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hugh dyer  : surf boats in west africa, 1876 

Hugh Dyer  :  Surf Boats in West Africa, 1876.

 Extracts from
Dyer, Hugh McN.:
The West Coast of Africa as seen from the deck of a Man-of-War
J. Griffin & Co., London, 1876.

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Dyer, Hugh McNeile
Arriving and leaving by surf boat on the west coast of Africa.

For other reports from West Africa, see:

1812 Henry Meredith : Canoe Surf Riding on Gold Coast, Africa.
1835 James Edward Alexander : West Africa.
1861 Thomas J. Hutchinson : Surfboard Riding in Gabon, Africa.
1887 Alfred Burton Ellis : Surf Dieties of West Africa.
1891 The Graphic : Surf Boats, Ghana.
1923 Robert Rattray : Padua at Lake Bosumtwi, Africa.
1949 Jean Rouch : Surf Riding at Dakar, Senegal.

Page 26

We anchored off Cape Coast Castle at daylight on the 10th April.
The roadstead is quite open to the prevailing wind, and a swell is always rolling in from seaward, rendering landing difficult and dangerous, except in boats specially adapted for the purpose.
As the current runs along the shore, vessels lay with their broadsides to the swell, and roll heavily and uncomfortably.
More crockery was broken on board the Torch, whilst at anchor off the Gold Coast, than during all the rest of the time I was in her.

From the sea, Cape Coast Castle is quite an imposing looking place, with its large fort, public buildings, and comfortable looking private residences perched on the high ground.
The surrounding country was green and well wooded, and of an undulating character.
Elmina was clearly in sight to the west some eight miles distant.

The surf boats used for landing passengers or cargo, are large and wide, shaped like a life boat with both ends alike, and rising higher at the bow and stern thanin the middle.
They are rowed by from ten to sixteen

Page 27 [Landmg in Surf Boats.]

natives with short paddles.
The paddlers sit on the gun whale of the boat, and when they like, make her go along very fast with the short and quick digs they make at the water.
The steersman uses an oar, and stands up in the stern to give directions.
He makes use of violent language to the crew when he wants to get in advance of an approaching breaker ; and these men are as a rule very clever in handling their boats.

The men don't appear able to pull without singing, and with passengers they take care to improve the occasion, and give the burden of their song a practical application, thus :

"Mama come again, come again, come again,
Captain, good man, dash we dollar ;
'Spose he dash we, we no wet him.
Mama come again, come again, come again.
Captain, rich man ; nigger, poor man.
Four five shillings dash poor black man.
Hib, hib, hurrah ! God blessee you."

and so on all the way to shore, striking the gunwhale occasionally with their paddles to mark the time.
"Dash" in African parlance means a present, the equivalent of backsheesh.
On approaching the shore the men paddle easily until the steersman sees a good opportunity for a comparative smooth, when he gives
the order to give way, and the men with a low suppressed "hi, hi, hi," dig away as hard as they can with their paddles until the boat touches the shore, when every man jumps overboard, and before the next wave can reach her have carried her as far as they are

Page 28

able up the beach ; passengers are carried out, cargo removed, and the boat rolled over and over to a place of safety beyond the reach of the surf

In embarking the contrary operation takes place.
The boat is turned over and over on its broadside until it reaches the margin of the water, then it is loaded with cargo, its bow pointed seaward, and passengers carried into their places.
Each man then sees his paddle in its place and stands outside the boat opposite it, waiting orders.
The Padron, or coxswain, watches the rollers, which vary in height at intervals.
The boat is pushed as far into the water as can be done without setting her afloat, until a favourable opportunity arrives, when with great clatter of tongues, and all the bodily energy they can use, the boat is pushed afloat, the men jump up and work away with a "hi, hi, hi," until the outer breaker is passed, when they take it easy again and strike up a song.
It has a very intimidating effect upon the uninitiated, to be in one of these boats as she nears a breaker six or eight feet high above the boat, and apparently coming right into her.
But the boats rise in a wonderful manner, and a skilful Padron will generally avoid seas as high as six feet, although I have seen the boats turn right over on end.
Of course this is very dangerous, but it is a point of honour with the crews not to let a white passenger drown if it is possible to save him, and they are all expert swimmers.

