One of the saddest things about humanity is the way that one bad apple can spoil the reputation of a whole bunch. When it comes to cruising the world there are times, indeed, when one unsavoury character really can ruin a place – because one thief, or one small gang of thieves, can easily make a good anchorage unsafe – but on the other hand, just because one anchorage is unsafe it does not mean that the whole country is best avoided.
The good news is that there are only three places in Cape Verde where crime is a problem.
The bad news is that you have to visit at least one of them in order to clear in and out of the country.
Palmeira is a small village in an increasingly busy little port. Crime is not a major problem here – but you do need to be just a little bit careful.
On our first visit to Palmeira, 16 years ago, a teenage boy swam out to the boat, was invited to come aboard, and subsequently stole a watch. We went straight to the police, and although the boy had already sold the watch – to pay for marijuana, as they told us – it took them only a day to get it back. We were reprimanded for allowing “an obvious delinquent” aboard our boat!
I’ve often wondered what became of that boy. I’ve often wondered whether anybody straightened him out or whether he is now a heroin addict…
During our most recent visit to the Cape Verdes a friend was flicking through our visitors’ book. The book contains signatures and drawings and so forth from 20 years of cruising, and my friend asked me whether I could remember all of the people who have ever signed it.
“Of course!” said I; and I then set about proving myself wrong…
Several of the signatures had me scratching my head, and one of those which had me stumped came from Palmeira.
Who could it be…?
Then, suddenly, I pictured him: that 15 year old boy! A stoutish sort of fellow, rather short, and with a round face and something funny about his eyes. And I realised, with a chill, that he is still around! He is one of four or five boat-boys who ply the anchorage. His eyes are permanently blood-shot and glazed; and I suspect that he is responsible for much of the crime in the anchorage in Palmeira.
Here are a couple of examples :
- In January of 2010 we met a singlehander who had been called away to France and who had left his yacht in the care of a certain boat-boy. On his return the Frenchman found that all of the electronics had been torn out of the boat. Various other items of value had also disappeared.
The boat-boy complained that he had not been paid and so had needed to take matters into his own hands, selling the gear to make up the deficit in his wages.
(Note, please, that other people have left their yachts in the care of one of the other boat-boys without suffering any problems.)
- In February of 2010 some friends of ours left their very small, very old, and very battered plywood yacht unlocked while it was at anchor in Palmeira. When they came back they found that it had been completely gutted of their meagre possessions. It took the police two weeks to get everything back for them.
Our friends’ mistake was in believing that they were too poor to steal from. Having been befriended by the boat-boys they also thought that they were “in” with the locals and therefore had nothing to fear. In reality, the very opposite was true. Whilst burglaries are very rare in Palmeira we do believe that acquaintance with certain of the boat-boys often brooks trouble. We know of two occasions on which a visiting yotty, having deluded himself into believing that he was mates with these guys, was mugged.
Note, however, that the boat-boys are NOT all tarred with the same brush. Zeedan and Paul are both completely honest, and many visiting yotties have had great fun with one or other, or both of these two. (Paul is a very good guitarist and a rather lively character. Zeedan is much quieter. Both are fishermen by trade and are capable of handling and re-anchoring yachts left in their care, should the need arise.)
Note also that you do not have to associate with any of the boat boys. If all you want is a quiet life then you can tell the boys that you have no work for them. Do this, lock your boat whenever you are going ashore, keep your belongings close by when you are in the bar, and all will be well; probably.
Mindelo is a curious sort of a place. It was founded for the care and feeding of ships and their crew – founded, one might say, to make money from passing mariners – so that perhaps we ought not to be too surprised when the locals try to continue this traditional trade and exact money from us.
In the old days, 10 or 20 years ago, there were boat-boys in Mindelo and they ran a small protection racket. Essentially, if you wanted to be left in peace you selected one man or boy, and you paid him to keep an eye on your dinghy. The payment was never vast – 17 years ago we used to pay 50p to our boat-boy each time we went ashore – and it bought total security event monitoring. After we had chosen our man (and a very nice man, as it happens) nobody else hassled us. Our dinghy was fine, and nobody would have dreamt of our touching our boat.
