“Lunch!” Mamede exclaimed, dropping two red snappers into the icebox before Ze tied down the lid. He had gotten the fish at the little market up the beach (to be paid for, in-kind, when we returned). The fish would make up our first meal on board. After that, any protein eaten on the trip would have to be caught.

“Do you still want to go?” he asked, giving me a last chance to back out.
Not too late . . .
Yes, I nodded back, though not very bravely.
“Good!” he boomed, and then he became serious.
“When we are in the water, get up on the jangada as fast as you can and hold onto the espeque.” He gripped the air in front of him with both hands as if clutching a pole. “Hold on tight and don’t let go.”

Clearly Mamede didn’t want me to get washed overboard in the waves, and neither did I. A fair number of people had gathered near our jangada, no doubt hoping for a little excitement. News of my trip had traveled fast through the village grapevine, and with no TV to dull their senses, why not take a little stroll down the beach to see what happens to the gringo.
Yesthat might be fun . . .

“And one more thing.” Mamede was looking even harder now.
“If the jangada is going to turn over,  jump as far away as you can. Whatever happens, don’t get caught under it.”
Oh, great!

Weighing almost a ton fully loaded — with pointy branches to impale and heavy beams, rock anchors, and large blocks of ice to bludgeon — an overturned jangada is not something to be under.

“Compreendo,” I replied, suddenly feeling more awake.

With mixed emotions I watched them perform their final tasks. The anxiety I was feeling right then wasn’t new to me. It’s always this way before leaving on a voyage. Butterflies mostly: excitement at all the possibilities, and fear at the very same possibilities. It’s not a concrete thing, like fearing for my safety (though don’t get me wrong — I fear for my safety). It’s more slippery in nature, more intangible, existential — having to do with my place in the universe and my net worth as a living, breathing, human being. How will I comport myself in a difficult situation? How will I measure up? Will I contribute? Will I be worthy? Or will I prove unworthy? That sort of thing.

Each of us has our own tests to give life meaning. Looking out across the water to the distant horizon, a horizon our little jangada would be well beyond by day’s end, I wondered what tests this trip would bring.

“Vamos!” Mamede commanded. Let’s go!

We only had to push the jangada off its rollers into the rising tide. But the water still wasn’t deep enough to float the hull. Each successive wave lifted the shell, breathing life into dead weight, allowing us to move forward a few steps at a time before the rush of receding water left us high and dry again. Watch your feet! And then with one wave we were running forward, pushing the jangada ahead like an old Cadillac we were trying to jump-start.

We were in to our thighs when the first wave hit, a stem-wall of whitewater that punched up the bow and slowed our momentum. Mamede and I were pushing at the transom, Ze and João at each side of the hull. As soon as the wave passed our stern, Mamede shouted for me to get on board. I wanted to keep pushing but didn’t argue. Over the transom I swiftly climbed up. Once on deck I wasn’t so swift. It was like I’d never stood on a moving platform before. I jumped forward and gripped the nearest espeque post like I was trying to choke it to death. Down below the men kept pushing.

The next wave came over the bow, burying the deck with seething water while swamping the men at the rail. For a brief moment all I saw of Ze and João were their little brown faces tilted to the sky like dumplings in a bubbling stew. Mamede climbed up then and the first thing he did was pull in the mainsheet to trim the sail. He then grabbed the remo to steer. The jangada was barely moving forward and we needed to fall off to gain some speed before the next wave hit.

Too deep to push, Ze and João now came over the rail, hauling themselves up as if they were twenty years younger. (Amazing what a little adrenaline can do to a middle-aged man.) Gripping the icebox frame with one hand, Ze knelt at the port rail and pumped the water with his free arm while João did the same on the starboard side. Paddles would have been nice but they didn’t have any and did the best they could.

The next wave broke with a thundering crash just before it reached us. Both men at the rail jumped up and we braced ourselves as the water smacked the bow and creamed over the deck. The jangada staggered under the pounding force. Water flew everywhere — ricocheting off the tabernacle, the hatch cover, the icebox, even ourselves. João got a bucketful right between the eyes. “YOU SON OF A BITCH!” he roared back, wiping off his face, then shaking his fist. With the deck still draining the two men dropped down to paddle again. And we needed it. We were now moving backward over ground, sucked back by tons of churning water, and we were turning, exposing our beam to the next wave. This is exactly how a jangada gets flipped over in the surf.

Dead in the water Mamede couldn’t turn us, so he did the only thing he could and started sculling with the oar. “VAI ZE!” he shouted, working the heavy remo back and forth. “VAI  JOÃO!” But they were already pulling the water as hard as they could.

I considered dropping down to help them, but where, and what good will it do? The last thing they needed was to deal with me if something happened. So I just held on, feeling useless while I watched them struggle. It wasn’t very cheering. The next wave had already broke and was rushing toward us like a small freight train. Though only three feet high, the roiling water had more than enough punch to kick us over. “VAI!” Mamede cried out again, with more urgency now.

Ze beat the water like a one-armed surfer on steroids. So focused on his task, with a slight smile lighting his face, he actually appeared to be enjoying himself. Not so with João who carried a frown, though he was no less focused and paddled just as hard. Their effort seemed to be working, we were moving forward and turning, but would there be time? “Vai!—Vai!” I heard myself mutter, trying to will us around while at the same time wondering when would be the best time to jump off.

The faster we went, the quicker we turned—the sooner the wave arrived. Right before it hit us, Mamede gave a Herculean heave on the remo. It wasn’t pretty but we didn’t flip over. Again whitewater pounded the deck and sucked us back in a hissing fury. Again we were drenched from head to toe. Rising out the backside, it could have been worse. We were still pointed seaward, and for the moment at least, no other wave was rushing forward to mow us down.

My eyes darted to Mamede then and he glanced back with a deadpan expression. (He would make a good poker player.) Finding no comfort there, I looked forward only to see the next wave forming. And this wave—wouldn’t you know—was the biggest one yet!

Whatever you’ve heard about wave sets—the number of waves and the size in those sets—don’t believe it. There are no preordained patterns and every wave is different. At least this wave was building farther out, giving me hope we would reach it before it broke.

In the short interlude before that question was answered, I recalled the image on João’s t-shirt—the surfer on the huge wave. Here he was taunting me again, “ON THE LINE,” causing my mind to race ahead. In a rapid-fire series of comic strip frames I saw my fate play out:

F1—Jangada at foot of monster wave, four men cringing.
F2—Jangada climbing face of monster wave, three men springing from deck, fourth man holding post with frozen death-grip.
F3—Jangada flipping back, wave breaking like giant claw, three men spinning in air, fourth man still holding post with frozen death-grip.
F4—Close-up of open mouth screaming, tonsils vibrating.
F5—Jangada upside down, three men landing safely, fourth man not visible.
F6—Underwater, fourth man pinned to sandy bottom, eyes bugging out.
F7—POW! POW! POW! A quarter ton of ice breaking free.
F8—Ocean calm, ice floating on surface, three men swimming to shore.

I am happy to say it didn’t happen that way. We did meet the wave just as it was curling, and did start to climb its vertical face. But halfway up inertia took over, driving our hull through that steep wall of water. Punching out the backside, the jangada’s flat bottom slapped the surface like a breached whale crashing down. A curtain of seawater sprayed forward and the deck shuddered under our feet. Just then the wave broke behind us with such a boom and a roar, I was certain we’d be clawed back to a grisly end. There was some sucking, a brief tugging at our ankles, but then we were free and sailing forward, nothing ahead but open water.



Next chapter: Set and Drift