No matter how many times you’ve been out there, the first day at sea is always disorienting. From our stable perch on land it’s easy to forget how vast the ocean is, and how powerful. Only when standing on top of it, feeling it under you, feeling it move you — completely, inexorably — while at the same time seeing it all around you — water, water everywhere and nothing else but the equally endless sky above — do you fully understand how small you really are. It is not the most comforting feeling. It takes some getting used to.
As the afternoon wore on the wind blew harder and the waves got steeper. Rising no higher than ten feet, they weren’t especially large for ocean waves. But they came from the direction we wanted to go, and so, posed a real physical force we had to work against. From our humble position, right at the surface, the watery assault was impossible to avoid. They don’t call it beating for nothing.
The jangada’s flat bottom and shovel-shaped bow did little to buffer the pounding. Each wave we slapped over, or whitecap we punched through, was felt from the bottom of our soaking feet to the top of our dripping heads. And the waves kept coming, as waves usually do, one after another after another — up and down — around and around (and where she stops, nobody knows).
More wind meant we could sail faster, but that topped out at a hull speed of about six knots — a speed we had reached shortly after lunch when the wind was blowing fifteen. The air was now whistling ten above that, which only made the jangada more difficult to handle. As the mainsail’s luff was laced directly to the mast, there was no way to reef it down. All Mamede could do was fall off a point or two, and he did. While this eased the banging a bit, it meant we would have to tack more often to get to where we wanted to go, and it would take longer to get there. Give a little—get a little. Nothing ventured—nothing gained. Yin and yang. In the end, energy will find its balance point.
To counter the jangada’s weather helm, Mamede had two aids — one passive, the other very active. Providing passive assistance was the small jib they had set in the morning. While the sail did little, if anything, to drive the hull forward, it gave the wind something to push against, helping to keep our bow from rounding up. But it didn’t help much. Mostly it was Mamede’s active tugging on the tiller that kept us true. And as the wind speed increased, so did his effort. This is where the second aid came in.
Tied to each side of the steering bench was a five-foot line. Depending on the tack, the windward line was wrapped under and over the end of the tiller handle, where there was a groove carved in the wood to guide it. Pulling the line doubled the force on the handle, relieving some of the effort required to steer the boat in a straight line. It was your basic block and tackle with the end of the tiller acting as the block.
Standing on the windward side of the bench, Mamede pulled on the line with his outside hand, reaching across the front of his torso, while at the same time pulling directly on the tiller with the inside hand. Usually this was enough to check the weather helm. But sometimes, when it gusted, I would see him haul on the line with both hands as if in a private tug-of-war with Aeolus himself. All his effort steering, hour after hour through the long hot day, partly explained why at fifty-two, Mamede had the body of a collegiate wrestler.
Mamede wasn’t the only one working hard. Ze and João were equally busy performing their multiple duties as sail soakers, tacking specialists, and rail meat acrobats — extraordinaire. Everything moved more quickly with the wind, with more force and energy, requiring greater presence of mind and agility to accomplish anything on deck.
Most of their work was done at the rail, dipping and diving, shucking and jiving, providing the necessary counterweight to keep us on our feet. I was part of this effort, though not what you would call an efficient part. I did my best to keep up. Mostly this amounted to holding my espeque lines while bouncing up and down to the side. This I could do — it required little coordination. But the other thing — the fall back, kip up trick that João was so good at — forget it! The few times I tried I nearly went overboard, and the lines bit into my soft palms like piano wire crimping hot pork fat.
At least I provided some entertainment for João. Along with the short list of overworked expletives he used, his favorite word to say was medonha (me-don-ya). Directly translated it means “frightening.” João used it more like “holy shit!” It was his way of emphasizing anything that didn’t quite fit the normal course of things, which pretty much included everything I did. And with it he covered a range of emotions.
I first heard him groan the word in frustration as we worked the heavy jangada down the beach to the water’s edge. Then in the surf he shouted it out in fear and excitement when a heavy roller smacked the bow and creamed over the deck. An hour or so later he cackled it in humor when I completely missed the sail with a full can of water. (Ze was showing me how to use the aguador and it’s harder than it looks.) At lunchtime, when I lifted the truly frightening wad of farinha from the dishpan, he murmured it to himself in disbelief. And shortly thereafter, seeing me on hands and knees hacking up water, he whistled it loudly in wonder: “Meeedonha!” After lunch when the wind picked up—anger—spitting it at each wave that slapped our hull and got us wet. And as evening approached, watching me struggle at the end of my espeque lines, he spoke it softly while shaking his head: “Medonha. . .” This was pity, pure and simple.
Yes — going to weather on a jangada is extremely wet work. This wasn’t such a bother when the sun was up and blazing away. But as soon as o sol dropped below the horizon, the temperature on deck quickly dropped with it. Never imagining I would be cold at 3.5 degrees latitude—stupid, stupid, stupid—I had only brought an extra T-shirt for the trip. The jangadeiros knew better: soon they opened the hatch and pulled out their woolen sweaters. While neither jersey had enough fleece to line the backside of a runt lamb, they provided another layer of insulation I would have gladly taken right then.
The cold drove us closer together at the rail. It’s hard to say who benefited most from this: me sandwiched in the middle or Ze crouching behind. Certainly not João — standing out in front and taking it squarely on the chin. While not what you would call a model of stoicism, cursing the waves and stamping his feet, he never once complained or asked to change places with us. Nor did we offer.
And through it all they chatted away. The jangadeiros loved to talk; it helped pass the long hours while standing on deck. Speaking in their normal cadence with an unfamiliar accent, I missed a lot of what they said. But some of it I got:
Ze: I was out with Jola last week. He caught a huge tarpon. I’ve never seen such a big one—maybe 100 kilos. We cut it into 4 pieces just to get it into the box.
Mamede: Jola told me about it. He sold it to the Captain.
João: How much?
Ze: Ten reais. They didn’t even weigh it. When you cut up a fish like that, you don’t get much.
Mamede: Yes, better if it’s whole.
Ze: It would have spoiled outside the box.
João: TO HELL WITH YOU, WAVE!
Ze: He fought it for an hour. His hands were bleeding when he finally got it in.
Mamede: How far out were you?
Ze: Thirty braços—the usual. But the fishing was poor. The box was less than half full when we got back, and most of that was the big one.
Mamede: So he lost on the trip?
Ze: I only got three small fish.
Next chapter: When the Moon Hits Your Eye