Stage Craft

We anchored, the mast was lowered, the propane lamp was set up on deck. Checking my digital wristwatch, I saw it was just after 23:00. We had been sailing for sixteen hours and now they were going to start fishing. I could hardly believe it. I felt like collapsing!

João measured the depth again.
“TWENTY-SEVEN!”
“It’s still too shallow,” Mamede said, disappointed. “If the fishing is good we stay here. If not, we go farther in.”

He looked ready to drop: eyes barely open, deep lines bracketing his mouth.
“I’m going to rest before starting. Do you want to sleep?”
He was looking at me.
“No, not right now, Mamede. I want to see how they fish.”
This wasn’t exactly true. I wanted sleep more than anything—was craving it. But the thought of entering that dark, little hold made the hairs stand up on the back of my neck.
“I’ll come down in a bit.”

“Do you also want to fish?” he asked, his eyes perking up.
This caught me completely off-guard. I hadn’t thought about fishing — me fishing with a handline. I wouldn’t know where to begin.
“Not tonight, Mamede. Maybe tomorrow.”

He shrugged and went forward to check on the anchor line. While he was there, João crawled below to get the fishing tackle. This was kept in a canvas pouch (used by João) and a reed basket that was filled with various spools of monofilament line. João handed these up to Ze and then climbed out, freeing the hatch for Mamede to step inside, crouch down, and close the cover over his head. And just like that, Mamede was gone.

The jangadeiros set up their work areas, each in a specific location as determined by tradition.

On a jangada, fishing occurs aft of the tabernacle (though the foredeck is also used when the ocean allows). If you think of this area as a rectangle, then each of the four corners is a fishing spot for a jangadeiro. (Usually four men fish on a raft.) The lowered mast divides the deck in two down the middle. The mestre always fishes by the steering bench on the port side, while his proeiro fishes on the starboard side of the bench. The two bicos (bico da proa and contra bico) fish up by the tabernacle, one on each side of the mast.

The positions aft are clearly better—almost everything is nearer: the steering bench for prepping the bait; the espeque posts to hold both active and inactive fishing lines; the top of the icebox where the tackle, bait, knives, and the araçanga are kept — all within easy reach. But the positions forward have their advantages: there is more room to move around and fish, and they are closer to the lamp.  João was making use of this last point, pulling spools from his pouch and inspecting them under the light.

None of the positions are hard and fast. If a fish pulls you forward — you go forward with it; if the fish pulls you aft — you go aft. And if that nasty little fish decides to pull you all around the jangada — all around the jangada you will follow (and hopefully you are still on deck when you get back to your spot). You do what needs to done to land the fish, with others helping or simply getting out of the way as needed.

The two men seemed eager to start. Especially Ze, with a gleam in his eyes and that perpetual smile. When he saw I was watching him, he beamed even brighter. “Now you will see how a jangadeiro fishes!” he said, holding up a fat spool. I couldn’t help but smile back, lifted by his obvious enthusiasm.

But before I could “see how a jangadeiro fishes,” I first had to take care of some personal business. I had to pee. Believe it or not, I hadn’t gone all day. What with all the perspiring and respiring I’d done, not to mention that little coughing spell at lunchtime, more water had probably gone out of me than in. But kidneys are wonderful things, working on their own to filter the blood, filling a little reservoir that needs to be emptied at some point in time. Well — now was the time!

I was standing on the starboard side, right between Ze and João. Feeling a little self-conscious, I wanted more privacy. (Hard to find on a twenty foot raft.) And it had to be a place where I could also hold on to something. The jangada’s deck was anything but stable. One moment we were rolling quickly from side to side in that irritating manner small boats have at anchor — bam-bam-bam-bam — and the next we were yanked harshly forward by the line. I had absolutely no feeling for what would come next — was gripping onto my espeque post with both hands. Not so with the jangadeiros. They went about their work as if it was just another day at the office — a corkscrewing office with a very wet floor.

Seeing it would be best to go on the port side, I made my way around, crouching under the mast, until I was standing beside the icebox frame. Looking down at the few inches of deck between myself and the wide open ocean, I thought stanchions and a lifeline might be in order (and why not a little more freeboard while we’re at it). But no,  just a narrow toe rail separated my waterlogged little piggies from the seething darkness below, and whatever was circling around down there, attracted by our light.

I don’t really like things that can circle in dark water at night: the result of watching too many reruns of The Creature From the Black Lagoon, and a certain movie whose title does not need repeating.

Unzipping your shorts is something you don’t really think about on land. You just reach down and do it. And if the zipper is stuck, you use both hands. But what if you can’t use both hands because one of them is keeping you from being pitched into the churning sea? As luck would have it my zipper was stuck. And the more I tugged, the more it seemed to bind. Having gotten so close to my objective, I really had to go!

I couldn’t lower the zipper with one hand, so I stepped behind the espeque and leaned against the mast to use two. Come on — come on — come on!  YES!
Back at the rail, gripping the post with one hand while aiming with the other, I was just about to cut loose when right behind me João called out, “HEY—LOOK AT THAT!”
Ah!—” Instantly I clamped down and shot my head around. There he was, holding up a bent fishing hook to show Ze.
Christ!

I turned back and completed my business, then went forward and wedged myself in the corner made by the tabernacle beam and the lowered mast (right across from João). This was the contra bico’s spot, though a true contra bico would not be hugging the spar so tightly. From there I could safely watch them fish.

 

 

Next chapter: One Fish Two Fish

 

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