The only yachts which were ever burgled, so far as I am aware, were the ones belonging to people who refused to play the game.
Now, the boat-boys are gone, having been displaced by a marina.
The marina is owned by a couple of German ex-pats and it has a very unsavoury reputation; but we’ll deal with that side of things when we come to discuss Mindelo in more depth, in another article.
If you want to be more or less certain that your yacht will remain untouched you can make use of the marina. The establishment boasts a security gate and patrons are issued with a swipe-key; but persons not owning a swipe-key can gain access by pressing a buzzer and asking the security guard for admittance.
We tested this set-up. Our young West African friend told the guard that he was working on one of the yachts and – lo and behold – the gate swung open… Needless to say, would-be thieves can also gain access to the marina by boat, but so far as I am aware this has not happened yet.
If you are the usual sort of cruising yotty, and you don’t have money to waste on marina fees, then you can anchor your yacht with the rest of the mob and make use of the marina’s dinghy dock.
This will cost you 4 Euros per day.
But if you just want to leave your dinghy while you pop into the office – to ask about the price of fuel, for instance – that will only cost you 1 Euro…
If you don’t want to contribute to the German fellow’s economy you can leave your dinghy on the beach, in the old fashioned way. Nowadays you don’t even have to pay! We, and several other people, did this every day during a recent month-long visit – we locked ours to a tree, just to be on the safe side – and none of us had any trouble even during the hours of darkness.
If you have an outboard then we recommend locking it to the dinghy at night and/or lifting the dinghy on deck before sunset; and this applies whether you are berthed in the marina or anchored beside it. Although we, personally, have not experienced any trouble, we have been told of two fairly recent occasions when dinghies were cut away from the yacht during the early evening. The dinghies themselves were subsequently found on the beach, but the outboards were not recovered.
“It is perfectly safe for visitors to walk through the streets of Mindelo or Porto da Praia late at night.” So reads the 4th edition of the RCC Atlantic Islands guide (2004). Unfortunately these comforting words are no longer true.
The biggest problem in Mindelo at the time of writing is not theft from the boats but muggings. Two friends of ours had knives held to their throats while they were standing in the street in front of the marina. Another was mugged while walking along the seafront just after dark and he had his rucksack taken from him.
Yotties and other tourists should not imagine that they are the only targets; the local people are very frightened of these criminals. We were told that they are a gang of junkies who also break into shops and houses and who have been known to beat people senseless if they don’t hand over their money quickly enough. One friend claimed that he actually knows the identity of the gang members, having been to school with them! He said that he was too afraid to go to the police, because the police would just give the boys a thrashing and then let them out again the next day.
As I said at the outset, it only takes half a dozen crooks to tarnish the reputation of a whole city. Hopefully this problem will soon be resolved… and we will be able to remove these paragraphs.
Enea Goes Missing
One other item is of note before we move on from Mindelo, and that is the theft of a yacht. Yes, a whole yacht! And not a Beneteau, or some other clone boat which can easily slip around unnoticed. This was a steel cruising yacht; a home-built family yacht not unlike Mollymawk!
The yacht vanished from the anchorage in Mindelo in January 2010, while her owners were in Switzerland. For the following few weeks no one knew what had become of her; and then she turned up in Recife, Brazil.
Seemingly, the yacht was stolen by some West Africans who were keen to begin a new life on the other side of the ocean. There are always West African men hanging around in Mindelo hoping that someone will take them somewhere else – somewhere where they can earn enough to send money home to their extended families – and these three lads evidently decided to take matters into their own hands.
According to some reports the thieves took with them a local fisherman who knew enough about boats to be able to start the engine and hoist the sails. Be that as it may, this expert evidently didn’t know enough to provision the boat or fill her water tanks – (if you tell a Cape Verdean that it takes three weeks to sail to the other side of the pond he will generally fall over in astonishment) – and by the time the company arrived in Brazil they were in a sad state; or so the story goes.
Although they evidently knew how to work the GPS and keep track of their position the thieves didn’t have the ability to get the boat into harbour, and so it wound up on the beach. The Brazilian police promptly arrested the whole crew and impounded the boat.