Page 31

The chief occupation of the people appeared to me to be net making and fishing.
The nets used were cast nets, which are thrown very expertly among the shoals of herrings or a fish very like a herring with more bones than usual which frequent the coast.
The boats used for fishing differ from the surf boats ; they are narrow, with the fore end covered in, carry two or three men each, but are equally convenient to get through the surf as the large boats, except that you may be sure of a wetting if you take a passage in one.
Fishing is carried on with hand lines and long lines also, and the boats go miles out to sea, fishing in fine weather.
There is one day in the week, Tuesday I think it is, on which they will not fish for some religious reason.

Page 44

The French Admiral then blockaded the coast.
This had not the least effect on the natives who could afford to wait, they got their more pressing

Page 45 [Dangerous Surf.]

needs supplied from Appolonia in our protectorate, so the French withdrew entirely, although I believe they still say they protect Grand Bassam and Assini.

There was a very heavy surf preventing all communication with the shore whilst we were oft' the factories, except with great risk of being capsized.
A surf boat did reach us with a letter but she was several times capsized.
The river Assini is of considerable size, and, inside its bar, affords extensive and safe inland communication ; a small steamer occasionally plies
upon it and the lagoons in connection with it for trading purposes.

Page 68

They are very clever canoemen and capital swimmers.
The canoe they use is a light shapely one for two or four paddlers, who have to squat on their knees in a most uncomfortable position to paddle - they can bring these canoes off shore through a heavy surf on their own coast, which is a little south of Sierra Leone.

Page 72

On the 28th Julv, we embarked a detachment of the 2nd West India Regiment and some Fantee police for Accra, a slight diffculty having arisen between two neiorhbouring tribes.
We arrived next morning.
The landing is worse than Cape Coast ; on the open beach, with the Atlantic swell breaking on it, of course a surf boat had to be used.
The canoe men sing the same kind of song; the refrain ''Dash me, dollar !" was duly attended to by me, on going ashore, lest I should get a wet jacket.

Page 95

The Torch anchored off Appolonia at noon.
Owing to "the smokes" it was difficult to distinguish the town.
Had it not been for the fort which is much higher than the native houses, we might have passed it.

The swell was very heavy.
We took the usual precautions, when landing, but the rollers were breaking at quite one-third of a mile off shore, and if the " padron" of the surf boat had not felt confident of his skill, we should not have attempted it.

We passed the first breaker successfully, but the second one came into the boat, filled her, and she sank under our feet.
Fortunately she kept upright, and the water was so shallow that we could feel her with our toes.
The first few seas set us fast towards the shore, boat and all, then a current carried us along to the eastward.
The heavy seas striking down on our heads had a stunning effect, and I saw the Doctor's head droop from exhaustion.
Fearing he would drown, I directed Tom Peters and Jack Smart, the Kroomen from the Torch I had brought with me, to assist him ; but nothing could induce these men to leave the

Page 96

" Cap'en."
One had my sword, and the other a bag of signal flags under the off arm ; with the other they supported me. I could swim, and told them so, but
they would not leave me.
By jumping to the seas, springing up from the thwarts of the sunken boat, as the seas reached us, we saved ourselves a little.
Johnstone rallied and was able to do this.
The crew of the boat were swimming near the boat, but not helping us.
We saw the Torch's boat approach the edge of the surf but she dare not enter.
Looking landwards we were cheered to see numerous black heads rapidly nearing us, and a number of small canoes on their way to our rescue. The latter reached us first and I was delighted to see Johnstone tumbled into one, although he was more dead than alive.
I was soon taken by another and paddled quickly on shore.
The swimmers who had so readily taken to the water to assist us were quite fifty in number, and neither they nor the canoemen asked for any reward.

It was calculated we were twenty minutes in the water.
My colleague's peril was imminent, but once on shore he speedily recovered.
Our loss in property was serious.
We had provisions for our large party for four days in the boat, our clothes and other necessaries ; some of them were saved, and the surf boat was eventually got on the beach and rolled to a place of safety.
The  " Padron " complained that all the gold realized by the crew at Assama went to the bottom.
I doubted him, but said " serve you right."

Dyer, Hugh McN.:
The West Coast of Africa 
as seen from the deck of a Man-of-War
J. Griffin & Co., London, 1876.

Internet Archive

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Geoff Cater (2013) : Hugh Dyer : Surf Boats in West Africa, 1876.