Slave to the Tether

The easterly started to blow out just before midday. The more unstable the wind became, the harder it was to handle the jangada. One minute we were fending off the boom in a lull, slack sails thrashing back and forth, and the next we were reaching for the nearest post, punched over by a strong gust of wind. It was especially frustrating for Mamede, having to guide us through the chop. He had been standing for so many hours, fishing or steering, it was clear to everyone that he needed some rest. It wasn’t long before he decided as much. “This is far enough,” he said in frustration.

He turned to look at me then, probably wondering where to put me, probably also wondering why he had agreed to take me along in the first place. If he was actually thinking these things, he only asked, “Tudo bem?”
Like all good captains, Mamede was empathetic to the feelings of his crew.
“Tudo bom,” I replied — All good — stretching the truth just a bit.

The first thing we had to do was get one of those Neolithic anchors over the side. I still couldn’t believe we were going to anchor so far from land. It was contrary to everything I was accustomed to. You anchored in a harbor, a bay, off a beach — somewhere within sight of the coast — not tens of miles offshore. It felt like we were anchoring in the middle of the ocean.

And a welcoming ocean it was not. The fickle wind now driving the waves had turned the surface into a chaotic mess. Gone were the regular rows of watery cliffs, charging forward like well drilled soldiers. What replaced them was even more scary, simply because it lacked all order. One moment the sea was eerily flat, almost quiet, as if we were sailing on a large lake with a gentle breeze. Then a mountain of water would spring up from nowhere — cut a path through the ocean like a supertanker on autopilot. Predicting the motion on deck was next to impossible.

This wasn’t a problem if all you had to do was hold on. It became a problem when there was any heavy lifting to be done. All it would take is a misplaced hand or foot, a careless move, a chance slip, and injury would be right there waiting — waiting and snickering. We were now over forty miles offshore with no motor or radio. Not that a radio would have done any good. Along that part of the coast nobody was listening.

I wanted to help but it was just too rough. Let them that know—do.  Despite all recent metaphysical epiphanies, I knew my limitations and they were all too corporeal. If anyone was going to make that careless move or slip it would be me, yours truly, then Messrs. Mamede and Company would have another thing to deal with. Besides, they really didn’t need my help. When I told Mamede as much he had a hard time masking his relief. He pursed his lips and nodded curtly, told me to “segure bem e espere.” Hold tight and wait.

João was standing beside us when we had this little exchange and I wondered what he was thinking. He hadn’t exactly restrained his feelings toward me on the trip, or anyone else for that matter. Usually this involved some laughing at my screw-ups, gloating at his dexterity (vs. my awkwardness), and the odd glare down his sunburned nose. But there was also a grudging acknowledgement whenever I did something right. How would he view this — as weakness, fear? Maybe yes and why did I care?

Whatever he was thinking he kept it under his hardhat. With fixed eyes and a dour expression he gazed silently forward, steeling himself for what needed to be done while waiting for his mestre to give the order to do it.

“VAI!” Mamede shouted and both men scurried forward,  João to untie the anchor, Ze to drop the jib. Feeling thirty years older, I just held on and watched. The knots holding the fateixa to the side of the tabernacle must have tightened: it took a stream of muttering, interposed with cussing, to free the anchor from its binding. Halfway through Ze knelt down to help João. While they were there, a series of large waves swept under our keel, lifting us up to dizzying heights, dropping us down — low, low, low.

Mamede worked the tiller to keep us steady, pointing the bow up to climb each face, falling off at the top of the wave to carve down its backside. When a tall peak broke just before it reached us he called out, “SEGURE!” — HOLD ON! — and both men at the tabernacle ducked and braced themselves. Most of the whitewater roared beneath us, but enough came over the bow to bury it, dashing against Ze’s arched back and cascading over João, huddled behind the beam. No cursing this time, just silence, which only seemed to heighten the tension. As the bow slowly lifted and water retreated, the two men wiped off their faces and got back to work. Soon the anchor was free and they pushed it over the side.

Mamede then turned the jangada and we ran with the wind to pay out the anchor line. It didn’t take long — soon he shouted, “PREPAREM-SE!” and thrust the tiller down. The jangada jumped up and Mamede briefly held us in the eye of the wind, allowing the men to muscle the mast to its vertical position, before he brought the bow fully around. This time, instead of lifting the boom over the espeque, Mamede eased the spar against the windward post, backwinding the sail. He then pushed the tiller leeward and hitched it there with the bench line. We were now hove to, and the jangada seemed to breathe a sigh of relief. It was only a short breath — a stiff jerk from the anchor line let everybody know who was in charge again.

Here a yank, there a yank, everywhere a yank-yank
Old Mamede had a boat

Without a word the boom was dropped, the sail furled, and the mast lowered to its anchor position — all without incident. From the time Mamede had shouted VAI!  to our bobbing in the water like a storm petrel with its wings tucked in, only fifteen minutes had passed. And a better demonstration of coordinated seamanship would be hard to find. The next fifteen minutes were spent securing the deck for our extended stay.

João brought out the sounder and measured the depth.
“TRINTA E QUATRO!” (Thirty-four! — 204 feet)
After spooling the line, he patted his stomach and said, “Vamos comer!”

Let’s eat!


A jangadeiro removing the boom from the mast.


Next chapter: SPAM