Prainha e Jangadas

Prainha do Canto Verde (Small Beach with Green Patch) is a fishing village on Brazil’s northeast coast, in the state of Ceará. To get there I took a bus from the state capital, Fortaleza, toward Aracati and asked the driver to let me off at the Lagoa da Poeira (Lagoon of Dust). I then hiked about four miles in a northerly direction on a narrow sand road, through coconut palms and mangroves, until I reached the shore of the South Atlantic Ocean. There I found a village only partly true to its name. Yes, it is a “Green Patch” on a white sand beach—a beautiful oasis of palm trees and houses with thatched roofs and well-kept gardens. But this is no “Small Beach.”  Prainha, as the locals simply call it, is surrounded by mountainous sand dunes that run pretty much nonstop for hundreds of miles up and down the coast.

Though located squarely in the tropical zone, Ceará is more desert than rain forest. It gets one quarter the rainfall of its Amazonian neighbors to the west, and most of the rain comes down in a tight bell curve, peaking in the month of April. The average temperature throughout the year is 27 C (81 F), with an average humidity of 75%, month after month after month. If you like consistent heat and dry weather, Ceará is not a bad place to spend a winter holiday.

Helping to mitigate the heat is an onshore wind that you can pretty much set your clock to. It’s thermal related, resulting from the sun heating up the inland plane, lifting the air there, creating a vacuum that sucks in the cooler ocean air. The wind is ideal for kite and windsurfing, and for centuries the jangadeiros have used it to survive. Prainha do Canto Verde is one of the hundreds of traditional (now called artisanal) fishing villages that dot the northeast coast of Brazil.

Why did I go to Prainha? To sail a jangada. And why would I want to do that? Not as simple, but not so complicated either. I’m an American, living in the San Francisco Bay Area. I am also Brazilian by birth, a Paulista, born in the great city of São Paulo. For the first four and a half years of my life I lived in the town of Taubaté,  just north of São Paulo, where the American car company, Kaiser Jeep, had a plant. My father helped manage the plant for Kaiser. In 1964, when the Brazilian military took over the government, Kaiser sold its Latin American operation to the Ford Motor Company and our family moved back to the States.

After eight years away my parents returned to California with many mementos from Brazil, a country they truly loved and were sad to leave. One keepsake they brought back was a bronze replica of a traditional jangada, its sail set and ready to fly. That little jangada ended up on a shelf in my bedroom and it fascinated me. Hours I spent with that model in my hands, dreaming of adventures on the high seas. ​A few months after we settled into our new home my dad mentioned at dinner that the boathouse on Lake Merritt, next to the Kaiser Center where he worked, had an introductory sailing course. He wanted my two older brothers to enroll. What he wasn’t expecting was that his five year old son would beg him to go. On the first day of class I was by far the youngest kid in the group, a condition I more than made up for with raw enthusiasm. I loved to sail. We learned on El Toros, and as all the boats were exactly the same my smaller size gave me a big advantage — less weight for the wind to blow. This played a deciding roll on the last day of class when we had our final exam. The test was divided into two parts, a written portion of multiple choice questions followed by a regatta on the lake. I still couldn’t read very well, so one of the instructors gave me the test orally in a separate room. Maybe the guy took pity on me—nudging me in the right direction—because I barely managed to pass. (Take whatever help you can get!)  Where I shined was out on the water. They’d set up a series of buoys around the lake and the first kid to complete the circuit would win a little trophy. ​The wind was light when we crossed the starting line and, weighing next to nothing, I quickly pulled away from the rest of the pack. By the time I reached the final buoy I was so far ahead of the others I decided to go around again, just to show everybody how great I was. ​And this is when disaster struck. Like Icarus I was flying too high from winning and not paying enough attention to my wings (my sail). A gust whipped up that slapped us over, dumping me into the water before I could reach the mainsheet. I was wearing a life vest so it wasn’t dangerous​ — humiliating it certainly was. Back on the dock, sopping wet, I had the dubious distinction of winning the race while being the only student to capsize his boat.

As I grew older I got more into sailing. At eighteen I bought my first little cruiser, an Islander 24, that I sailed on the bay and out along the coast. Moving away from home I brought that little jangada with me, and those early dreams never left me. Several years, boats, and passages later, there I was, standing on the beach at Prainha. 

The only difference between a traditional jangada and a modern one is the hull. Modern jangadas have a planked hull and deck, while the old jangadas were truly rafts, constructed from tree trunks pinned together with hardwood dowels. Appropriately named jangada de tábuas (jangada of planks), the modern jangada was first constructed in 1940, when the balsa like trees used to make the log rafts were getting scarce. As the “piúba” (Apeiba Tibourbou) trees became more scarce with time, and expensive, the planked hulls took over. Today you will only see a jangada de piúba in a museum, or parked in front of a hotel like a piece of sculpture.

A sketch showing the various parts of a jangada sailboat.Having the same size and shape, and the exact same rig, modern jangadas look very much like the older rafts. If you superimposed the image of one over the other you’d be hard-pressed to tell a difference. You would see a hatch (escotilha) at the center of the deck, and a transom mounted rudder (leme) instead of a steering oar (remo do governo), though that same oar is used today to steer through the surf. Aside from that and some plastic line, everything else on the boat is the same as it was more than 300 years ago. The same espeque for the sailors to swing. The same banco do governo for the captain to sit. The same bolina to keep the hull tracking. The same fateixa to make sure it will stick. The same calçadores to belay the sheet. The same sambura to hold the fish. The same envergue to sew the luff. The same quimanga to store the dish. And the very same mastro where hooks the same tranca that spreads the same vela to catch the wind.

And yes—neither jangada old or new has a head (toilet).

The main advantage of a modern jangada, and it’s a big one, is the space it has below deck for storage and sleeping. Not that the space itself is very big. At its highest, amidships, the hold is only eighteen inches deep. And this quickly tapers down to less than a foot at the rails — just enough room to fit your head at bedtime. If you are at all claustrophobic, as I am, it’s the last place you want to go to relax, especially when cloistered with three burly fishermen. But the enclosed space provides protection against the elements, allowing the jangadeiros to spend more time at sea so they can catch more fish.

Next chapter: Making Friends

*