A happy ending? Well, no – not really – because the Brazilian authorities then refused to surrender the yacht to the rightful owners without payment of a huge fine! According to the story (told to me by a close friend of the owners) the boat was in such a poor state after its adventure on the beach that its value was less than the fine, and so the insurers coughed up for a new boat.
So, the tale doesn’t have a completely tragic ending… but I must point out that there are not very many yotties who can afford to insure their boat for this kind of eventuality; most of us would have been left banging our heads against a bureaucrat’s wall in Brazil.
Note that this is the first and only instance that we know about of a yacht being stolen whilst in Cape Verdean waters. The anchorage in Mindelo is cluttered with uninhabited yachts many of which appear to have been unattended for months or even years, but no others have ever gone missing.
That just leaves the capital city. Twenty years ago Praia was a one horse town most of whose residents lived in the old buildings atop a central plateau, but now it has sprawled out across the hinterland. A new road has been built along the coast below the plateau, and an endless column of vehicles goes rattling around the circuit at high speed like the cars on an old scaletrix set.
As Praia grows, so its problems have increased in proportion. Twenty-two years ago you could leave your boat unlocked, leave your dinghy unattended on the beach, and wander around the town in the dark. And we did.
Ten years ago we were warned not to leave the yacht unattended during the night.
Last year we kept the dog on deck while we slept.
And this year (2011) we changed our plans and gave the place a miss.
Friends resident in the city of Mindelo and others on the island of Brava tell us that there is now a lot of crime in Praia, with frequent knifings and even shootings. They report that it is no longer safe to wander the streets at night.
As for the anchorage – well, it seems that that is no longer very safe either.
Over the course of the past few months three yachts of our acquaintance have been boarded and/or burgled while they were there anchored in Praia – and I’m not just talking about casual theft; in each case the men came aboard during the night while the crew was asleep and came into the cabin.
In the first case the thieves entered by the open companion way and were disturbed before they had had the chance to grab anything.
In the other two they gained access via a small hatch – the other hatches all having been locked – and made off with money and computers.
On each of these two occasions the men swam out to the boat and got away, with their loot, in the yacht’s own dinghy. Thus we infer that locking or lifting your dinghy might serve as a deterrent.
Again – it only takes two or three crooks to ruin an anchorage and destroy a reputation…
On our last visit to in Praia (February 2010) we were approached by an unpleasant rastaman who wanted to guard our dinghy. When we told him that it wasn’t worth guarding – being a 25 year old Avon, with a milk-crate for a seat and shabby oars for propulsion – the fishermen standing round about all laughed, and the first fellow scowled and walked away.
That was the end of that, so far as we were concerned; but not everyone can afford to be so blasé.
If your dinghy has an outboard then you are in no position to argue with the racketeers. But whereas in Mindelo such an arrangement ensured protection (qv) here, it seems, it is just an aggressive form of begging.
Best Odyssey, the well-known American time-share charter kite-surfing catamaran, visited Praia this winter and reported the following encounter:
“A couple of guys volunteered to guard the dinghy, but when we returned everything in it was gone. A brand new anchor and chain, lock cables, water bottle. But the two guys who were looking after the boat demanded they still be paid. An interesting “discussion” ensued, which I lost.”
If the Cape Verdean authorities want to encourage tourism – and they certainly do – then they will have to resolve this problem. They will have to catch the crooks and lock them up, and they will have to have a word with their fishermen and explain the disadvantage of trying to fleece people who have hardly set foot ashore.
In summary, then – the islands are not as safe as they were. Security in the three principal ports is not as good as it is in the Canaries or even in the majority of the West Indies. Indeed, at the time of writing it seems to be as bad as Trinidad and worse than some of the worst anchorages in Brazil.
However, thus far there has never been a case of a yachtsman being attacked aboard his boat – and this has happened many times both in Brazil and in various of the Caribbean islands. Nor have I ever heard of anyone being mugged (or even pick-pocketed) in broad daylight, whereas this is a commonplace event in Brazil.
For more information about the Cape Verde islands, take a look at our other recent articles about the archipelago:
- General info:
- São Vicente
- Boa Vista