My solitude did not last long. Less than an hour later the hatch cover scraped forward, allowing me just enough time to roll out of its way. Mamede’s head came up and he saw me twisted over.
“Desculpe.” Excuse me, he said.
“Sem problemas, Mamede.” No problem.
He climbed out, his feet hit the deck and he gasped, “Ei—it’s hot!”
“Yes, it is.”
Prancing aft on the balls of his feet he stopped midway, hesitated, then turned around and quickly came back. Kneeling down, he reached into the hold and pulled out the farinha pan. No—not that again! But it wasn’t lunchtime yet.
He leaned over the rail and filled the pan with seawater, which he then dumped on the deck with a crashing splash. Some of the water sprayed over my legs and feet and it felt wonderful — cool and fresh. Mamede doused the deck several more times, working his way around the jangada from bow to stern. The cooling effect was noticeable but short-lived.
“The sun is bad for the wood,” he explained when he was done.
When jangadas are parked on the beach the fishermen cover their decks with sand and blanket this with a layer of palm fronds. They keep this cover wet through the long hot day with buckets of seawater. If the wood stays dry for very long the planks will shrink and the seams between them will open up. And once they come open they will continue to leak until properly caulked again (a laborious task). Wooden boats, like elephants, are happiest when wet.
Ze came up on deck and the two men decided to put out a second anchor. This made no sense to me as the air was perfectly still and the sea looked like an endless slab of glass. When I asked why they were doing it, Mamede answered, “If the fishing is bad we can move the jangada to a better spot.”
I still didn’t get it, but rather than ask more questions I decided to keep quiet. It’s amazing what you can learn if you just shut up.
The second anchor was the same as the first, a fateixa, but the stone in this cage was slightly smaller than the other one. Ze freed the anchor from the tabernacle frame and placed it on the foredeck. While he set up the anchor line, Mamede grabbed the remo and went aft to the steering bench.
The remo do governo has a six-foot blade and a three-foot handle. For hundreds of years the remo has been used as a steering oar for the jangadas. To accomplish this the log rafts had two slots in the transom to fit the oar’s blade, one on each side of the steering bench. While underway the blade was set through the leeward slot and the jangada was steered by simply pushing and pulling on the handle above. (Mostly pulling because of the weather helm.) It was a crude rudder but worked well enough to remain unchanged for centuries.
The same remo is used today to steer a modern jangada through the surf, where its transom mounted rudder would hit the seafloor and break. Modern jangadas, however, have no slots to fit the blade. Instead, a strap is tied across the top of the oar’s blade where it meets the handle. This strap is hooked over the leeward calçador, which is then used as a fulcrum to push and pull against for steering. Again — not the most efficient rudder but good enough to get the job done.
The remo has another function which is just as ancient. For this task it is called the remo da zinga. Zinga is a colloquial term used for any zigzagging motion through space. One can zinga across a dance floor just as one can zinga back home after the dance, where they might have had a little too much cachaça to drink. And in this neck of the woods the dance is forró — an energetic two-step, danced to an accordion rhythm similar to zydeco. To zinga on a jangada is much more mundane. It means to scull.
Every dinghy sailor knows the importance of sculling: pumping the rudder back and forth to propel the boat forward when the wind poops out. Sculling has played a vital role in our history as seafaring people, lifesaving at times: PULL, MEN! PULL FOR YOUR VERY LIVES! Rowing, of course, is a variation of sculling.
Facilitating its function as a sculling oar, the remo’s handle forks like a wishbone where it attaches to the blade, forming a socket there. The socket is intentional — it is meant to fit the rounded top of the calçador, which acts as the ball. How it all works is rather ingenious.
Mamede stood just forward of the steering bench on the port side. He set the remo on top of the calçador, socket onto ball, so the blade lay flat and extended out beyond the transom. Mamede then lifted the oar’s handle which dropped the blade into the water. As he did this, he rotated the oar to the far side of the calçador so the blade was now perpendicular to the surface of the water. Immediately he pulled back on the handle, using the calçador as a fulcrum to drive the blade through the water. This in turn pushed the jangada’s stern sideways and forward.
Just as he reached the end of his pull, Mamede lifted the remo back over the top of the calçador to the other side of the post, socket over ball, and performed the same maneuver in the opposite direction. Back and forth he worked the remo, lifting and pulling from side to side, while Ze knelt at the starboard rail and paddled with the aguador. In this way they were able to propel the jangada forward at about two knots.
To zinga a jangada is not for the faint of heart. Weighing close to a ton fully loaded, a large jangada is no sprightly dinghy. Just swinging the heavy remo from side to side over the calçador is enough to exhaust your average Olympian. And the pulling and pulling and pulling to force that big hardwood blade through the water — makes me tired just thinking about it. Before long Mamede had worked up a pretty good sweat.
The logical assumption was that we would head up to the first anchor before dropping the second. So far, few of my logical assumptions had panned out on the trip. Instead Mamede sculled toward the northwest, away from the anchor and perpendicular to the wind’s general direction (from the NE).
We crept along for at least a hundred yards, both men panting heavily, before Ze went forward and dropped the anchor over the side. There wasn’t much to do after that. Mamede stowed the remo and Ze pulled us half way back to the first anchor. By bringing in one anchor line and letting out the other, the jangada’s position could be moved from side to side to locate the best fishing spot between the two anchors.
After helping Ze organize the lines on the foredeck, Mamede walked back to the hatch and slapped his palm against the coaming.
“João—time for lunch!”
Next chapter: Tuna Surprise