And They’re Off

One doesn’t normally step a 30 foot long, 200 pound solid wooden mast before breakfast. (Certainly not before coffee!) Any sailor would shudder at the thought of doing such a thing on the dancing deck of a small boat at sea. But if we wanted to go anywhere that second morning — out to deeper water or “in” — we would first have to raise the jangada’s mast. And with no crane in sight or proverbial hook dangling from the sky, we would have to lift it with our bare hands. Along the lines of building an open fire on the wooden deck, this was something I had to see to believe.

Why do they lower the mast in the first place? you might ask. It’s a fair question with a very simple answer: keeping the mast up while at anchor would be both dangerous and distracting. Dangerous because the lightly supported timber would whip around and possibly break (itself or the tabernacle frame); distracting for the very same reason.

It should also be noted that the lowered mast is useful for all sorts of things: clutching onto when it’s rough, resting against when tired, sitting below to avoid the sun, spreading clothes out to dry, freeing oneself from the black pit of death, and bumping your head against when not paying close enough attention.  Dammit!

After sliding the mast back and dropping its foot into the carlinga’s center hole (where a steel ring keeps the foot from sliding forward), the three men assumed their lifting positions: Mamede standing on top of the steering bench, Ze and João just aft of the tabernacle frame. Seeing a gap where I could fit in, I stepped onto the hatch cover and crouched down to place my shoulder under the spar. Nobody commented on this — it’s what a fourth jangadeiro would have done.

The wind had picked up and a swell was running. Not so rough, but rough enough to make our little raft pitch and yaw, rock and roll — If you want to see me do my thing, baby, pull my string.  From what I could both see and feel, stepping the mast would be no cakewalk.  João’s hardhat was starting to make sense to me.

“VAI!” Mamede shouted, sooner than I expected, and immediately I dug my shoulder into the wood and pushed up hard with my legs. The mast rose quickly, was out of my hands before I knew it, leaving Ze and João to drive it home. But it never got there. At the last moment a tug from the anchor line threw them off-balance. Instead of entering the beam’s socket, the mast struck the wood beside it and bounced back. All at once the two men forward were grunting and groaning — fighting hard to keep the tall spar from falling back.

I froze in place — did not know what to do. In a flash Ze’s arm shot out and grabbed a line that was tied to the mast and wrapped around the tabernacle beam. (I saw him rig it up before we started but didn’t ask why.) Ze yanked on the free end, cinching in the slack between the mast and beam. While this would keep the spar from falling back, it did nothing to stop it from swinging. All it would take is one good oscillatory push from a wave and all hell would break loose.

Ze didn’t wait. Slipping the line through his grip, he started to bring the mast back while João guided it down. I’d finally come to my senses by then and was helping him, allowing Ze to lower the spar more quickly. And down it came in fit and starts, the wrapped line catching and releasing the beam with sharp cracks of friction. Mamede soon reached up and caught the top end with both hands and ushered it down to the forquilha, its holder. And there we were, back at the beginning.

“Porra!” João spat, his chest heaving. My chest was also heaving but more from adrenaline.
“Bad luck,” Mamede said from the bench. “This time we’ll make it.”
He looked very relaxed standing up there, one arm hooked over the mast. He even gave me one of his little winks. This wasn’t his first rodeo.

We rested a few minutes and then tried again, this time without a hitch. All we needed to do now was set the sail and raise the anchor. Setting the sail was easy. Raising the anchor was not.

Before we could actually raise the anchor, we first had to pull the jangada up to where the caged stone sat on the sandy bottom. By we, I mean João, with Ze’s help to coil the line while his mate hauled it in. They did this on the small foredeck, rising and falling, tilting and swaying, splashed by the waves we were beating against. Watching as they performed this task it struck me how little there was between them and the ocean — between us and the ocean — just a sliver of wood.

As soon as the anchor came off the bottom we’d be sailing. Mamede stood by the tiller waiting, hand on the boom to keep it from swinging.  João kept pulling until the line was almost vertical and then stopped to take a break. While resting, he turned around to look at me. Our eyes met and his face seemed to tighten.

We are able to communicate so much without talking — through subtle expressions, body language, even our pheromones. João’s pinched gaze seemed to be asking, Why are you just standing there? Why aren’t you helping me? Then again, maybe he was just passing some gas.

Working on the former, I made my way forward until I was standing next to him. I pointed down with my chin and stuck out my hands to show I wanted to help. At first gave me a peeved look: Who the fuck are you?  But then he sighed deeply as if to say, Okay—I’ll let you.  (João could’ve been an actor — a character actor.) When he finally turned his body to give me access to the line, I noticed he was smiling to himself.

Stepping in close, I reached down and grabbed the anchor line just above his hands. Immediately he pulled up and we raised the line a couple of feet. He then motioned for me to grab lower down and I did as I was ordered, taking my turn to haul up most of the weight. We alternated several times before the stone finally came off the bottom. And when it did the lifting got harder. Only then did I realize that this was going to take some real work.

In physics work is defined as force times distance (W=F*d). In this case the force was gravity, pulling down on the mass of the stone (about 80 pounds). To surmount this downward force we had to pull up with a slightly greater force, lifting over a distance of 162 feet (W=12,960 ft-lbs). Not that you need an advanced degree for this — just a strong back. And my back was at least twenty years younger than João’s. But you can never tell with these wiry guys. Often they are stronger than they look.

João didn’t let up. As soon as the anchor was free he quickened the pace as if to test me. When I realized what was happening I thought, Okay, old man—bring it on! and pulled even faster so he had to keep up with me. Soon we were both hauling up as fast as we could with Ze behind, egging us on:
“VAI—VAI—VAI . . .”

At five rounds João and I were still building up steam. Ten and we hit our stride — were pulling like racehorses. Fifteen and the horses continued to race, but they were now grunting hard and sucking in breath.

Back at the tiller Mamede saw what was going on and joined in with Ze:
“VAI—VAI—VAI . . .”

Twenty rounds and the horses were starting to labor. They had slowed down a little and were beginning to question the intelligence of what they were doing. Twenty-five and they hit an inflection point — from wanting to win, to just wanting to hang on. I quickly glanced at João and he looked back. Now his eyes seemed to be pleading, You stop first!

Thirty rounds and the horses were in some serious pain: arms and legs burning, butts and backs ready to break. And from behind the men kept chanting, “VAI—VAI—VAI . . .” like the damn drum on a galley. Thirty-five and one of the horses was getting dizzy—eyes clamped shut, sweat pouring from his muzzle. Thirty-seven and he was just about to throw in the towel when the line suddenly got thicker. My eyes shot open and I saw the anchor cage just below the surface. “Ah!” I gasped — Finally!

João gasped at the same time and we paused for several seconds, gulping in air, before giving a final heave to get the anchor on board.

“Careful!” Mamede shouted as the stone scraped against the jangada’s side. Oopsy. . . (From the look of the wood they had met before.) We took more care, using the last of our strength to haul the rock over the rail and onto the deck.

“Medonha!” I croaked, completely spent, gripping the tabernacle beam to keep myself from falling over. On the other side of the stone, João sat on his haunches with his head in his hands. Hearing what I said, he looked up in disbelief and grunted, “Medonha? Medonha, mesmo!”  You’re damn right!

Next chapter: Cookie Monster