João helped Ze set the jib, then came aft with a sour expression. I was holding the windward espeque post, minding my own business. Not knowing his intention, I took a step back as he approached me. There isn’t a lot of room on a jangada’s deck — one step aft was all I could go.
He stopped right in front of me and grabbed the same post, his hand touching mine. Brazilians are much less demanding of their personal space. When they talk to you they like to get up close so they can “feel” you better, touch you, and generally be more intimate. It’s a nice thing when you get used to it, and depending on whom you are talking to, it can be a very nice thing. This wasn’t one of those times.
He kept on eyeing me, not saying a word, and we got locked into one of those stupid little staring contests, him looking fiercer by the second and me getting more spooked. Knowing who would win (I have four brothers and we frequently played this game), I broke the spell by smiling back and blinking. João immediately broke into a grin — victorious. Now that social hierarchy had been established, he seemed more relaxed.
“Where did you get the hat?” I asked, tapping my head and pointing at his hardhat. “Did you work on a project?”
“I FOUND IT ON THE BEACH!” he shouted, though less than a foot away.
“AND DID IT—” I shot back before catching myself. “—and did it have the line?” I now pointed at the crude chinstrap made from a length of Dacron.
“NO—I MADE IT!”
João stuck out his chin and pulled the cord from under his jaw, tipping the hat off to show me. Looking down, I was surprised to see the hat’s harness was still intact, and close to the crown, several fishing hooks were stuck in the strap. Right in the middle was a small plastic bag filled with chewing tobacco.
“It looks like you have everything you need in there, João. Is that tobacco going to last the whole trip?”
His eyes quickly narrowed and he flipped the cap back onto his head. Replacing the chinstrap, he said defensively, “No, I have more below.”
And so ended our second conversation.
Abruptly he reached across me and grabbed a pair of lines attached to the forquilha. It was actually one line bent in two, tied to the top of the post with a cow-hitch and joined at the free end with a simple overhand knot. João took the free end in his right palm and wrapped the lines around his wrist several times, bringing them out through the palm again. Clamping down on this with his fist, he now had a connection that would rip his arm off before it came undone. Needlessly he tested his grip by yanking on the lines with his other hand.
Holding the lines with both hands to his chest, João stepped back until his heels were hanging over the edge of the toe rail, nothing behind him but the big blue ocean. He stood perfectly still, like a platform diver ready to launch himself. I had no idea what to expect — was holding my breath — when suddenly he gave me a sideways glance and then started to fall backward over the rail.
It happened so fast I reflexively reached out to grab him, but too late. He was already down — suspended over the water at the end of his lines with his feet still gripping the rail. He didn’t stay there long. Immediately João heaved in with both arms while thrusting up with his hips, so that in one quick kip he was standing back on deck as if nothing had happened. He bounced up and down on the balls of his feet and gave me a smug smile.
João did his acrobatic stunt a couple more times, just to make sure I got it, then switched to a new position. Facing forward, he now eased himself sideways over the rail and started bouncing up and down without lifting his feet from the deck. Each bounce sent a tremor through the hull as if he was purposely trying to push it down with his feet. In fact, this is exactly what João was doing. Having no ballast on board, jangadeiros use their bodies to counter the tipping force from the sail, leveraging their weight over the rail by hanging from their espeque lines. In a flash of insight, I realized I was witnessing what was probably the very first sailing trapeze.
After a few minutes of alternating one energetic move with the other, João settled down to a more sustainable pace: leaning out against the lines and pulling himself back in — out and in, out and in — rocking like a metronome in time with the waves. Even this motion was unnecessary as the wind was blowing less than ten knots and the jangada barely heeled over.
While João rocked back and forth, Ze crouched at the side of the tabernacle, retying one of the lines that held the port anchor in place. (It must have come loose in the surf.) He worked methodically, without any rush, in stark contrast to his mate at the rail. It wasn’t the only difference between them.
Ze was the proeiro, or first mate. At five eleven, he was easily the tallest of the three jangadeiros, and the leanest, without an ounce of fat on him. Not that there was much fat in that group: grind it all together and you might end up with enough for a hamburger patty, extra lean. Tan and handsome, with short silver hair and a patrician nose, Ze looked like he should be an actor on a movie set, playing the part of a mature yet still vital leading man.
Put him on a horse and you could easily see him riding off into the sunset, after rousting the outlaws to win back the ranch. Change his tattered t-shirt for checked tweeds and he instantly became the dashing lord of a vast English estate. Cover the tweeds with a white smock and he was now the only surgeon able to save young Misty May from the fatal hole in her sweet little heart. (And when he wasn’t curing the incurable, was out playing scratch golf without any sunblock on.)
But this air of quiet ruggedness lasted only as long as Ze was standing still. As soon as he moved about the deck with his gangling legs, or smiled impishly with his twinkling eyes, or said anything at all in his high-pitched, nasally voice (as if channeling Lincoln telling one of his jokes), then the true character of the man came out. All he needed then was a peaked felt hat, baggy pants and a shirt with some straw poking out, and you could easily see him bounding down the yellow brick road — off to see the wizard!
The anchor secured, Ze squinted up at the mainsail. The cotton cloth was stained but still in pretty good shape. Ze grabbed the aguador from the tabernacle lines and stepped to the rail. The aguador is used to scoop up seawater to throw on the sail.
A jangada’s mainsail is kept wet while sailing to improve the sail’s lift. It is a technique as old as cloth sails themselves. The water swells the fibers, closing the microscopic gaps that allow air molecules to trespass across the fabric. A “leaky” sail loses pressure. Over a large area of canvas this can add up to a significant loss in lift. But on a sail as small as a jangada’s, I wondered if the effort really made a difference.
Standing at the rail, Ze bent down and dipped the can into the top of a passing wave. Instantly he whipped the shaft upward with both hands, shooting a liter of seawater to the top of the sail, 30 feet up. The water hit its mark with a drumming splash and darkened the sun-bleached cotton as it ran down, quickly absorbed by the parched cloth. Arms pumping rapidly, Ze repeated his swing until the entire sail was soaking wet, water streaming from its foot as if we had just passed through a squall. Wetting the sail is normally the responsibility of the bico da proa. But the bico da proa was busy showing off his prowess with the cabos do espeque.
Next chapter: Tacking a Jangada