Tacking a Jangada

Not much happened before midday. It got hot and the wind picked up. We tacked a couple of times. Tacking a large jangada requires at least two men, though three is better: one to steer and lift the swinging boom over the espeque posts, two to shift the heavy mast from one side to the other. In light wind the task is cumbersome at best, demanding little more than brute strength. But when the wind is up and the spars are jumping, add extreme caution to the list.

Seeking a warmer climate for his “frail constitution,” a British merchant named Henry Koster moved to Brazil at the beginning of the 19th century. Upon arriving in the port of Recife, he saw a jangada for the first time:

“Nothing this day created so much astonishment on board our ship, amongst those who had not been before on this coast, as the Jangadas, sailing about in all directions. These are simply rafts of six logs, of a peculiar species of light timber, lashed or pinned together; a large latine sail; a paddle used as a rudder; a sliding keel let down between the two centre logs; a seat for a steersman, and a long forked pole, upon which is hung the vessel containing water, the provisions, etc. These rude floats have a most singular appearance at sea, no hull being apparent even when near them. They are managed by two men, and go closer to the wind than any description of vessel.”

(From Travels In Brazil, by Henry Koster, 1816. Also quoted in: Jangada—uma pesquisa etnográfica, by Luís da Cȃmara Cascudo, 1957)

A painting of a raft jangada with two jangadeiros sailing.

Mr. Koster’s description, accompanied by the lovely plate above, is perfect except for one thing: a jangada does not have a “latine” (or lateen) sail. A jangada’s triangular sail is more like the mainsail found on a Bermuda rigged boat, similar to what we see on most sailing boats today.

One can forgive the slight error. With a swept-back head, deep cut leach, and loose foot, a jangada’s mainsail looks very much like a lateen sail (it was, in fact, derived from the lateen sail). But the two rigs are different: 1. The luff of a lateen sail attaches to a yard that is hoisted up on a mast – the luff of a jangada’s sail attaches directly to the mast. 2. A lateen sail does not usually have a boom to support the sail’s clew – a jangada has a boom and the mainsheet attaches directly to the boom, not the clew. 3. A lateen mast is fixed with shrouds and stays. While the same is true for a Bermuda rig, a jangada’s mast is not fixed, has no shrouds or stays, and can be angled to windward on either tack to improve the quality of sailing. This last point, I would argue, makes the jangada rig even more advanced than the modern Bermuda rig.

How this advanced rig came to be added to the log rafts used by the Tupi Indians in northeastern Brazil, about four-hundred years ago, is not known — there are no historical records. Most believe it was a Dutch invention. The Dutch had a large colony in NE Brazil during the first half of the seven-teenth century. And the Dutch were the leading sail designers at the time (some say of all time), pushing the sailing envelope in many directions (leg of mutton sail, the gaff rig, the “Bermuda rig” — designed in Bermuda by a Dutchman). Certain details of a jangada’s rig (the triangular sail and the jaws of the boom) point to a Dutch inventor. But the biggest clue comes from the simple fact that jangadas began sailing the northeast coast of Brazil at the same time as the Dutch occupation.

Whoever created the jangada’s tilting rig, they were light-years ahead of their time. Imagine a sail that looks like a wing, able to be oriented from one side to the other to maximize lift at different points of the wind.

What makes this possible is the banco da vela. Typically called the banco, it looks like an ancient sawhorse stuck across the foredeck. The banco’s main member is a horizontal beam supported on two stout legs. A vertical socket cuts through the beam at the center, open on the aft side to accept the mast. This socket is the upper support and pivot point for the mast.

Sitting on the deck directly below this beam is the carlinga — a thick board with a series of holes carved into the top. When sailing, the mast’s foot is pegged into the leeward hole, which angles the upper part of the spar toward the wind. This improves sailing in two ways. First it brings the sail’s center of effort (lift) more in line with the hull’s center of resistance (drag), thereby reducing the boat’s weather helm, though there is still plenty of weather helm. And second, as a jangada heels with the wind, the sail rotates to a more vertical orientation. The lift from a vertical sail, unlike one leaning leeward, will have no downward force component pushing the boat down. Anyone who has sailed through a gust with too much canvas up knows what it feels like to have the leeward rail forced underwater. (Not a good feeling.)  As a jangada relies solely on buoyancy and human weight to prevent it from tipping over, the windward tilting mast helps to keep the crew out of the water.

This doesn’t come without a price. Jangadas didn’t have carbon fiber and special alloys hundreds of years ago and they don’t have them today. Everything is solid and heavy, and if a hand or foot happens to get in the way when things are moving quickly . . . Sayonara baby!

“Let’s turn,” Mamede called out from the steering bench, telling his crew it was time to tack. Both Ze and João freed themselves from their espeque lines and walked forward to the tabernacle frame.  João positioned himself first by climbing up on the windward side of the beam and leaning his shoulder onto the tilting spar, gripping it firmly with both hands. Ze then squeezed in below him and also braced himself to push. Seeing his men were ready for the tack, Mamede turned to me and said, “Watch your head when the boom comes over.”

“VAI!” Mamede shouted, driving the tiller down while at the same time freeing the mainsheet from the calçador. Our bow sprang up, the sails started luffing, and both men at the banco started huffing — lifting the mast to free the foot from its hole, while pushing forward to lever it over. Kept in line by restraining branches fore and aft, the foot raced across the carlinga with a piercing squeak (wet hardwood rubbing wet hardwood). It jumped the center hole and would have jumped the far one too if not for a thick stopping block nailed at the outer edge. Hitting the block with a dull WHAP! (wet hardwood smacking wet hardwood) the foot had nowhere to go but down into the hole. As the boom swung in, Mamede caught it with both hands and hefted it over the espeque posts. I helped him with this, though he didn’t need it and would have preferred I hadn’t from the tight look of concern he shot me when the boom was over. He then brought in the mainsheet to trim the sail while Ze sheeted the jib to the leeward side of the banco. In no time at all we were clipping along, good as gold.

Next chapter: Um Peixezinho