Set and Drift

Safely through the breakers, I thought everyone would be jumping up and shouting, WE MADE IT! WE MADE IT!. . . with high-fives all around. (It’s certainly what I felt like doing.) But no, things were pretty quiet on deck. Granted, Ze and João were slumped on the hatch cover, sucking in air as if they’d just run a four-minute mile, and Mamede was busy with the remo, steering us out to deeper water.

He was still wearing his poker face and I wondered what he was thinking. Was this just another day on the job for him or was it something more hair-raising? I didn’t know him very well at that point. It was easy to see he was a serious man, and with his quiet, deliberate manner he exuded competence. This gave me confidence in him. It’s largely why I chose to take a trip with him and not some other mestre. I knew he would take care of me. We want our captains to be serious. We want them to be strong and calm, someone to lead us through a storm with a steady hand. Mamede appeared to be all of that and yet he was also a man. And he showed me his human side when his straight face suddenly cracked into a warm grin and he winked at me, letting me know he was as happy as I was to be out of that mess.

When we were well beyond the break line he set down the remo and freed the mainsheet from the calçador. Unharnessed, the jangada drifted slowly forward, rising and falling in the rolling swell. The two intrepid paddlers had regained their composure and were now busy preparing our little boat for the long sail to the fishing grounds, over forty miles offshore. After so many years working together as a crew they performed their tasks with a quiet efficiency.

Looking like a giant knife blade stuck through the deck, the bolina rose to the top of João’s hardhat. Undaunted, he freed the line wedging the dagger-board in place and reached up with both hands to pull it down through the hardwood box. The plank sank easily at first but jammed a few inches shy of the stops. Friction held it up, easily overcome by jumping on top to push it in place. While João did this, Ze opened the hatch and brought out the staysail. He took it to the fore-deck and lashed it on — tack to bow ring, head to a loop tied to the mast, and its clew sheeted to the leeward foot of the tabernacle frame. The sail looked like a storm jib when set, small and flat, and I wondered why they even bothered to put it up. Hard to believe it would generate any lift. Later in the day when the wind picked up I would learn its true purpose.

It was Mamede’s job to hang the leme. Lashed to the back of the steering bench for our mad dash through the surf, the rudder could now be pinned to the transom without fear of it striking the seafloor and breaking. Not that it would easily break. Built from three stout planks scabbed tightly together, a jangada’s rudder is about as heavy as a solid core door. And like a door it swings on a pair of hinges (called gudgeons). The trick is lining up the parts to set the holding rod. If you’ve ever hung a rudder you know how hard it can be, the transom going one way and the blade in another. Imagine doing it in a seaway with the hull twisting and rolling like a ride at a carnival fair. Like any good sailor Mamede had a system. With one arm he held the post tightly against his shoulder while he eased the tail end over the stern, bracing his legs against the steering bench so he wouldn’t fall in. First he lined up the top pair of gudgeons and quickly inserted the rod to lock the hinge in place. He could then focus on mating the deeper pair, but it wasn’t easy. For over a minute he struggled with the swinging blade, his head and shoulders getting dunked more than once, until he was finally able to line up the sockets and drive the pin home with a satisfying grunt. He then stood up, wiped off his face, and reached for the cana do leme. The tiller handle fits to the top of the rudder post with a simple mortise and tenon joint, and is held there by the sheer bulk of its weight. Positioning mortise over tenon, Mamede slapped the joint together with his beefy palm. He then hauled in the mainsheet and we started sailing again.

He put us on a close reach and looked back at the coast to get his bearings. This is how jangadeiros navigate when they can see land: using fixed points on shore to triangulate their position at sea. They call it marcação (to mark), and the Phoenicians used the same method thousands of years ago. Present day navigators use it too, but they have hand-bearing compasses, charts, and parallel rulers to get the job done (that is, when they can’t find their GPS receivers).

Looking back at the shore, trying to see it through Mamede’s eyes, I noticed a problem with this. To get a cross-bearing fix you need at least two fixed points on land (and three is better). Here I could only see one prominent geographical marker — the Morro Branco — a sandstone bluff that rose from the beach about a mile from the village. Everything else along the shore was flat and low.

This meant that a few miles out, standing as we were right at sea level, the only thing visible on land would be the top of that hill. That would give us only one bearing line, and as any good navigator knows — one bearing line does not a position fix (as you could be anywhere on that line). Of course none of this mattered beyond ten miles from shore. By then the Morro Branco itself would have sunk below the horizon, leaving nothing to see but water-water everywhere.

While I mulled this over I also noticed we had traveled a fair distance up the coast in the short time since we left, moved westward by the prevailing ocean current (the North Brazil Current). This constant current, about a knot strong, would keep pushing us to the west for the entire time of the trip, and would need to be factored into any “calculation” of our position.

We’d be sailing tens of miles offshore without the aid of a compass or any other navigation device. And then, days later, we’d have to find our way back to Prainha, a tiny village on an endless coastline.

How is that going to happen? I wondered, glancing at my captain.

Looking up at the sail and then back at me, Mamede said plainly, “It will take all day to get there with this wind.” The sun was rising off the eastern horizon like a big orange soccer ball. At three and a half degrees south latitude, it already promised a very hot game.

Next chapter: Dipping and Diving