I was alone when I woke up next. It was just after six and time to get up. Before rising I usually take a few moments to think about the day ahead — what needs to be done and how I might do it. It is the quietest time of the day and my mind is free and clear. But there was nothing for me to organize that day and I badly wanted to exit that hellhole of a pit. So I decided to skip this step.
Crawling forward was no easier than crawling aft, but at least I was going in the right direction. By the time I reached the hatch I was so anxious it wouldn’t open (seeing João sitting on top), I nearly blew the damn thing off the coaming. Instantly my world was filled with blinding light. Free—free at last! For a while I just lay there, taking deep breaths, feeling like Papillon free from Devil’s island.
The “blinding light” turned out to be a dull gray sky — a typical early morning on the ocean. Reaching up to grab the top of the coaming, I hauled myself up to a sitting position. And there they all were, looking at me again.
Dang, it wasn’t just a dream.
“Good Morning!” Mamede bellowed when he saw me. “How did you sleep?” Despite his vocal energy, he looked as if he hadn’t slept for a week. His shoulders hunched forward and his eyes were mostly shut. The nice new bank shirt hung from his torso, stretched in front and stained with fish blood.
“I slept fine, Mamede. It’s a little tight in here but you get used to it.”
His eyes briefly opened and he barked a laugh.
“How was the fishing?” I asked. “Did you catch much?”
Looking around I didn’t see anything different on deck, just three tired fishermen holding their handlines a little lower. In response, João grunted something I didn’t quite get. It was a word — a word probably not approved by the FCC for public broadcast.
“Not so good,” Mamede answered halfheartedly. “We have to go in more. Come up and see.” And with that he started to pull in his lines, one at a time, wrapping each around its plywood batten. The other jangadeiros followed their captain. Time to pack it in.
Getting out of the hold proved even harder than getting in. It was the same straight-leg slide as entering, but now gravity was working against me. That and my own stiffness. Halfway through I reached up to grab onto the mast. This made it easier to pull myself out, but still, it was not what you would call a graceful exit.
Standing on deck I was even less graceful. I couldn’t find my balance and my legs, stiff and sore from the day before, were very unhappy to be back on shift. The constant jerking from the anchor line didn’t help.
First things first — I had to pee again. I had yet to feel a need to do the other thing, and would just have to crap that bridge when I came to it. After the piss I looked at the fish. They were held in two separate baskets, one placed under the steering bench just behind the espeque, the other by the hatch. Though each basket served the same purpose (to hold the fish until they were stored in the icebox), there were centuries between them.
The basket by the hatch was a traditional sambura, a spherical container that was woven by hand. It was simple and strong and lasted for seasons. Having no handles, you picked it up by gripping the rim of the opening with one hand while lifting the bottom with the other. If any distance needed to be covered, the basket was balanced on a shoulder with an arm hooked around the side. A lot of fish could be carried this way — for miles if need be.
The other basket was a plastic, pea-green laundry basket — cheap as they come — with sides so thin I was surprised it could hold anything at all. Though it appeared almost new, stress cracks were already forming at the corners of the lip. Once these gave way the webbing below would soon fall apart.
Each basket was less than half full: no more than forty pounds of fish in total. They were all bottom feeders — snapper, bass, grouper, jack, and some other fish I didn’t recognize. A couple of small nurse sharks were mixed into the bunch. Except for João’s beautiful jewfish, all the fish weighed less than five pounds.
“Not so many fish,” Mamede said, reading my thoughts. It was a lousy haul for three men working all night long. “It will be better further in,” he added, tossing his last spool into the line basket.
There was a lot to do before we could leave. Not knowing what or how, I just stood back and watched. Ze dragged the laundry basket forward and slid it over the rail into the water. The basket formed a cage around the fish and he swished it back and forth to clean them off. He was making such a clamor, dunking and splashing, I half expected a large sea creature to dart up and take him down in one huge gulp. Munch! Just then a fish jumped from the surface not ten feet away, causing my heart to skip a beat. Ze saw it too and briefly stopped to look up and shout, “Hey fish, come closer and I’ll catch you.” Turning back, he gave me his best Ze smile.
While Ze rinsed off the fish, Mamede and João removed the ice from the icebox. They worked quickly, lifting the long bars out one at a time, placing them just behind the tabernacle frame on a warped line so they wouldn’t slide off the deck. Ze then dumped the fish into the empty box and two bars were chipped over the top, forming a thick layer of ice to blanket the fish. The remaining bars were then returned to the box and covered with the plastic. Two red snappers and a jack were left on top of the block, placed there for our lunch and dinner.
As we were sailing further out (the jangadeiros say, “going in”), everything had to be stowed below. Ze passed the equipment down to João in the hold while Mamede cleaned off the deck. Realizing I could help with this, I started to wash off the deck by the steering bench, splashing up seawater to scrub away the blood and bits of bait that had fallen through the night.
It took little effort to do this work and I was happy to pitch in. Life on a small boat at sea quickly boils down to the basics. You do what needs to be done and you do it promptly. To procrastinate would be reckless, possibly resulting in injury, even death. You change course to avoid a hazard, shorten sail when the wind picks up, splice or replace a line that has frayed, patch a torn sail, stow things properly — on and on. And you certainly scrub a slippery deck so someone won’t fall and break their neck.
There is a beautiful simplicity to life at sea — it’s not so hard to understand. The work is there before your eyes. You just have to accept it and do it. So I was very happy to swab the deck, and doubly so as it satisfied the neat freak in me.
Next chapter: And They’re Off