Stage Craft

We anchored, the mast was lowered, the propane lamp was set up on deck. Checking my digital wristwatch, I saw it was almost 23:00. We had been sailing for over fifteen hours and now they were going to start fishing. I could hardly believe it. I felt like collapsing.

João measured the depth again.
“Still too shallow,” Mamede said. “If the fishing is good we stay here. If not, we go farther in.”

He looked exhausted, eyes barely open, deep lines bracketing his mouth.
“I’m going to rest a little,” he told me. “Do you want to sleep?”
“Not right now, Mamede. I want to watch them fish.”
This wasn’t really true. I wanted sleep more than anything—was craving it. But the thought of entering that coffin-like hold made the hairs stand up on the back of my neck.
“I’ll come down in a bit.”

“Would you like to fish?” he asked, his eyes perking up.
This caught me completely off-guard. I hadn’t thought about fishing—me fishing with a handline. I wouldn’t know where to begin.
“Not tonight, Mamede. Maybe tomorrow.”

He shrugged and went forward to check on the anchor line. While he was there,  João crawled below to get the fishing tackle. This was kept in a canvas pouch (belonging to him) and a reed basket that was filled with various spools of monofilament line.  João handed these up to Ze and then climbed out, freeing the hatch for Mamede to step inside, crouch down, and close the cover over his head. And just like that Mamede was gone.

The jangadeiros set up their work areas, each in a specific location as determined by tradition.

On a jangada, fishing occurs aft of the tabernacle (though the foredeck is also used when the ocean allows). If you think of this area as a rectangle, then each of the four corners is a fishing spot for a jangadeiro. (Usually four men fish on a raft.) The lowered mast divides the deck in two down the middle. The mestre always fishes on the port side by the steering bench, while his proeiro fishes on the starboard side of the bench. The two bicos (bico da proa and contra bico) fish up by the tabernacle, one on each side of the mast.

The positions aft are clearly better—almost everything is nearer: the steering bench for prepping the bait; the espeque posts to hold both active and inactive fishing lines; the top of the icebox where the tackle, bait, knives, and araçanga are kept — all within easy reach. But the positions forward have their advantages: there is more room up there to move around and fish, and they are closer to the lamp.  João was making use of this last point, pulling spools from his pouch and inspecting them under the light.

None of the positions are hard and fast. If a fish pulls you forward — you follow it forward. If it pulls you aft — you go aft. And if that nasty little fish decides to pull you all around the jangada — all around the jangada you will go, and hopefully you’re still standing on the deck after the tour. You do what needs to be done to land the fish, with others helping as needed or simply getting out of the way.

The two men seemed eager to start, especially Ze with a gleam in his eyes and that perpetual smile. When he realized I was watching him he beamed even brighter. “Now you will see how a jangadeiro fishes,” he cheered, holding up a fat spool. I couldn’t help but smile back, lifted by his obvious enthusiasm.

But before I could “see how a jangadeiro fishes,” I first had to take care of some personal business. I had to take a pee. Believe it or not, I hadn’t gone all day. What with all the perspiring and respiring I’d done, not to mention the little coughing spell at lunchtime, more water had probably gone out of my body than in. But kidneys are wondrous things, working on their own to filter the blood, filling up a little reservoir that needs to be emptied at some point in time. Well — now was the time!

I was standing on the starboard side, right between Ze and João. Feeling somewhat self-conscious, I wanted more privacy. (Hard to find on a twenty foot raft.) And it had to be a place where I could hold on to something. The jangada’s deck was anything but stable at anchor. One moment we were rolling quickly from side to side — bam-bam-bam-bam — and the next we were yanked harshly forward by the anchor line. I had no feeling for what would come next — was clutching a post with both hands as if I’d never been standing on a boat before. Not so with the jangadeiros. They went about their business as if it was just another day at the office — a cork-screwing office with a very wet floor.

Seeing it would be best to pay the water bill on the port side, I made my way around, crouching under the mast, until I was standing in the narrow space at the side of the icebox frame. Looking down at the few inches of deck between myself and the wide open ocean, I thought stanchions and a lifeline might be in order.  And why not a little more freeboard while we’re at it?  But no,  just a dinky toe rail separated my waterlogged little piggies from the seething darkness below, and whatever was circling around down there, attracted to our light.

I have a confession to make: I don’t like things that can circle in dark water. This is the result of watching too many reruns of The Creature From the Black Lagoon on channel 44, and a certain movie whose title I will not repeat. Peering down, the surface of the ocean was too close for comfort.

Unzipping your shorts is something you don’t really think about on land. You just reach down and do it. And if the zipper is tight you use both hands. But what if you can’t use both hands because one of them is keeping you from being pitched into the sea? As luck would have it my zipper was stuck. The more I tugged, the more it seemed to bind. And now that I’d gotten so close to my urinary objective — I really had to go!

I couldn’t lower the zipper with one hand, so I stepped behind the espeque and leaned against the mast to use two. Come on — come on — come on!  YES!
Back at the rail, gripping the post with one hand while aiming with the other, I was just about to cut loose when right behind me João called out, “HEY—LOOK AT THAT.”
Oh!  Instantly I clamped down and shot my head around. There he was, holding up a bent fishing hook to show Ze.

I turned back and completed my business, then went forward and wedged myself into the corner made by the tabernacle beam and the lowered mast (right across from João). This was the contra bico’s spot, though a true contra bico would not be hugging the spar so tightly for comfort. From this position I could safely watch them fish.

Next chapter: One Fish Two Fish