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The Long Way Back, Part Five
We sailed into the mile-wide bay of Tarafal on the coast of the Cape Verde's Santiago Island 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 20 passengers crammed into seats for 12.
The road to Praia was no common ribbon of asphalt. It was more a work of art finished with 65 continuous miles of flat, hand-chiseled stones painstakingly laid across steep and crumbling mountains. In places, last year's 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 at 70 mph, happily risking their lives to cut a precious 15 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 long lines to fill buckets and five-gallon jugs for a few pennies each, which they then carry home, balanced elegantly on their heads. Nowhere in Tarafal 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 50 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, thankfully, no tourists. Like all islanders we've met, the fisher folk 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.
It was fortunate when we left Cape Verdes for Brazil in late summer 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 degrees F and we were now sailing in an area where the warm waters breed tropical storms that sometimes 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 zigzagging to the southeast. Calms in the region of Bermuda had been 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 toward 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 nine degrees north latitude. We soon met with heavy rains and strong west winds that required three reefs in the main and an 80-percent 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, whose oils had separated 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 degrees. After rolling up the remainder of the 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 degrees west longitude and emerging into the relative paradise of the Southeast Tradewinds. Instead of menacing squalls, now innocent puffy-white cumulus clouds flecked the blue skies. We happily spent hours watching schools 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 was 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 air. 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 we tuned into the BBC short-wave news broadcast and immediately regretted doing so. Religious fanaticism had plunged the outside world into madness and we appreciated more than ever the blessed tranquility of a community of two lovers on a mid-ocean tradewind sea.
We logged over 6,800 miles sailing from Venezuela to Cabedelo, Brazil, via Bermuda, the 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 72 days sailing at an average speed of about four knots. That's not bad for a 28-foot boat with just a four-hp outboard motor making a passage through regions of variable winds. We certainly went out of our way 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? Not very, I must admit. Would we do it again? Probably 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 is probably 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. Those planning a passage from the Caribbean to the southern coast of Brazil should consider all their options.
For further articles by James Baldwin, check out his website at: www.yachtatom.com.
Atlantic Weather via RadioIf you intend to make a passage in the same waters, you might want to know about two good sources for weather information: 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. Fore more information, contact: email@example.com.
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 March–20 October). Alfredo provides weather forecasts for the eastern North Atlantic and the tropical waters of the South Atlantic between Africa and Brazil. For further information, contact: IK6IJF@hotmail.com.