The Secret Afterlife of Boats
The ocean glows at night. The pirogue glides upon her own brilliant wake. Fish schools flicker like sunken treasure. You cast net: the float line lights up like a Christmas garland the instant it hits water, a floating halo in never-ending black. Luminescence seeps into the boat where it is leaking in blinking rivulets. You bail buckets of radiance. The outboard motor churns pure light.
When you haul a full purse seine net on a moonless night with frigid wet fingers, you pull against a shimmering orb of cold fire scooped into the seine out of the surrounding darkness. Straining against this coruscating mass, this dazzling hallucination, the pirogue rotates under the Milky Way as if on a turntable, so perfectly flat and depthless the sparkling sea, so perfectly flat and depthless the sparkling sky. Fish jump to escape the net, trail the same white blaze as the shooting stars above.
You tip the seine into the pirogue. (Look! Your cuticles twinkle.) Fish thrash, spray the boat with glitter: myriads of bioluminescent protozoa smacking against one another, against the inwales, the thwarts, the fish, your bare feet, sluice into the holds. Each individual scintillation is a blazing pinprick that lasts a tenth of a second. Soon the boat is dark again.
The captain revs the motor. You sit back on the thwart, you rest before casting again, you look past the surreal phosphorus boil of the wake at the black black surface. What lies beneath: our inchoate first memories. Our last hopes. Everything. Nothing.
A West African fishing pirogue is a carvel-built plank boat constructed shell-first on a keel made of a single, scooped trunk of wood. The keel is a proto-pirogue, an echo of the Paleolithic single-trunk canoes that once took man to sea the world over. The ten-thousand-year-old Pesse canoe, the oldest boat found to date, in France, was a hollowed-out tree trunk.
Each pirogue is a link to our becoming. Four hundred million years ago we crawled out of the ocean. Sixty thousand years ago we fished our way out of Africa. And we still do: Much of the fish on American and European tables come from West African waters. Almost half of the fish caught along the four hundred and forty-eight miles of Senegal’s coastline – where a fleet of twenty-one thousand pirogues and dozens of foreign mechanized fishing ships operates, routinely in restricted waters, often without license, and usually with impunity – is bound for your dinner. (Artisanal fishing is Senegal’s main resource, its main earner of foreign exchange.) Some of this fish is hauled by pirogues flagged to Joal, Senegal’s largest artisanal fishing port, a four-mile-long dune spit at the southernmost tip of Senegal’s Petite Côte.
Two thousand pirogues bristle the length of Joal. Tapered at bow and stern, slim like quills and painted every color imaginable, they berth on its sandy beach or a wading distance offshore, in normally calm shallows. From the air, the town looks like a harlequin hedgehog stretching alongside the Atlantic Ocean. Last September, I moved here from the United States to work on the pirogues and research a book about life on the shifting tideline between plenty and nothing: the haul and cast of fishing at the time of the Anthropocene.
Senegal’s fishery is spent. Both the artisanal and the mechanized fleet are wasting it recklessly and daily. Rising temperatures and chaotic weather patterns alter marine salinity, disrupt habitats, scare schools elsewhere. More often than not fishermen haul empty nets. ‘The sea is broken,’ they say. An empty net at night: a drooping lattice of shiny nothingness, a cold and worthless tinsel mesh.
Yet, hundreds of boats still head out of Joal every morning and afternoon, varicolored needles stitching away from shore, their wake a fine and temporary embroidery on a surface placid like blown glass or chopped into myriad diamonds. When I ask fishermen why they keep going they repeat a tired mantra: ‘My grandfather’s grandfather was a fisherman, my father was a fisherman, I am a fisherman, this is all I know.’ But I have gone to sea on their pirogues and I know that something other than family tradition is also tugging them to sea: oceanic, Precambrian desire.
The vicious adrenaline rush that accompanies the hunt for fish is like nothing I ever have encountered anywhere else. Not even in war zones, where for many years I watched reckless boys chase death, have I seen men so monomaniacal. My fishermen friends are the most rapacious people I know. ‘The ocean,’ an old captain tells me, ‘lays bare the avarice of man.’
It is tremendously addictive. Within a month of arrival in Joal I find myself making daily rounds of phone calls to the pirogue captains I know, and to ones I don’t but whose phone numbers I have procured from friends, the way a junkie looking for a fix calls her dealers. I ask when they are going to sea next. I set up rotating schedules: twenty-two hours on a gill net boat, rest, sixteen hours on a purse seine boat, rest, a day on a murex boat, repeat. On board I forget to care about the depleted fisheries, about broken ecosystems and species on the verge of extirpation, about my contribution to the rapid planetary-scale reordering in which entire cultures get subsumed, languages lost, songs abandoned. Everything screams to a point at the single insatiable fixation: to cast and haul, again and again. The ocean reveals the predator in me. This makes sense. The ocean is where we learned to want.
