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Sailmithril: The voyages.

To Brazil
To Ireland
Nova Scotia
To the Caribbean
To Devil's Island
To Brazil
To St Helena
To Namibia
To Mauritius
To Rodrigues
To Chagos
To Cocos
To St. Paul and Australia
To Kerguelen
To South Africa
To the Canaries

Brazil for carnival.

The passage between St Helena and Brazil was just about as perfect as you could wish for. We had less than 15 knots of wind most of the time and had to reef the main for only 8 hours one day after a squall. The last couple of nights we had nocturnal bird visitors who sat and shat on the furled sails and had to be forcibly evicted before we were knee deep in guano.


Salvador is a very dramatic landfall. The city is built out on a peninsula and the skyscrapers rise from the sea like exotic plants. The old town is built on the cliffs further inland and below them are the houses of the once wealthy reached by funicular railway. Many of these are slum multi dwellings now but the faded grandeur is still visible in the hazy light of dawn as you sail by. The city was dreadful though after more or less 8 weeks away from civilisation and pollution. The cars burn alcohol and the sweet, hot fumes fill the streets. Along the footpaths the overwhelming smell is of urine. The walls were stained with it in every nook and cranny. It was quite nauseating and the thought of what we were walking in on the streets had us hosing our feet before we got on the boat - like good Muslims going into the mosque.


Brazilians love to party – it’s a cliché but true – and when they party they want everyone to know it and the music can be felt disturbing your heart beat from 5 miles away. During carnaval even very small villages had at least some sort of fiesta, which was often a rock concert that started at midnight. To be woken by someone singing Deep Purple lyrics accompanied by bad guitar is something akin to a nightmare. We avoided Salvador and all centres of civilisation during the carnaval days and sailed instead up the Paraguacu River, which was very calm and peaceful, and a sort of world that time forgot. Here traditional gaff rigged sailing boats carried people and cargo from town to town using the tide to supplement the light winds. The commonest mode of transport was dug out canoe usually only a couple of feet in width but occasionally you would see a mighty example which could carry 8 or more. Watching them raise sail was like being transported to the Nile in ancient Egypt.


When we arrived in Salvador the club nautico marina was almost full with a French rally fleet and a European racing fleet including multi hulls and open 50s. Nearly all the French cruisers were aluminium and shone like little mirrors in the sun. We spoke with a Swiss multi-hull skipper - who had found romance in Salvador and the Brazilian woman was going back to Europe with him. He’d been in the city only one month. She was a nurse and had never sailed before. Their common language was pigeon Spanish and she was getting ready for her first ocean voyage wearing a mini dress and winkle-picker pink stilettos. They seemed very happy together and he had been outraged when accused by the port captain of wanting to take the Brazilian women to Europe to make them into prostitutes. I hope we see him again up island and find out how she got on.


The French fleet were mainly novices and boy did it show when they came to anchoring. We had better entertainment than Imax in Itaperica island. Anchoring must be something the sailing schools don’t teach. There’s a formula of putting down 3 times the length of chain as depth of water. We abandoned that theory years ago and no matter what put down at least 30 metres. We will often take some back in when the anchor is dug in well and holding especially if space is tight in the anchorage. But these guys were putting 10 metres of chain out in 3 metres and hoping to hold. Generally they did, as there was no wind and very good holding. But one morning the wind shifted – unusual conditions of course – and it blew about force 4. There was dragging all over the show and then panic and then more panic as engines were started and dinghies filled with exhaust water etc. A big French Roberts steel boat drifted through the anchorage while the solitary crew sat open mouthed not knowing how to operate anything. Eventually he let out more chain and held about 3 metres away from another English steel boat. The guy then sat in his hammock like little boy blue looking dazedly round him. Meanwhile a good Samaritan singlehander had gone to aid of a French couple that were dragging and seemed perplexed. He helped re-anchor them and while having coffee afterwards his own boat dragged – down onto us. Everyone was yelling and hooting at him and eventually he whizzed back in his dinghy with the other French guy and started his engine while I stood by with a fender on the bow. It was easy to tell the longterm cruisers, as they were the only ones who didn’t drag.


Salvador is at one edge of a large bay with many anchorages and we spent a couple of weeks sailing gently between them. Many were full of Brazilian sailors on holiday and others were taken up with fleets of traditional sailing boats and canoes both fishing and cargo. I loved to watch the guy paddling the dugout as he sat at the back and paddled on one side only and not very often while the long boat glided along at a stately pace and in a straight line. I watched one guy lift a second paddle from the bottom of the canoe and wondered what he was going to do with it. He used it as a back scratcher. The sail boats were singlehanded and very basic with huge oblong main sails and a small jib. Lines were controlled by hands and feet and he steered using a massive tiller. We did see 2 guys sailing a dugout with a trapeze – a rope tied halfway up the mast and yer man holds on to it, standing on the gunwale and leans back.


Everywhere there were churches. But they never seemed to be used for services. The huge warped doors are padlocked shut, all the paint is worn away and masses of undergrowth choke the gutters or they were roofless and falling down with scaffolding round them saying danger do not enter. But come carnival time and they have banners draped across the front and fire works at the entrance. They seem to be symbols round which the people weave parties like carnival and the church cleaning festival which precedes it. Everyone dances along in t shirts with the name of their parish. Many of the young girls cut theirs up to make a loose boob tube – much more stylish. They dance behind a badly out of tune brass band drinking beer or bacardi breezers throwing bottles of water over themselves when the pace becomes too frenzied, but as for ever actually going into the church - I doubt it. The city streets are surprisingly clean after all this as re-cyclers run along picking up bottles and cans as soon as they are kicked into the gutter. We did visit one functioning church where there are supposedly miracles. Every week there is a pilgrimage there and hordes pile inside to sing and chant, swaying and waving their hymn sheets like crowds at a rock concert. I wouldn’t have been surprised to see lighters being waved about. You pray for healing of various parts of the body and just in case the man above forgets what part it is he’s meant to fix some people bring wax or wood effigies of the relevant part. There is a museum in the vestry with cupboards full of these relics blackened and shrivelled with age or fresh and gleaming like picked bones.


After a few weeks of drifting about the bay we did our provisioning and headed north for the isles du salut off the coast of French Guiana where we had been 14 years ago and thoroughly enjoyed. Would we feel the same about them now??

Have a look at some photos of Brazil.

copyright Geraldine Foley 2008. "sailmithril ocean sailing adventures."