As the morning progressed, the velocity of the wind inched up. By midday the jangada was skipping along at a good four knots; not exactly warp speed but close enough after sitting on a breathless ocean for two days straight. Ze came out on deck and the first thing he did was grab the aguador to water the sail. Watching his effortless swing as he drenched the canvas from head to foot, I vowed never to touch that can again. When he was finished, he slapped the side of the coaming with his hand and called down to João, “Time for lunch!”
There were no culinary surprises that day, just the regular fish stew. Um peixezinho (a little fish) they affectionately called it. Along with their ‘little fish’ they had a large dishpan of the sticky pirão. As it was my last meal eating the stuff, I tried to keep an open mind. I tried . . . I really did try. After the meal João returned to the hold to get more sleep while Ze sat dozing on the deck, leaning his back against the partially raised daggerboard, knees drawn up, head resting on crossed forearms.
Mamede climbed on top of the steering bench to get a better view of where we were going. It was still too early to spot land, but gazing forward I saw what he was looking at: another jangada, its sail barely visible on the horizon. For half an hour he watched it, steering with his feet, then he called down to me.
“Do you still want to steer?”
No need to think about that one. “Yes,” I nearly shouted.
“Do you see that jangada up there?”
“He’s going to Prainha. You just need to follow him.”
“I can do that,” I happily said, not believing my luck.
Stepping off the bench, he looked like a father handing over the car keys for the first time. I half expected him to say, It’s all yours kid, but all he did was give me a wink. He stood close by for a few minutes, watching, making sure I wasn’t going to sink his boat, then climbed into the hold for some badly needed rest. And there I was — finally! — steering a jangada.
How many times had I dreamed of it as a boy? How many times had I played with that little model and imagined myself there — right there — with that tiller in my hand? We don’t always get the chance to live out our childhood dreams; we grow older and our priorities change. And even if we get the chance, seldom does the adult reality match the youthful fantasy. But sometimes it does. Sometimes we get lucky.
The first thing I noticed was how heavy the tiller was to hold, and how thick, as if I was gripping the business end of a large wooden baseball bat. I didn’t have to hold it up — the branch rested on the back edge of the steering bench where it had worn a smooth arc over the years. But if I wanted to really feel what it was like to steer a jangada, the best way to do that was with that tiller in my hand — mano a cana, as they say. Hand on stick.
Unfortunately the steering wasn’t as smooth or responsive as I had imagined in my dreams: it was sloppy . . . A lot of this had to do with my own frame of reference. I was used to modern rudders made from modern materials, not a large slab of wood steered with a heavy branch. Part of the problem was the mortise and tenon joint connecting the tiller head to the rudder post. With no pins or bolts holding it together, the fitting had worked over time. Having used it for years, Mamede probably didn’t notice the play in the handle. But I sure noticed it. With each push and pull of the tiller I noticed it: slip—CLUNK! slip—CLUNK! And it just about drove me nuts at first.
Along with the sloppy head, the rudder itself was far from efficient. Hanging from the transom like an old barn door, the blade had no balance or lift — relied solely on the push of water against its big flat side. Every time I swung the tiller one way or the other I imagined great eddies churning below — tons of seawater thrust aside to keep us on track. And what a track it was at first, swaying back and forth like the sinuous curves in a Brazilian stone sidewalk. I was very happy the jangadeiros were all off in never-never land while I learned how to steer in a straight line.
It didn’t take me long, and as the wind speed increased, the jangada’s idiosyncrasies quickly faded into the background. After an hour at the helm it even got a little boring, as most steering does. At least we were gaining on the jangada out in front and I did what I could to keep up the pace. With no more canvas to hoist, or sail shaping tackle to maximize lift — and all of the rail meat fast asleep — this basically amounted to steering as cleanly as I could through the waves that were running up from astern. But then something happened that caught me completely by surprise. Call it a small miracle, a nautical miracle, which got me even closer to that childhood dream.
Next chapter: Bits of Stuff