On the fourth afternoon of our journey the sail was taking me back to Prainha. And I must admit I was very happy about that. Sometimes more is demanded than given, and this trip had been particularly demanding. Right then I just wanted it to be over. But then it happened — that small miracle — and it was then that the scales started to balance.
I was following the jangada out in front, slowly gaining on it, running with the waves that lapped over our transom, splashing my calves and feet. The setting was wonderfully tranquil, mesmerizing: the low rumble of the ocean, our hull gently rolling, the sunlight playing on the water, a warm wind at my back — every sailor’s dream. I was staring straight ahead without a care in the world. But then suddenly, without warning, a larger wave snuck up from behind, raising our stern just as a strong gust bore down on the sail. The timing couldn’t have been better: a synergy of energy that picked up our jangada — 2,000 pounds of Brazilian hardwood, fish, ice, stone, pots and pans, and four grown men — and sent us charging forward. All at once the world was in flux.
Any surfer knows how it feels to catch a wave. A millisecond of limbo, will you or won’t you, then in a flash you’re off and running, dropping down, shooting forward — time and space warping all around you. You stand up and everything becomes sharper, clearer — the board below you, the sky above, the wave — a translucent wall of water — wet glass — your fingers penetrating the wall, unzipping the glass. And you are standing on that board, so still, when everything around you is flying. You’ve just been thrust into another dimension, a different paradigm, a higher energy state — the wave’s state. And you are up on that wave and you are one with the water. You are there and nowhere else. Right there — right in the moment. Right there: “ON THE LINE!”
The devotional term is stoked and a healthier religion is hard to find.
You might say it was basic physics driving us down the face of that wave. You could even call it gravity, but not if you had any feelings; not when your average speed for most of the day had been a measly few knots. And certainly not after sitting on a hard deck under a blazing sun for two long days before that — sitting on your salt-crusted, intestinally-challenged, neon-white keister. Because had you experienced what I had out there, and were then suddenly punched up to twelve knots on the face of a breaking wave — you too would have thought it a miracle.
And it was a miracle, a beautiful miracle. Not only did my pumpkin turn into a carriage, the carriage sprouted wings and took off flying. The deck started to shake under my feet, the hull vaulting this way and that. Pots and pans rattled in the hold while great plumes of water blew off the bow. The tiller came alive in my hand — pulsing, throbbing, humming with tension. Clutching that tiller for dear life, I could not believe what was happening.
WE’RE SURFING—MY GOD—WE’RE SURFING!
And then it was over, quick as it came. The wave charged past, leaving the jangada to wallow in the trough like a drunken sailor. But not for long. In a pounding heartbeat the sail popped out, the hull lurched forward, and we were off and running before the next wave.
Right about then the adrenaline peaked in my bloodstream and I let out a whooping cheer, loud enough to wake the dead. As soon as the cry was out of my mouth I regretted it — too late . . .
Ze was still snoozing on the deck. Poor Ze. The very thing that made him such a good fisherman — a lightning fast nervous system — also made him extremely sensitive to sudden stimulation. Even before my shout had dissipated he was up on his feet, pivoting around as if the world was coming to an end.
“What’s wrong?” he hollered.
I felt so embarrassed.
“Ze . . . Nothing . . . The jangada was surfing . . . I got excited . . .”
He must have thought I was crazy, but all he did was shake his head and start to laugh. This didn’t make me feel any better because I knew exactly what was coming up next.
Right on cue the hatch flew open and Mamede’s head shot up. First he locked his puffy eyes on Ze, who was no longer laughing, then he turned his stony gaze my way. Suffice it to say, he was not smiling at me.
“Mamede . . . I . . . The jangada . . . We were surfing . . .”
João said something from the hold but I couldn’t make out.
Mamede looked down and said, “What?”
João repeated himself.
“No, it’s not another jellyfish.”
João spoke again and Mamede shrugged his shoulders.
“He got excited. The jangada was surfing.”
“Yes — surfing . . .”
Ze started to chuckle again but not for long. Just then another wave picked us up and for several thrilling seconds we braced ourselves as the jangada took off. When the roller-coaster ride came to an end, Mamede looked at me and asked, “So you like that?”
He was wide awake now, as if the wave had passed him some energy.
“Yes I do, Mamede. Yes I do.”
He threw up his hands. “That always happens on the way back!”
I steered for another hour, catching as many waves as I could. Mamede rested against the daggerboard while Ze and João took up their positions at the rail, pumping their espeque lines to give us more speed. Once I got the hang of it we had a lot of fun in those waves, dipping and diving and soaring away. Especially João, bouncing on the rail like a kid on a pogo stick, head up high, eyes shining bright, joyfully calling out, “VAI! VAI! VAI!” with each wave.
Vai nela, João. Vai nela! (You go, João. You go!)
It was just after 16:00 when I spotted the Morro Branco. The bluff’s dusty outline had been there for a while, hiding in plain sight. It’s like that when you return from the ocean — land sneaks up on you. For the longest time you think you are looking at clouds on the horizon, or haze in the distance, then suddenly you see it — POOF — Land Ho!
“The beach!” I called out. “The Morro Branco!”
Mamede climbed onto the tabernacle beam to have a look. He scanned the shore to get his bearings, then jumped down and made his way aft. As he approached me, I could see he was frowning and shaking his head.
Is something wrong? I thought. Are we not where we should be? Are we going to have to tack back out and spend more time at sea?
Oh, please, please no!
I should have known better.
Mamede kept a straight face until he got near and then he cracked a wide grin. “So what do you think? Do you want to come fishing with us again next week?”
I mean, what could I say? I didn’t want to offend them, but the last thing I needed was another trip so soon. I’d have to recover from the present one first. They were all looking at me now, waiting for my response.
Better not lie this time . . .
I held up my bandaged finger and slowly waved it. “Maybe not next week.”
When the laughter subsided I stood aside and let Mamede take the helm.
An hour later we were just beyond the break line in front of the village. Up on the beach it looked like Carnival had started early. Sitting high on their rollers, like parade floats, the newly arrived jangadas were surrounded by people wanting to see what the fishermen had caught. Children cleaned fish on the sand while others ran around and played. I was standing with Ze and João at the rail when Mamede steered us into the surf.
The entire village turned to watch as a wave picked up our jangada and shot us forward. Expecting a jolt when we hit the beach, I unwrapped my hand lines and prepared to jump off. Just then the deck pitched sideways and I lost my balance — was over the rail before I knew it. Rushing whitewater slammed me down and tumbled me around, while carrying the hull safely away. When I finally gained my footing in the waist-high surf, I felt a little foolish. But that didn’t stop me from laughing, along with everyone else on the beach, as I walked up onto the dry sand.
I was alive. I was alive and I knew it.