Like the Dufana, the eight-thousand-year-old dugout boat found in Nigeria, the pirogues in Senegal are made with African mahogany, Khaya senegalensis. It is a redwood that is rarely reforested; the International Union for the Conservation of Nature’s ‘Red List of Threatened Species’ lists it as vulnerable. It seems darkly fitting that boats seining an overexploited fishery are built with the timber of an overexploited tree.
Between fishing trips I spend two months at the wharves helping build such a boat, a sixteen-meter gillnetter. (A gill net unfurls a gauzy banner in the water and traps by the gills whatever runs into its mesh. It has a higher level of by-catch than a purse seine, which aims to scoop a specific school. You pick a gill net by ripping out the catch; most things caught in it will die.)
My master shipwright’s name is Ousman Ndoye. He is a large man, with large hands. He has three teeth. He speaks Wolof and English and French, but he speaks little. ‘Anna, hammer.’ ‘Anna, nails.’ ‘It’s a hot day, bad for circulation.’ He is sixty-three years old. He learned boatbuilding from his father and uncles as a child, and he has been a shipwright for more than half a century. He is patient with my ineptitude: he has taught more than fifty shipwrights all over West Africa’s northern coast. His apprentices have taught apprentices of their own: Master Ndoye is the grandfather of an untold fleet of boats that catch seafood from Nouakchott to Conakry.
His tools are hammers, pliers, a mallet, an axe, a small handsaw. He precision-chisels planks to make rabbets and mortises. He beads garboards at a bevel onto the keel on metal dowels that he hammers obliquely upward. He butts planks that are not long enough with pieces he chops closely to fit. He plugs the smaller cracks with wood chips, with cut-up rubber flip-flops.
On the inside, we caulk the seams with an emulsion of baobab leaf powder, cement, sawdust and tar, and seal them with strips of rubberized hose we nail on top. On the outside, we slather them with a mixture of baobab, sawdust, whiting, crushed Styrofoam and paint thinner; it has the look and texture of yeast dough, but brown. An artist comes and paints the pirogue green, white, red, yellow, brown and blue. He paints her name: the Sakhari Soiré. The captain drops the outboard motor into its hold in the stern.
On the day of the launch, boys and men drag the boat from the sand into the rising tide and chant ‘Hey men, strength, strength!’ precisely thirty-three times. (The magic number is important; the men keep count.) They bless the boat with milk they pour stern to bow on the starboard side, bow to stern on the port. This should appease the genie that otherwise would make mischief: cause the boat to capsize, cause the captain to drop his cell phone in the sea. They tilt a tin platter of runny sweet millet porridge with yogurt sauce into the waves. This should distract the genie that herd the fish, trick the fish into the gill net. Inside the bow they hang a gris-gris, Quranic verses wrapped in cloth. This should ensure that the boat always returns to port with fish. They pray, palms upward in benediction, for a gift, a bit of magic.
Less than a year earlier, fishermen offered the same set of blessings at the launch of the twenty-one-meter Serigne Mansor, a purse seine boat. They painted the inside of her hull turquoise to ward off evil spirits. Inside the bow they wrote, in white, the Arabic letter waw – the initial letter of one of the ninety-nine names of God, Wahabou: the Bestower, the granter of wishes. Her captain, Ousou Boye, a tall young man, had a successful run hauling herring and mackerel, and in a few months made a profit of close to fifteen thousand dollars.
And so what happened next? Every week of the full moon a gale rises off the coast of Joal and sends forth a quick succession of freak waves. The steep seas heave the moored pirogues, toss them about their anchorage, clank one against another. The whole harbor rattles, groans as wood slams and rubs against wood. Four nights before the last perigee full moon of the year, a rogue wave hoisted the Serigne Mansor, snapped her anchor line, and flipped her upside-down onto the shore’s packed sand.
The boat broke. Sunup found her stern, transom pointing inland, two dozen paces away from the bow. Tide had buried most of the black and green nylon mile of the pirogue’s purse seine net in sand and brown seaweed. The splintered midship that had borne the first part of her name, Serigne, had washed away into the Atlantic. The bow lay parallel to the tideline, on the port side, so that the turquoise ceiling gaped at the town.
‘The sea is never pregnant,’ a Wolof proverb goes: You can never predict when it will deliver. You can never predict what it will take, either. The immensity of the ocean has room for every variable – God, genie, climate change, tides – but it bestows and withholds its wealth, shelters and destroys at whim unfathomable to man. To live off the sea is to submit to its vagaries, to endure constantly the tension between desire and defeat.
