Dipping and Diving

João helped Ze set the jib, then came aft with a sour expression. I was holding the windward espeque post with one hand while massaging my still sore knee with the other. Not knowing his intention I took a step back as he approached. There isn’t a lot of room on a jangada’s deck. One step aft was all I could go.

He stopped just in front of me and grabbed the same post I was holding, his hand touching mine. Brazilians are much less demanding of their personal space than Americans. When they talk to you they like to get up close so they can “feel” you better, touch you, and generally be more intimate. It’s a nice thing when you get used to it and, depending on whom you’re talking to, it can be a very nice thing. This wasn’t one of those times.

He kept eyeing me, not saying a word, and we got locked into one of those stupid little staring contests, him looking fiercer by the second and me getting more spooked. Knowing who would win (I have four brothers and we frequently played this game while growing up), I broke the spell by smiling back and blinking. Victorious, he gave me a leering grin. Now that social hierarchy had been established he seemed much more relaxed.

“Where did you get the hat?” I asked, tapping my head and pointing at his hardhat. “Did you work on a project?”
“I FOUND IT ON THE BEACH,” he shouted, though less than a foot away.
“AND DID IT—” I shouted back before catching myself. “—and did it have the line?” I now pointed at the crude chinstrap made from a length of Dacron line.

João stuck out his chin and pulled the cord from under his jaw, tipping the hat off to show me. Looking down, I was surprised to see the hat’s harness was still intact, and close to the crown, several small fishing hooks were stuck to the strap. Right in the middle was a small plastic bag filled with chewing tobacco.

“Looks like you have everything you need there, João. Is that enough tobacco for the trip?”
His eyes narrowed and he quickly flipped the cap back onto his head. Refitting the chinstrap, he now seemed irritated. “I have some more below.”
And so ended our second conversation.

Abruptly he reached over and grabbed a pair of lines attached to the forquilha. It was actually one line bent in two, tied to the top of the post with a cow-hitch and joined at the free end with a simple overhand knot. João took the knotted end in his right palm and wrapped the lines back around his wrist several times before running them forward through his palm again. Clamping down on this with his fist, he now had a hitch that would rip his arm off before coming undone. Needlessly, more for my benefit it seemed, he tested his grip by yanking on the lines with his other hand.

Now holding the lines with both hands to his chest, he stepped back until his heels were hanging over the side of the toe rail, nothing behind him but the big blue ocean. Like a platform diver preparing to launch himself, he stood very still at the edge. I had no idea what came next — was holding my breath — when suddenly he gave me a sideways glance as he started to fall backward over the rail.

It happened so quickly I reflexively reached out to grab him—but too late. He was already down, suspended over the water at the end of his lines with his feet still gripping the toerail. He didn’t stay there long. Immediately he heaved in on the lines while thrusting up with his hips, so in one fluid kip he was standing back on deck as if nothing had happened. Glancing at me again he smiled smugly to himself.

João performed his acrobatic stunt a couple more times, just to make sure I got it, then switched to a new position. Facing forward now, still holding the espeque lines with both hands, he eased himself sideways over the rail and started bouncing up and down without lifting his feet from the deck. Each bounce sent a tremor through the hull as if he was purposely trying to push it down with his weight. In fact, this is exactly what he was doing. Having no ballast on board,  jangadeiros use their bodies to counter the tipping force from the sail, leveraging their weight over the rail by hanging from their espeque lines. In a flash of insight I realized I was witnessing what was probably the origin of the modern sailing trapeze.

After a few minutes of alternating one energetic move with the other,  João settled down to a more sustainable pace: leaning out sideways against the lines, then pulling himself back in — out and in, out and in — swaying in time with each wave like a metronome. Even this motion was unnecessary as the wind was light and the jangada barely heeled.

While João was dipping and diving, Ze was at the tabernacle, retying the line that held the port anchor in place. (It must have come loose in the surf.) He worked methodically, without any rush, in stark contrast to his mate at the rail. It wasn’t the only difference between them.

Ze was the proeiro, or first mate. At just under six feet, he was easily the tallest of the three jangadeiros, and the leanest, without an ounce of fat on him. (Not that there was much fat in that group.) Tan and handsome, with short silver hair and a patrician nose, he looked more like an actor on a movie set, playing the part of a mature yet still vital leading man.

Put a cowboy hat on his head and leather boots on his bare feet, and you could easily see him riding off into the sunset, having rousted the outlaws to win back the ranch. Change his tattered T-shirt for checked tweeds and he instantly became the dashing lord of a vast country estate. Cover the tweeds with a white smock and he was now the only surgeon capable of saving young Misty May Sue from the fatal hole in her sweet little heart. (And when he wasn’t curing the incurable, was out playing scratch golf without any sunblock on.)

But this air of quiet ruggedness lasted only as long as Ze was standing still. As soon as he moved about the deck with his gangly legs, or gave you an impish smile (which he frequently did), or said anything at all in his high-pitched voice (as if channeling Lincoln telling one of his jokes), then the true character of the man came out. All he needed then was a peaked felt hat, baggy pants and a shirt with some straw poking out, and you could easily see him bounding down the yellow brick road — off to see the wizard!

Completing his task, he squinted up at the mainsail. The cotton cloth was stained but still in pretty good shape. He grabbed the aguador from the tabernacle lines and stepped to the rail. The aguador is used to scoop up seawater to throw on the sail.

A jangada’s mainsail is kept wet while sailing to improve the sail’s lift. It is a technique as old as cloth sails themselves: water swells the natural fibers, closing the microscopic gaps that allow air molecules to trespass across the fabric. A “leaky” sail loses pressure. Over a large area of canvas this can add up to a significant loss in lift. But on a relatively small sail like a jangada’s, I wondered if the effort made any measurable difference.

Standing at the rail he bent down and dipped the can into the top of a passing wave. Instantly he whipped the shaft up with both arms, shooting a liter of seawater to the top of the sail, almost 30 feet up. The water hit its mark with a drumming splash and darkened the sun-bleached cotton as it ran down, quickly absorbed by the parched cloth. Arms pumping rapidly, Ze repeated his swing until the entire sail was soaking wet, water streaming from its foot as if we had just passed through a squall. Wetting the sail is normally the responsibility of the bico da proa. But the bico da proa was still busy showing off his prowess with the cabos do espeque.

Next chapter: Tacking a Jangada