When is it stupid to step on a ferry or climb in a large wooden boat?

The news of the recent ferry accident in the Philippines reminded me of the many ferries I’ve taken in my travels. The journey across the wide mouth of the Gambia River between Banjul, the capital, and Barra, on the side of The Gambia where I lived, comes to mind the most.

Sometimes I made the trip in a large open wooden boat called a pirogue that would have given my mother a heart attack if she had known what I was up to.

When traveling in countries where bridges are scarce, ferry crossings are necessary. If you want to get from here to there, you step on. Generally, thoughts of accidents and the lack of life preservers are fleeting. Instead, one enjoys the thrill of watching one shore grow further away as another comes closer.

In the Gambia, a ferry is filled with people, cars, trucks, animals, motorcycles–basically whatever can be crammed on. It’s a mish mash of no order in particular. I always headed to the top deck to escape the crush.

Of all the crossings I’ve made in my life–and I’m not sure I could count them all, there’s only one that I should have never tried. Once, in a hurry to get to Banjul and not willing to wait for calmer waters, I climbed into one of the large wooden boats as it rocked furiously on the churning river.

A storm might have been coming in, but the owner of the boat, probably looking to make some money, embarked on the trip with about 70 people perched on the wooden boards that served as benches. Every once in a while, the top edge of the boat dipped within a few inches of the surface. We all shrieked each time.

Halfway out, my friend said to me, “If the boat turns over, swim away from it as fast as you can and wait.”

The idea was that the people who couldn’t swim would drown and we could swim back to the boat to hold on until rescued. If we stayed around the boat, people would pull us under.

Sure, I nodded, imagining myself a very strong swimmer, and not thinking too deeply about what such an accident would actually look like.

The truth is, I’m not a strong swimmer but at age 22 that sounded like a plausible plan. As years have passed, I realize just how dumb we were to get on that boat. And, lucky that we made it to the other side.

The last time I took the big ferry across, a cow fell off of it into the water after the ferry pulled away from shore. As I watched the cow swim towards land, its head and horns visible, I wondered just how the owner would get it back. The great thing about The Gambia is that someone would have held onto that cow until the owner came back to get it, even if it took all day and more.

This is a picture I took of the ferry in The Gambia. I was heading to the top deck. The quality stinks, (it’s an old photo, but you get the idea.) For a better picture, click here.

The top picture is of one of the boats similar to the one I took whenever I didn’t take a ferry. The crossing was not quick.

For a detailed account of the ferry crossings in Banjul and a visual look at how wide that river is, click here.