In the morning the fishermen who first saw the shipwreck sent for Ousou Boye, the captain. He peeked into the stern, walked on the inwale, ran his hands along the painted wood, assessed the damage. He will be able to reuse these planks, that thwart, the bow. ‘We’ll rebuild it,’ he said, and summoned the crew to dig out the net.
Up close, Joal looks like a shipyard. All along the coast pirogues are taken apart and reassembled, patched up, rebuilt, built from scratch. Pirogue debris is everywhere: recycled as boat parts for new pirogues, as roof beams, walls, window shutters, benches, awning supports for gazebos where fishermen mend net and talk about fish. At a town cemetery a pirogue plank painted with a floral design in blue and white marks a grave.
Even beached, pirogues are Joal’s life force, its talismanic architecture. Women string laundry lines from boat planks dug upright into the sand or between beached boats; unmarried couples steal into their holds at night to make out. Fishermen’s wives and mothers shelter in their shade and stare their husbands and sons out of the horizon. One sunset three small boys rig a rope swing to a berthed forty-meter purse seiner. It must be fun. I take a turn. It is fun! The boys laugh. I laugh, too. The swinging mimics the rocking of the boat, the rocking of the womb, the rocking of all organisms ever born in an immemorial ocean. For a few seconds, before the sea, I am once more a child.
Early November. Chop. I am looking for a grave. A fisherman washed ashore at night, his green slicker and beige rubberized pants still on, the rest so decomposed they had to bury him right there on the beach.
This often happens when men die at sea, fishermen playing cards in eucalyptus shade tell me. Been in the water too long, too rotten to be taken to the cemetery. Such graves line the coast, they say. There was one right there, under that flagpole, see? I look: the weather advisory flag flops yellow, warning of troubled seas.
‘But that grave is gone now.’
‘Where we buried that man, the sea took it. Now he’s in the sea.’
‘Between here and the filao grove we probably buried ten people.’
‘More than that.’
‘Maybe more than that.’
‘I don’t remember his name.’
‘I don’t think we ever knew his name.’
‘Life is so.’
‘Come on, it’s your turn now.’
The men resume their card game: belote, a game of tricks. The wind smells of eucalyptus and fish.
Everyone I know in Joal has a friend – a brother, a child, a neighbor – who died at sea. Their crewmates continue to sail, their boats continue to haul net, empty or full. My translator tells me about a woman whose son died fishing. ‘She said – I know it’s funny – “I will never eat fish again.” ’
‘Why is it funny, El Hadji?’
‘I don’t know. Life continues. If you don’t eat fish, what do you eat?’
I go on looking for the grave. I pass a pack of dogs gnawing on a dead goat. I am told that the mangy, short-haired yellow dogs that roam Joal’s tideline and sleep in pirogues’ shade are mongrel descendants of the dogs the fifteenth-century Portuguese slave traders had brought along: a memento of one of the most immoral and lasting displays of human greed that unfolded on this ocean, that began on these shores. A friend corrects me: the strays are probably laobé, an indigenous West African breed. Does it make any difference? The story is out; one way or another, the curs have become mnemonics for an unforgivable iniquity.
It is the very end of the rainy season, a time of transition, this year a month late. Suddenly before me is a geyser: thousands of creamy white butterflies hatching out of a nopal grove. Nopal is an American transplant, another relic of the transatlantic slave trade. I pick a prickly pear. The fruit is ripe and my fingertips are crimson with its juice. The last time I ate a prickly pear off the bush was hiking in the Chihuahuan Desert in Texas, the parched exposed bottom of an ancient sea. I eat, I watch the butterflies, I keep walking.
The sand is crusty above the tideline, striated with longitudinal scrapings of crabs. There are windblown jacaranda blossoms, fishnet tangles, red seaweed, turtle excrement, brown plastic cups, Styrofoam floats studded with barnacles. From here, Joal looks like a shipwreck. Then I see a grave in the filao grove, topped with broken murex shells and bordered with broken bricks. And then an unmarked bump in the sand cinched by dune creepers that reach their tendrils seaward. And another unmarked rise, behind a young grove of Sodom’s apples, whose leaves offer protection against the genie that snatch the souls of newborn babies. Another, and another. Are these burial mounds? Accidental sand drifts? It doesn’t matter. The fishermen’s grave is right there. Relentless, greedy, forever lapping against the shore.
Fishermen die; pirogues keep going; life continues. A week later I am aboard a purse seiner, hunting sardines. Twenty nautical miles offshore it occurs to me that maybe a pirogue’s life never truly ends. Maybe it only ends when there is no more fish to be hauled from the sea. A creamy white butterfly rises from a hold and settles on the center thwart. It betokens nothing. It is very beautiful.
Photograph © NASA Goddard Space Flight Center