The Long Way Back to Brazil (Part 3)

by James Baldwin

From Flores we sailed southeast until reaching 30 North where we turned south for the Cape Verdes. We were at such ease in the light winds here that we risked flying the spinnaker continuously for two days and nights. The Portuguese Trades, shy at first, soon blew with sufficient confidence to send us reaching along at 130 miles per day. Each night Polaris sank perceptibly towards the northern horizon while a new moon grew until it shone bright and full for our landfall.

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Islander's Atlantic circle route - 1 Margarita Is., 2 Culebra, 3 Bermuda,
4 course change to Azores, 5 Flores Is., 6 course change to Cape Verdes,
7 Cape Verde Islands, 8 course change to Brazil, 9 Cabedelo, Brazil

We ate particularly well on this passage. Using a heavy frying pan on our gimbaled single-burner kerosene stove, Mei twice produced pizzas overloaded with cheese, sausage, and vegetables of Flores. On todays yachts, kerosene stoves are rare as sextants. Although Ive packed away my sextant with the rest of the GPS wielding crowd, I remain part of the sooty-fingered minority who stubbornly cling to the safe, if temperamental, kerosene stove.

The only fish we caught since departing the Caribbean were suicidal flying fish that flung themselves on deck only to land next in our frying pan and finally laid to rest in a bowl of rice. We obstinately dragged our plastic squid clear across the Atlantic, but the lure must have been out of fashion this year because we managed only to snag and board great piles of useless Sargasso seaweed. Mei watched the trailing line like a ship's cat. By the time we got a genuine strike just before reaching the Cape Verdes, the hooks were so rusted that they broke off before we could land our prize.

When fresh foods ran low I brought out a bag of Australian freeze-dried dinners that a cruising friend had given us out of the surplus from his recent expedition to Antarctica. A few of the dinners were just barely edible, but most had such a strong chemical flavor that even I could not eat them. After the first taste, Mei scowled and said, How did he survive a year in Antarctica on this stuff? Mei also thought I had bought too many unpalatable Western oddities like baked beans, corn meal, oats and other such staples of my previous single-handed voyages. We agreed next time she would take charge of provisioning. Unfortunately, the Cape Verdes is a poor place to provision.

We noticed a shameful amount of plastic and Styrofoam rubbish floating in the North Atlantic much more than I had seen in the middle of any other ocean. There was more dangerous debris here too. One morning I watched in disbelief as a kitchen table, legs up, floated by. Another day, Islander shook and lurched to one side as she sailed into and over a log the size of a telephone pole. There was no damage and it was reassuring to know Islander is protected against collisions by watertight bulkheads and lockers. The bow area is protected below the waterline by five independently sealed lockers. Numerous other sealed lockers are placed throughout the boat.

I strongly believe in carrying ample fresh water for the duration of each passage, at least one and preferably two gallons per person per day. I would no more rely on a water maker to provide drinking water than I would expect an electric autopilot to function without failure on an extended passage. They may work fine for a few days or a few years, but odds are such complicated gadgets will fail you rather sooner than later. Islander carries just over one hundred gallons of water between two integral tanks built into the hull and nine plastic 5-gallon cans. We use an average of 1 gallons per person each day including a fresh water rinse after a saltwater bucket shower every second day or so. This gives the two of us over forty days supply more than enough for a safety margin even on our longest passages. We do not ration water, but we do use it carefully. Dishes are washed in saltwater. Laundry is washed after we arrive in port unless we've collected rainwater during the passage. When the sea is calm enough we collect rainwater on deck, which is directed below into water cans via port and starboard thru-deck drains connected to hoses with shut-off valves.

At sunset on August 3rd we hove-to some twenty miles north of Cape Verdes Sal Island so as to approach the anchorage in daylight the following morning. Islander hove-to comfortably in the 15-20 knot winds under a sheeted-in double-reefed main, no jib, and the tiller lashed halfway to leeward. She forereached at about a half knot, which helped offset the south-setting current. At dawn we got underway and soon sighted Sals barren volcanic peaks five miles ahead floating above a fog-like haze. These peculiar hazy conditions get much worse when the strong Harmattan winds of winter blow Saharan dust over the Cape Verdes, cutting visibility to a half mile or less.

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Fisherman of Taraffal, Santiago Is.

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Approaching Brava Island.

