, labor is ridiculously cheap, and we hired three helpers – Anderson, Sheeda, and John (who normally work around the house for Tony and Daphne); total labor bill for three people for two days was $16 U.S. To prepare we dived on the boat and scraped off the largest of the barnacles and grasses. In this warm water (28° to 30° C) things grow very quickly – when anchored here, the prop gets fouled in about a week?s time.

Obtaining materials was not as easy as hiring help; the nearest large town is Mombasa, 40 miles to the south, and the local bus takes about 1 1/2 hours to get there, crammed with people and goods. We joined the flow and found a good paint store with premium bottom paint available, and we lugged it home to Lyric, a whole day spent in this preparation step. But the day was not lost-a great Indian restaurant in downtown Mombasa was a welcome lunchtime stop, and the sight of the current President of Kenya (Daniel Moi, who’s only the second president since independence), riding in a parade in his car with guards all around, was a real spectacle. Joyce got a good photo of him before we learned that photographing military people (the guards) or the president is strictly forbidden. In Mombasa itself, like much of Kenya, the electricity was a sometime thing – when we were in the paint store, electricity wasn’t, so bills were calculated on an abacus and receipts were painstakingly written out by hand.

Back in Kilifi, we checked the tides and spotted an ideal series of days around the new moon when the high tide was in early morning – first day at 0430 – and the drop was 8.25 feet, plenty of range to allow us to completely dry out. Also, we had the advantage that the afternoon high tide was slightly higher than the morning tide, so we were unlikely to get stranded on the beach. With considerable anxiety, we woke up early on the appointed day and drove the boat in to the beach – finding landmarks in the dark, moonless night proved a frustrating experience, but our helpers had a sixth sense about this, and they guided us to exactly the right spot.

After hitting the bottom, we ran a long line from a spinnaker halyard to a mangrove tree about 150 off the port beam. We pulled hard enough on this to heel the boat about 10° (our keel has a wide bottom and we didn’t want Lyric to decide to stand upright, only to fall later in any sort of wind). This technique worked fine, and as the tide started out, the halyard slackened while we tipped even farther to port. I’d calculated a total tip of about 50°, but our helpers reduced this to less than 30° by filling sand bags (really recycled flour sacks bought from the local bakery) and kicking them under the turn of the bilge as the tide was falling. Even when settled firmly on the beach, the water was below the toe rail so we had no leaks. (Well, that’s not strictly true; we forgot to close the head sink drain and later discovered a lot of wet towels in the locker and a lot of water in the bilge – but that was our fault.)

When daylight came, my three helpers and I were in the water scraping and sanding the starboard side with the falling tide. One advantage to the careening position is that you don’t have to work on hull surface over your head-it’s mostly out in front of you so those of us with older backs are thankful for that. With this much help, the side was clean in less than two hours, and the 28°C temperature and gentle onshore breeze dried the surface quickly. Taping and painting took another hour, so there was a period of more than six hours for drying before the tide returned. Backing off the beach at high tide, we anchored for the night, and repeated the process the next day to prepare and paint the port side. This time, no anxiety, and the work proceeded smoothly. There was even enough time to disassemble and lubricate the through-hull fittings. In this process we removed the floorboards to get access to the fittings. These are usually a snug, but smooth fit, and their simple removal and reinstallation while laid over on the side proved to us that the hull was not stressed or flexed in any way. With a bit of digging in the sand around the flat part of the keel, we were able to paint the bottom of the keel and the edge of the centerboard, which was safely tucked up inside the keel.

The helpers were glad to get the rest of the day off, as well as some Lyric T-shirts to commemorate the event, and it was a very happy crew that waited on Lyric as the tide came up again; when we’d backed off and returned to our anchorage there was some heavy-duty celebrating.

As we write this in Richards Bay, South Africa, we reflect on how much better the boat performed with a clean bottom. This was especially important for us when stemming the significant northerly flowing ocean currents proceeding south from Kenya and Tanzania, and in the sudden storms that shift the wind from strong northeast to strong southwest in a matter of minutes along the coast of Mozambique and South Africa. We’d clearly favor careening again when we can find a quiet, soft beach like in Kenya – even if the labor is more expensive.

By Ocean Navigator