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 doubled over by the hatch cover, heaving air as if they had just finished a four-minute mile, and Mamede was focused on his steering, working us out to deeper water.

He was still wearing his poker face, a serious expression if ever I saw one. Mamede really was a serious man, as all good captains are, as all good captains should be — sober and steady, strong and calm — someone to lead us through a storm with a steady hand. But he was also human. And he showed me his lighter 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.

Mamede unwound the mainsheet from the calçador and shipped the remo. Unshackled, 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 ship for the long haul to the fishing grounds. After so many years together, they performed their tasks with a quiet efficiency.

Looking like a giant knife blade stuck in the deck, the elevated 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. 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 with horny bare feet. While João did this, Ze opened the hatch and pulled out the staysail. He took it to the fore-deck and lashed it on — tack to bow ring, head to mast, and its clew sheeted to the leeward foot of the tabernacle frame. The sail looked like a storm jib when set, flat and small, and I wondered why they even bothered to put it up. Later in the day when the wind picked up I would learn the sail’s true purpose.

It was Mamede’s job to hang the leme. Lashed to the steering bench for our run through the surf, the rudder could now be placed on the transom without fear of it striking the seafloor and breaking. Not that it would easily break. Built from three thick planks scabbed stoutly together, a jangada’s rudder would make a great barn door. Freeing the bindings, Mamede lowered the blade over the stern and lined up the gudgeons to drive the rod home. He then reached for the cana do leme and placed it on the rudder post with slap of his palm. As soon as he hauled in the mainsheet, we were 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 a 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. This would only give us a single 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 beach 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 would be sailing tens of miles offshore without the aid of a compass or any other navigational 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 was already promising a very hot game.



Next chapter: Dipping and Diving