We anchored among several European yachts near the beach at the islands main port of Palmeira. The contrast from lush green, tidy Flores Island to Sal Islands burnt brown desert landscape was complete. My first impression of the town of Palmeira was that it had been thoroughly bombed, the buildings partially rebuilt, then all construction suddenly halted, leaving mostly roofless windowless shells of buildings. Since Palmeiras tuna factory closed, the islands only exports are its people, some salt from seawater drying pans, and the never-ending import/export of windblown sand. If at first amazed that anyone would choose to live here, soon the friendly fishermen and helpful smiling villagers we met more than compensated for nature's enmity. A few days later we sailed south to the island of Santiago from where we could more easily get provisions for the final leg of Islanders delivery to Brazil.

We sailed into the mile-wide bay of Taraffal on the northwest coast of Santiago and anchored off a beach backed by palm trees and tourist cottages. Because we were bound next for Brazil we were obliged to stop here and cross the island to the capital city of Praia for our required visas at the Brazilian Consulate. Thanks to an officious Brazilian bureaucrat who kept insisting we provide more and more documents, we made three round trips across the island riding in taxi-vans with twenty passengers crammed into seats for twelve. The road to Praia was no common ribbon of asphalt. It was more a work of art finished with sixty-five continuous miles of flat hand-chiseled stones painstakingly laid across steep and crumbling mountains. In places, last years landslides permitted only one-way traffic to squeeze through the piles of rubble. The younger drivers aggressively hurtled their vans across the island, taking sharp turns when they could at 70 MPH, happily risking their lives to cut a precious fifteen minutes off the normal two hours of cliff-hanging terror.

In the mountains of Santiago, entire families bent over their hoes trying to coax corn to grow on the steep, rocky hillsides. Although Santiago receives slightly more rainfall than its arid neighbors to the north, water remains in short supply. Each village shares a single public water tap, called the Fontana. There the women form llines to fill buckets and five gallon jugs for a few pennies each, which they carry home balanced elegantly on their heads. Nowhere in Taraffal could we find anyone who had extra water to give or sell so we hired a pick-up truck to carry our jerry jugs to a Fontana in the village two miles away.

Ten days later, with our $150 Brazil visas in hand, we set sail for Brava Island fifty miles to the west. On the way we passed near the awesome volcanic cone of Fogo (Fire) Island whose cloud-ringed peak thrusts nearly 9,000 feet above the sea. The smaller but equally craggy Brava (Wild) Island stands nearby under the shadow of its big brother Fogo. We anchored in an indent on the west coast of Brava off the village of Faja da Agua. Cliffs hundreds of feet high stood like fortress walls guarding the bay. A short, ill-conceived airstrip lay carved out of the cliffs on the south end of the bay, but no pilots dare use it because the capricious winds in the lee of the mountains habitually box the compass with sudden downdrafts.

During our four day layover on Brava we saw no other yachts and, mercifully, no tourists. Like all islanders weve met, the fisherfolk and farmers of Brava were friendly and generous and perfectly patient as they struggled to understand my imperfect Portuguese. Before departing, we climbed the mountain behind Faja da Agua where we bought fresh provisions of cassava, mangoes, bananas and assorted vegetables direct from the farmers.

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The anchorage at Brava Island

It was fortunate when we left Cape Verdes for Brazil in late August that we didn't realize this would be the hardest leg of the entire voyage from Venezuela. Since entering the Cape Verdes the sea surface temperature had risen to over 80 F and we now sailed in an area where the warm waters breed tropical storms that strive to become hurricanes as they drift west.

Two days after departing Brava, the Northeast Trades breathed their last fitful gasp and expired. I dozed as we ran south in light winds and awoke to see the windvane now steering us back to the north. For the next eight days our course on the chart resembled a lightening bolt zig-zagging to the southeast. Calms in the region of Bermuda could be exasperating at times, but this beating into a brutish head sea and reefing and unreefing through squall after squall was infinitely worse. Though I longed to ease the sheets and turn towards Brazil, I resolved to keep taking it on the chin until I was certain we could lay Brazil on one tack once we reached the Southeast Trades.

In this area we received weather forecasts from Trudi on the Barbados-based Trans-Atlantic Maritime Mobile Net as well as from Alfredo on the Italian Maritime Mobile Net. They had both warned of a vigorous tropical wave and associated low pressure area approaching us at 9 North latitude. We soon met with heavy rains and strong west winds that required three reefs in the main and an 80% furled jib to keep Islander on her feet. The wind then became light northerly and the mid-afternoon sky took on an ominous darkness.

