Walking down the beach I could see the jangadas in the distance. There were four boats in a loose row, each with its upturned bow pointing seaward and a large mainsail set to the early morning breeze. Sitting high on their rollers the sailboats looked like a small gaggle of geese ready to take flight. Each boat was a center of activity. The fishermen were preparing their sloops for the ocean, storing supplies in the hold, lashing equipment on deck. A truck was parked nearby waiting to deliver ice. More people watched than worked, family mostly, there to see their loved ones off and wish them a lucky journey — Boa Sorte! In the fishing villages of north-eastern Brazil it has been this way for almost 400 years — jangadeiros going to sea on small sailing rafts to catch a living. Little has changed in all that time and the living is as hard as ever. Harder maybe as there are less fish now.
A jangada is a peculiar craft, ancient yet modern, organic yet wholly man-made. Small, flat, and low, it looks more like a Stone Age windsurfer than a hardworking fishing boat. The image is reinforced by hand-carved branches poking up from the deck (forming the various structural elements) and a single mast standing without stays. The mast itself is pieced together from several sections, each successively smaller in diameter and scarfed to its neighbor with heavy fishing line. No other fasteners are used. The result is a spar that is strong where it needs to be, yet flexible enough to absorb the force of the wind without breaking. At the top the mast arches back to a sharp point like a hunter’s bow, giving the mainsail its unique wing-like shape.
More than anything a jangada is defined by its vela — an animated triangle formed by three curved lines. The simplicity of that triangle, and its energy, make it the perfect icon for the jangadeiros, as it is for Brazil, a country known for its architectural modernism. One look at the sweeping white columns of the presidential mansion and offices (Palácio da Alvorada, Palácio do Planalto), or the Supreme Courthouse in the capital, Brasilia, and it’s easy to see where the famous architect, Oscar Niemeyer, got his inspiration. These structures are reaching for the future on the wings of jangadas.
Moved as I was by the romantic image in front of me, at that moment I was feeling fear more than anything else. Fear at knowing I’d be captive on one of those tiny boats for the next four or five days, tens of miles offshore, with none of the conveniences or safety equipment that modern sailors take for granted. There would be no radio or satellite telephone to call for help. No computer or weather fax to provide useful information. No EPIRB (Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon) to switch on if something went wrong. No life raft to jump into if our own raft went down. And no GPS to fix our position. Not that this last item really mattered. What good is knowing your position when you don’t have a chart to plot it or a compass to steer by? In short, I’d be sailing back in time, far from land, on a pocket-sized cruiser with three other men. Like a virgin groom standing at the altar, I was beginning to wonder how I got there.
But I knew exactly how I got there and it was all my doing.
Just the day before I went looking for the fisherman who let me a room in his house. I wanted to ask Mamede if I could join him on his next trip. His wife, Dona Graça, said I’d find him down by the water working on his jangada. He was there, talking to some fishermen outside a hut that functioned as a supply store, market, and bar. The conversation was focused on a fishing net bundled on the the sand beside them. The net’s owner, in typical Brazilian fashion, was telling his story in a spirited shout while forcefully slicing his hands through the air.
The man fell silent as I approached and everyone turned to look at me. What does the gringo want now? I could almost hear them thinking. For a long pause nobody spoke. Mamede, his strong arms folded tightly across his bare chest, finally broke the silence with a simple, “Yes?”
Looking back at the jangadeiros, I saw faces lined and burned by the harsh sun at 3.5 degrees, south latitude. They were hard faces, expressing the strength and freedom of a lifetime on the ocean. Gathering my courage, I asked in my limited Portuguese, “Mamede, can I go fishing with you tomorrow?”
I might as well have lit a firecracker. All eyes opened wide with an intake of breath. En masse the fishermen shifted their gaze from me to Mamede.
Normally relaxed and friendly, Mamede now turned serious. He raised a calloused hand and slowly rubbed his jaw. After several seconds, which felt like centuries to me, he began. “Well . . . are you sure you want to go? This isn’t playing around. Não é brincadeira, não! We go far from land and don’t come back for four, maybe five days. Even if it gets rough. And what we eat—very simple! Boiled fish and farinha. And some bolacha. Nothing else!” As a final attempt to dissuade me he dug his heels further into the sand and said bluntly, “And you know . . . there is no toilet.”
The fishermen broke out cackling at this, some of them repeating, “No toilet!—Yes!—No toilet!” When the laughter finally subsided, all eyes were again on me.
While the thought of hanging my backside over a jangada’s rail, where there are only a few inches of freeboard, did have a slight dampening effect on my enthusiasm, I wasn’t going to give up so easily. “No problem, Mamede,” I replied a little too blithely. “I just won’t crap.”
Careful what you say — it might come true.
My statement got a laugh but only a short one. At least the eyes were back on Mamede. He was smiling now, regarding me calmly. He is not a man to be rushed. Mamede is a captain through and through — um mestre (a master) — with a lifetime of making tough decisions. As the seconds ticked by his smile got harder, while mine started to crack. Just as I was about to give up hope he arched an eyebrow and shrugged his shoulders as if to say, okay—you asked for it, which is pretty much what he said.
“Well, all right. If you want to.”
The gallery heaved a collective sigh of relief and I made no attempt to contain my pleasure. “Great, Mamede—great! Thank you! Is there anything I can do to help you get ready?”
“No—no,” he shook his head, “I can do it. But we leave early in the morning. Before the sun. So be ready.”
I thanked him again before leaving, and as I turned to go, the fishermen began talking all at once. One of them shouted at my back, “Ei, Americano, boa sorte!”
Next chapter: Prainha e Jangadas