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 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—an oasis of palm trees and houses with well-kept gardens. But no, it is not a “Small Beach.” Prainha, as the locals simply call it, is surrounded by huge sand dunes that run pretty much nonstop for hundreds of miles in either direction.

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 that 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, it’s 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 the jangadeiros have relied on it for centuries 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 five 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 managed the plant for Kaiser. In 1964 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.

My parents returned to the US with many mementos from Brazil, a country they loved and were sad to leave. One keepsake was a bronze replica of a traditional jangada, 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. My childhood dreams led to an interest in sailing. At age eighteen I bought my first real sailboat, an old Islander 24, that I sailed on the bay and out along the coast. With time my confidence grew and I got more into sailing. But those early dreams never left me 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 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 a jangada 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 wrap 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 same 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 to about a foot at the rails — just enough room to lay your head down at beddy-bye time. If you are at all claustrophobic, as I am, it is not the coziest place to spend a relaxing evening, 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.



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