The sail was taking me back to Prainha that fourth afternoon. And I must admit, I was very pleased about that. Sometimes more is demanded than given, and this trip had been particularly demanding. By that point I just wanted it to be over. But then it happened—a little miracle—and it was then that the scales started to balance.
I was following the jangada in front, slowly gaining on it, running with the waves that lapped over our transom, splashing my calves and feet. It was all quite mesmerizing: the low rumble of the ocean, our craft 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 wave came up from behind that raised the stern just as a stronger gust of wind bore down on the sail. The timing couldn’t have been better: a synergy of energy that lifted our jangada — 2,000 pounds of hardwood, fish, ice, stone, pots and pans and four grown men — and sent it rushing forward. All at once the world had changed.
Any surfer knows how it feels to catch a wave. A millisecond of limbo, will you or won’t you, and in a flash you’re off, dropping down, shooting forward — time and space shifting 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 else is flying all around you. You’ve just been thrust into another dimension, a different paradigm, a higher energy state — the wave’s state. And you are there on that wave, you are one with the water. You are there and nowhere else. Right there — in that moment. Right there. 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 simply call it gravity. But not if you had any feelings. Not after averaging a few measly knots for most of the day. And certainly not after sitting on a rock 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 suffered through the same and were then suddenly punched up to twelve knots on the face of a breaking wave, well, you too would have thought it a miracle.
And it was a miracle, a beautiful miracle! Not only had my pumpkin turned into a carriage, the carriage had sprouted wings and took off flying. The deck started shaking under my feet, the hull vaulting this way and that. Pots and pans rattled in the hold while great plumes of water blew from 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—WE’RE SURFING, MY GOD!
And then it was over as quick as it came. The wave charged past, leaving the jangada to wallow in the trough like a drunken sailor. But not for long. A pounding heartbeat later the sail snapped 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 holler, loud enough to wake the dead. And as soon as the cry was out of my mouth, I regretted it — too late…
Ze was snoozing on deck at the time. Poor Ze. The very thing that made him such a good fisherman—a lightning fast nervous system—also made him extremely sensitive to any sudden stimulation. Even before my shout had dissipated, he was up on his feet, pivoting around like the world was coming to an end.
“What’s wrong?” he hollered.
I felt so bad.
“Nothing, Ze – nothing. The jangada was surfing – I got excited – I. . .”
He must hav thought I was crazy, but all he did was shake his head and start laughing. This didn’t make me feel any better because I knew 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, and then he turned his stony gaze my way. Suffice it to say — Mamede was not smiling.
“Mamede – sorry! I – the jangada – we started surfing – I got excited. . .”
João said something from the hold but I couldn’t make out.
Mamede looked down and asked, “What?”
João repeated himself.
“No—no,” Mamede shook his head. “It’s not another jellyfish.”
João spoke again and Mamede shrugged his shoulders.
“He says he got excited. The jangada was surfing.”
“Yes – surfing. . .”
Ze started laughing again but not for long. Another wave picked us up and we took off flying. Everyone braced themselves for the short, exhilarating ride. When it was over, 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.”
Throwing up up his hands, “That always happens on the way back!”
I steered for another hour, catching as many waves as I could. Mamede sat by the tabernacle 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 like a kid at the end of his lines, eyes shining bright, shouting out, “VAI! VAI! VAI!” with each passing wave.
Vai nela, João. Vai nela! (You go, João. You go!)
It was just after 16:00 when I first 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, and then suddenly you see it — POOF — Land Ho!
“The beach!” I called out. “The Morro Branco!”
Mamede climbed up on the tabernacle beam to have a look. He scanned the shore, getting his bearings, then jumped down and made his way aft. As he approached, I could see he was frowning and shaking his head.
Oh no, I thought, is something wrong? Are we not in the right place? Are we going to have to tack back out again and spend more time at sea?
Oh, please, please no!
I should have known better.
When he got close, Mamede’s face cracked into a grin and he asked in a booming voice, “So what do you think? Do you want to come out 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…
“Well…” I raised my bandaged finger and waved it slowly back and forth, “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 thronged with 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 the jangada into the surf.
The entire village turned to watch as a wave picked up our hull and sent us charging forward. Expecting a jolt when we hit the beach, I unwrapped my espeque lines, preparing to jump off. Just then the deck pitched sideways and I lost my balance—was over the rail before I knew it. Rushing white-water slammed me down and tumbled me around, while carrying the jangada safely away. When I finally gained my footing in the waist-high water, I felt a little foolish. But that didn’t stop me from laughing, along with everyone else, as I walked up onto the dry sand.
I was alive. I was alive and I knew it.