Dinghy sailing in Mombasa

Seema Shah during a competition at the Mombasa Yacht Club. PHOTO | EUNICE MURATHE | NMG
Seema Shah during a competition at the Mombasa Yacht Club. PHOTO | EUNICE MURATHE | NMG 

Dinghy sailing along the Kilindini harbour in Mombasa is exhilarating. I have never set foot on a boat before, but at Mombasa Yacht Club, I sailed on a dinghy— a small boat that tourists use for racing. 

On the deck, the boat lifts quickly to romp over the short waves.

Philip Jones, who runs the Mombasa Yacht Club, has been sailing for years and he is the skipper. He tells me to hold the jib as he helms to catch enough wind for us to roll.

“This is a busy water channel. You will also help me look out for any vessel coming our way,’’ he says.

Ferries operate across the channel connecting the mainland and the Mombasa Island. Fishermen eking out a living from the waters with their vessels also cross the choppy waters.

On a dinghy ride, a skipper calls the shots and the crew must do as directed.
A ferry approaches us from afar and we quickly make a turn.

‘‘Coming about,’’ Philip shouts above the whipping breeze.

‘‘Ready about,” I reply like an expert, while unlocking the cleat of the jib sheet.

One has to acknowledge orders, he tells me. That way he knows that he has been heard and understood.

“Lee Ho,” Philip says as he pushes the tiller away to execute the tack.

I quickly release the jib sheet, picking up the new one and move it across the boat sheeting in the jib on the new side. It is a muscle brainy power work.

Then a swell rolls under the boat’s keel, it comes upright again, the wave passing under.

Sailing on this small boat that is earning a dedicated fan base is terrifying, yet fun. Philip and his wife who live in Mombasa want to turn the coastal town into an ultimate sailing destination.

Ahead, the open sea is waiting for us. The wind gains up, the currents grow stronger. The boat leans to one side, we have to move to the other side to distribute our weight, he says.

“It is heeling over. We have to balance the weight to prevent the boat from capsizing,” he says.

Philip says a correctly balanced boat allows you to sail more quickly and smoothly. One hour into the waters, we come back to the Mombasa Yacht Club bay. The wind is now steady, slow and uneventful.

Philip is a passionate sailor who has won many races in Kenya, Antigua and the UK.

Together with his wife, Seema Shah, it has been an adventure battling huge waves and sometimes enjoying the serenity. The recollection of their bold sailing trips is entertaining and a bit uncomfortable to listen to.

Although they do not keep track, the couple estimates that they have so far won over 100 sailing competitions in and outside Kenya.

The two met while Seema was learning to sail at the Mombasa Yacht Club. Philip’s helmsman had just left Kenya.

“I dislike single-handedly sailing the boat. I was looking for anyone who would step foot on a boat with me. Seema agreed to try,” he says.

They immediately clicked.

“She is very easy to work with. She also gives information which is vital in sailing. We delivered a lot of boats with her. She would fly from the UK to come spend time sailing,’’ he says.

They grew fond of each other at sea and got married in 2015. Sailing, he says, has built a lot of confidence and trust in each other, a strong foundation for a happy marriage.

On the way to the British Virgin Islands they recalled: “We sailed right through a storm.”

“There was crazy lightning flashes and thunder. It was dark and raining, we could not see ahead,’’ says Ms Shah. She chose to give directions (navigate) while Philip was helming.

“We had to make sure we were on line without hitting the rocks,’’ she said with Philip admitting he had to fully trust her to make through to the harbour.

There was a time when their small yacht was sandwiched between 80-feet boats.

‘‘It’s like a Toyota Vitz driver fighting for space between two trucks on the Mombasa-Nairobi Highway,’’ Philip says.

“I was helming towards the finish and all boats were coming in together. On one side, the boat was leaning over, on the other side there was nowhere to go. Two massive boats were on both sides. Everyone on board was shouting,” says Seema who is also  very skilled in navigation and steering big yachts.

She admits that it was first quite daunting before she learnt the skill.

While training, she once hit a buoy thrice almost damaging the new laser 2 boat.
The course outline at the harbour is marked with floating buoys that every yacht has to manoeuvre.

“We were going for one of the buoy. I had to decide which way to go, I couldn’t. We bumped into the buoy,’’ says Seema.
three times.
“Boom, three times in a row. I asked her, what are you doing, she got upset.’’
In another almost treacherous encounter, the couple almost hit a cliff.

“The wind picked up and the waves were coming through. The waters hit my legs straight into Philip’s face. We were going towards the cliff. Water was splashing. Both of us could not see,’’ said Seema.

To stop the boat, they had to flip it upside down.

‘‘That’s a pretty intense way to spend a marriage,’’ says Philip.

On the dangers of sailing, Seema assures that very few people die at sea.

“We focus on safety that’s why everyone has to wear a life jacket. Most accidents involve big yachts while in the harbour due to the traffic,’’ she says.

Philip insists on studying the tides, winds and the positions of the sails.

The couple trains on sailing from the Mombasa Yacht club and hopes to woo sailers, creating jobs and boosting the tourism industry.

‘‘In Mombasa, you don’t have to worry about the rain and cold. It is the best sailing destination for international and national races. Our dream is to create these new sailing adventure and a sailing school in Kenya,” Seema says. They also plan sailing holidays where groups head to different destinations.

Motivated by her recent sailing excursion to Kilifi, she says on dinghies, one gets to see places that are really off the beaten path.

“We have seen sharks. Around Mtwapa, there is also a nice reef as you come out of the creek with a lot of turtles. Pure diversity,” she says.