Bones in the Water – Tema, Ghana

Bones in the Water
Tema, Ghana

From the shores of Pram-pram, a sleepy seaside town, to Ghana’s busiest harbor, Tema, you’ll find an intriguing site, west Africa’s Skeleton Coast.

In search of old forts, the local gendarme directed me to an unattractive building near a lively landing. A handful of fishermen brought in the day’s catch while their women waited anxiously to fill empty buckets and haul the bounty to market. Sizing up the local landmark, I determined any historic value was now concealed by a series of brutal additions. With not much to show in military architecture, I was soon drawn to the nearest spectacle the town had to offer, shipwrecks.

Listing to the side, two veterans of the high seas rusted away while brackish waters met the beach in a churning white froth. What remained of the superstructure and rigging suggested each had earned a living as a freighter, but their holds were emptied long ago. Under constant strain from the Atlantic, the closest vessel was nearing collapse. Metal fatigue crept along her battered hull causing sections to flake away. The fantail on her sister ship had collapsed and in a vain attempt at reclaiming past glories, the superstructure was sliding into the drink.

Glancing westward, the profile of two more ships took shape. So, I set off along the beach for more discoveries.

Small rocks and pebbles crunched under my feet, until arriving at a robust vessel tilted back in the surf. She held every appearance of plowing along under tremendous strain, but rusty streaks marking the hull indicated a perpetual state of motionless. Nearby, a swift looking boat rested upright while the waves nipped at her deck. Despite a significant chunk having been cut away topside, a dagger like stern gave the little cruiser a tenacious appearance.

Heavy clouds drifted overhead while dense palm groves rustled in the steady breeze. The steady rhythm of lapping waves broke the solitude of the pebble-strewn beach. There seemed to be no sense in moving on, until the sun broke through the clouds, melted away the ocean’s salty mist and revealed the jagged outline of more wreckage. One after the other, graying phantoms staggered into the distance. So, with a renewed sense of vigor, I charged forth to investigate the remains of this ghost fleet.

Clustered in groups of twos and threes, the wrecks carry on in various conditions. Anything from a nearly intact vessel to a mere keel peaking above the waves. Some were splintered open as if having suffered a titanic explosion; the hull of an old tanker rested in three horribly twisted sections. Its inner framework exposed like the rib cage of a rotting carcass. Others were flayed apart like King Neptune himself had used his trident to open giant soup cans.

Progressing along the shore, I ventured upon a small yet swiftly moving river. Local fishermen, their camps dotting the entire coast, transported me across for a reasonable fare. When I asked how the ships came to rest, they just nodded their heads expressionlessly. Having been a fixture for so long, the fishermen no longer paid them any attention.

On the opposite bank the empty bridge of a fishing trawler stared out like the sunken eyes of a dying man. Although she held her own under the pounding surf, a loosely attached antennae rattled against the metal, signaling a weary existence.

Fish-smoke from ovens in Tema’s slums marked my return to civilization. A steady breeze carried the chatter of women at work and pedestrians trudged determinedly along the roadside. A battered taxi slowed and the driver blew the horn, but my mission was not yet complete. Just ahead, a juggernaut towered above the worn shacks of corrugated metal.

Washed up like a deep-sea behemoth, an empty container ship rested broadside against the shore. Slightly faded, the black and red paint on the beast kept her presentable and the white letters on the bow identifiable as Verona. Like soldiers on parade, her masts stood proudly, but there would be no more orders. The bridge on the beleaguered vessel had been gutted by fire and all that remained was a blackened shell.

Trapped in the clutches of society, these ships died painfully. Soon the hallow clank of metal striking metal filled the air as gangs of men dressed in overalls worked arduously to salvage the beasts. Torches sparkled until there was a lurching moan and then a section of hull pealed away and landed with a tremendous splash. In a sense, they would see a second life, but reincarnated as nails or cooking pans would never equal the glory of the high seas.

Trudging through this maritime graveyard, I could only wonder of the captains and sailors who crewed those ships. Where did they sail and how many ports did they call while navigating the globe? Perhaps tales from the sea still lurked below decks. Was the ship’s master a drunkard? What shady dealings went on between the deck hands? And how foul-mouthed was the engineer? Sadly, my questions will stay unanswered. Like a dying breath, the winds whistled through shattered portholes and along cracked hulls, carrying away the history of long forgotten men.

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