Everything happened in a flash of chaos. I was carefully stirring a jar of natural-style peanut butter, the type whose oils separate to the top, and debating with Mei whether to hoist more sail. Suddenly we were flying head first from one side of the cabin to the other. I was pinned against the once vertical (now horizontal) cabin side with peanut butter oozing down both hands and over my bunk. Instinctively I buckled on my harness and leapt over the hatch boards into waist deep water in the cockpit. I felt around under water to release the main and jib sheets. Islander responded by reducing her angle of heel to about 70. After rolling up the remaining jib I went forward to claw down the mainsail. An east wind gusting over 60 knots made it too hazardous to put up the storm trysail so I steered the boat downwind under bare poles until the wind eased several hours later. We may have been the first yacht to sail through this storm which the next day was dignified by the name Tropical Storm Erin. A week later we listened with parental pride as our adopted Erin grew into a powerful hurricane passing near Bermuda with winds gusting to 130 knots.

We continued beating through the southerlies in the region of the ITCZ (Intra-Tropical Convergence Zone) until shouldering our way across the equator at 24 West longitude and emerging into the relative paradise of the Southeast Tradewinds. Instead of menacing squalls, now innocent puffy-white cumulus flecked the blue skies. We happily spent hours watching shoals of flying fish take wing and porpoises gamboling around our bow wave. The night sky of the southern hemisphere was brilliantly lit with new stars appearing in the south. Look, Een Hur (Silver River), Mei said while pointing to the Milky Way. Though this was her first long voyage, in many ways Mei proved to be a perfect crewmate. Hardly ever seasick and never complaining, she also has an amazing ability that would let her sleep through a rap concert, or worse; my snoring.

And through it all, Islander was a joy to sail, being surprisingly good to windward and nimble in light airs. Her low freeboard made her wet to sail, but convenient for easy access to the water. To simplify sail handling, I rigged two preventers from the end of the boom forward to blocks on each side of the foredeck and back to winches in the cockpit. To further reduce the number of trips to the foredeck, the spinnaker pole downhaul was similarly led aft.

On September 11, 2001 we tuned into the BBC shortwave news broadcast and immediately regretted doing so. Religious fanaticism had plunged the outside world into madness. We appreciated more than ever the blessed tranquility of a community of two lovers on a mid-ocean trade wind sea.

A couple days later we sailed past the reefs along the easternmost tip of the Americas and entered the Paraiba River. We continued sailing six kilometers upriver past the town of Cabedelo and moored Islander with two anchors near Theo's house off the fishing village of Jacare.

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Fishing boat on Brazil's Paraiba River

Summary

We logged over 6,800 miles sailing from Venezuela to Cabedelo, Brazil via Bermuda, Azores, and Cape Verdes; about three times farther than a direct course down the South American coast. Over a period of four months we spent seventy-two days sailing at an average speed of about four knots. That's about right for a 28-foot boat with just a 4 HP outboard motor making a passage through regions of variable winds. We certainly went as far as we could go to find favorable winds. Even so, the winds were not always cooperative. Sometime during our long beat through the ITCZ, Mei asked in perplexity, What exactly did you mean by favorable winds?

Was the long route practical? For those in a hurry - certainly not. This route from the Caribbean to Brazil only makes sense if you go during the summer months and if you are not in a hurry. Altogether, the direct route may be easier and certainly faster if made during the winter when the majority of the passage might be made on a single tack hard on the wind through the Northeast and Southeast Trades. Even so, our route provided us great passages to new and interesting islands and was a trip I'd recommend.

Weather Nets for the eastern Atlantic

Trudi Smyth (call sign 8P6QM) in Barbados runs the Trans-Atlantic Maritime Mobile Net on 21.400 MHz at 13:00 UTC providing weather forecasts for portions of the North Atlantic between Europe and the Caribbean. Alfredo de Cristofaro (call sign IK6IJF) is the net controller for the Italian Maritime Mobile Net, which is run in English as well as Italian on 14.297 MHz at 20:00 UTC (19:00 UTC between 30 March20 October). Alfredo provides weather forecasts for the eastern North Atlantic and the tropical waters of the South Atlantic between Africa and Brazil. .