Jangadas—Brazil’s Unusual Sailing Crafts
BY AWAKE! WRITER IN BRAZIL
FOR centuries intrepid fishermen, called jangadeiros, have plied the sunny, northeast coast of Brazil in their primitive but beautiful jangadas. Let me tell you what I learned about these unusual sailing crafts.
At first sight, a jangada might remind you of a craft hastily put together by castaways. But do not be fooled. Jangadas reach speeds of nearly eight miles [up to 12 km] per hour and take part in regattas. Although of simple design, they can stay at sea for several days and can be found alongside large transatlantic liners, up to 40 miles [60 km] offshore.*
The jangada was first used in Brazil as an open-sea fishing vessel at the close of the 17th century, when Portuguese colonizers fitted a triangular sail onto the flimsy crafts used by the natives. The name jangada, which means “joining together,” is credited to the Portuguese. Before arriving in Brazil, they had visited India, where they assimilated this Tamil word.
Since those early days, the jangada has undergone some changes. Originally, its hull consisted of between five and eight logs of light, balsalike wood, such as piúva, held together by fibers, without a single bolt or nail. Nowadays, most hulls are made with timbers similar to those used in boatbuilding, which makes them more durable. Another innovation is a wooden box lined with zinc and styrofoam, which is used to store the catch. The size of the jangada remains unchanged—between 16 and 26 feet [5 and 8 m] long and up to 6 feet [1.8 m] wide.
In recent decades competition with modern fishing boats has forced many jangadeiros to seek other employment, such as taking tourists for rides on jangadas. There are still a few small traditional fishing colonies along the coast of northeast Brazil. Life there is simple. In many, while the men are at sea, the women supplement the family income by producing delicate lacework.
It is from a fishing colony at Mucuripe beach that I am about to set out on my first trip on a jangada.
My Day as a Jangadeiro
On the beach at 4:00 a.m., I am introduced to my four crew mates. Our captain is Assis. After the sail has been hoisted, my first task is to help push the jangada off the logs of carnauba wood on which it rests and into the sea. Almost immediately the jangada becomes waterlogged and seems to sink. Happily, that is just my impression. Jangadas are practically unsinkable. They do sometimes capsize, the crew inform me, and it takes an experienced sailor and strong swimmer to right them again. In any case, as we venture farther out to sea, the waves constantly wash over the deck.
Our captain assumes his post at the stern, where he controls the sail and the rudder. Another jangadeiro stands at the prow. The other two crew members, tied to uprights, lean over to counterbalance the sloping of the jangada. As an observer, I decide that the best policy is to hold on tight to the uprights. Seasickness is a common problem for first-time sailors like me, but I try to put up with the queasiness as well as I can.
After sailing for about two hours, we reach our destination. The crew quickly stow the sail and drop anchor—a stone enclosed in a wooden frame—and fishing commences. The crew use lines, not rods. That is why their hands are covered with scars and calluses. In addition to fishing, they sometimes catch lobsters with a trap called a manzuá, which is made of bamboo and nylon cord. To protect themselves from the sun, some wear wide-brimmed straw hats, while others just use a cap.
For the jangadeiro, life is a harsh routine of salt, sweat, and sun. An ever-decreasing number of young men are choosing to learn this profession, which over the centuries has been passed down from father to son.
Midafternoon we start back in the company of several other jangadas. With their elegant white sails set against the bright green sea and blue sky, they conquer the fury of the waves—a truly breathtaking sight that has inspired many a poem and song.
When we reach land, I help push the jangada back to its berth on the sand. A jangada normally weighs 650 pounds [300 kg], but to our tired arms, it seems much heavier. The jangadeiros sell their catch to a dealer, who will then sell the fish to the public. Our journey was short, and we caught only a few pounds of fish. But a jangada can transport a catch of up to 2,200 pounds [1,000 kg] of fish. I thank the crew and make my way home, tired but satisfied. At night, lying awake, I imagine that I can still feel the sway of the jangada, Brazil’s primitive but unusual sailing craft.
In 1941, four jangadeiros sailed 1,800 miles [3,000 km] from the city of Fortaleza to Rio de Janeiro. Their story was recounted in the documentary It’s All True, directed by Orson Welles.
[Picture on page 25]
Traditional log jangada, now in disuse
[Picture on page 25]
A jangada normally weighs about 650 pounds