The Long Way Back to Brazil (Part 1)

by James Baldwin

We circle the Atlantic in search of those elusive 'favorable winds'
while delivering a 28-foot sailboat from Venezuela to Brazil.

When I sailed alone out of Forteleza on the last leg of a 12-year trip around the globe, I felt certain I would not soon get back to Brazil. The powerful northwest-setting current pushed by constant southeast trade winds that made my 2,000 mile ride to the Caribbean so effortless, guaranteed that a passage in the opposite direction would be too masochistic to consider, at least for Atom, my then engineless, 28-foot Pearson Triton. If my boat was somewhat windwardly challenged it was mostly the fault of her skipper who insisted on loading the deck with all sorts of gear, from dinghy and kayak to folded awning and sculling oar. In any case, I find sailing any small boat long distance hard on the wind with the rail under to be as much fun as a day in a boxing ring with hands tied behind your back - you duck and weave and stagger and steady yourself against the ropes and basically get the hell pounded out of you. That bad? Not exactly - I'd done it for two or three days at a time in the past. But 20 days or so of pounding to windward in strong trade winds is serious punishment for man and boat. I wouldn't even consider making such a passage.

If a return trip was possible I certainly would have loved to go back. While maxing out my six-month visa limit I had barely sampled Brazils endlessly varied coastline and had learned enough of the local language and culture to have made many friends with these warm-hearted people. It was with initial mixed feelings then that the following year I considered a friends request to deliver his boat from Margarita Island, Venezuela to Cabedelo on the eastern tip of Brazil. My wife Mei had quit her job this year in Taiwan and joined me for the first time as a liveaboard cruiser. Though she eagerly agreed that being paid to sail to Brazil was a great opportunity, her experience up to now had been limited to short passages amid the sheltered waters of Hong Kong and the southern Caribbean.

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Theo prepares to sail Islander from Trinidad to Mararita Island.

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Islander has a modified full keel with cutaway forefoot.

On the plus side I at least knew the boat well. Her Swiss owner, Theo Bodmer, had recently hired me to give Islander, a 28-foot 1972 Hong Kong-built Taipan sloop, a complete refit. During Islanders resurrection we reglassed the hulls exterior bottom after repairing the most extensive osmosis damage I'd ever seen on any boat. Also, rotten bulkheads were ripped out and a whole new interior installed with numerous watertight bulkheads and sealed lockers. This strengthened her immensely and provided a high degree of resistance to sinking, if not outright positive buoyancy when flooded. I installed a Lavac vacuum-type toilet, also behind a watertight bulkhead. I built two integral water tanks right into the hull under the V-berth and under the cockpit footwell to add strength to tanks and hull as well as to maximize the water-carrying capacity.

The most daunting task of this reconstruction project was removing the worn-out teak decks and the top layer of fiberglass deck and replacing the rotted plywood core. We then laboriously block sanded the deck level, reglassed and painted it. This job alone took a full month. But that finally put an end to deck leaks. Other repairs included replacing all eight lifeline stanchions and bases and rebedding the hatches and ports. A Profurl jib-furling gear and new jib were added and the rigging strengthened by adding an inner forestay and intermediate aft shrouds attached to the deck just behind the aft lower shrouds. To ensure several more years of trouble-free self-steering, we replaced all the bearings on the venerable Aries wind vane.

As for electronics, Islander has more then the average number of gadgets for a small cruiser including: radar, two GPS units, VHF and SSB transceivers with an e-mail modem. There is a good quality sextant and celestial navigation tables onboard. All power is generated by two solar panels and stored in a single, 400-plus amp hour, 12-volt bank of four deep-cycle six-volt batteries.

This handsome little cruiser carries no EPIRB or life raft or much else in the way of so-called safety equipment. Instead, like my boat, Atom, she is built to serve as her own liferaft. As a possible last refuge, she carries a fiberglass-and-plywood pram dinghy with built-in buoyancy.

According to Theo, whose abhorrence of inboard engines matches my own, Islanders fractious diesel inboard lies very near where he bought the boat at the bottom of Hong Kongs Deep Water Bay. He replaced it with a four hp long-shaft outboard motor for which I later constructed an outboard well locker within the lazarrette. Because I considered Islanders equipment and structural integrity beyond question for a boat of her size I felt no qualms in taking her on an extended offshore passage.

Still, there remained the question of which route to take to Brazil. Theo, who was working full-time as a computer programmer with plans to transfer his business later that year to Brazil, told me, "I cant sail the boat there and work at the same time and I dont mind which route you choose or how long it takes."

The direct offshore route is to tack east out of the Caribbean Sea, and once well offshore, to stay hard on the wind tacking southeast until rounding Brazils eastern tip to our desitination of Cabedelo near the city of Joao Pessoa. Some larger yachts taking this route occasionally report a fairly easy passage. But even partly favorable winds on this route are limited to between December and April. It was already May before we were ready to depart. Although I had ruled out the direct route of beating all the way to Brazil, I presumed Theo would think it somewhat extreme if I followed my first inclination to sail to Brazil via Panama and another downwind trade winds circumnavigation!

The coastal route of some 2,000 miles, the majority of which is dead to windward, entails sailing inshore of the adverse currents among sandbanks, reefs, and fishing craft and their nets. This would require constant vigilance, and without an inboard engine, countless hours of tacking a long, tiresome passage.

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View forward from companionway

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Looking aft

Islander's cabin reveals a layout that approaches true simplicity, based on a minimalist philosophy.

By studying the prevailing winds on the monthly North and South Atlantic Pilot Charts, the obvious alternative was to sail north until clear of the northeast trades in the region of Bermuda, then continue northeast in variable winds to about 38 degrees north latitude. From there we could sail east with predominately westerly winds, passing north of the windless region of the Azores High. Somewhere west of the Azores we could turn southeast, riding the Portuguese Trades past the Cape Verde Islands. Then we would work our way south through the doldrums. Once across the equator we turn southwest on the final leg to Brazil with brisk southeast trades on the beam.

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Islander's route from Venezuela to Brazil.

We all agreed that what seems at first glance a ridiculously long detour some 5,500 miles that would take about three months including stopovers at islands enroute was in fact, the logical route. One thing Ive learned in 20-some years voyaging in small boats is that it is worth any added time or miles to find that favorable wind.

Once we decided to go we quickly departed Trinidad, sailing Atom to Margarita Island where we put her in storage for three months. We briefly hauled Islander as well to give her a fresh start with two coats of bottom paint. On May 10 we got underway just in time to avoid the coming hurricane season.

Our roundabout route from Venezuela to Brazil had us sailing first due north towards Bermuda. We optimistically expected an easy beam reach through the Caribbean under the predominantly easterly trade winds of late spring. To make this delivery trip less of a grueling chore, Islanders owner agreed we should stop for rest and fresh provisions at any islands lying near our planned track. We too were in no hurry and looked forward to visiting some islands that were new to us.

The first leg was a perfect broad reach in fifteen knot easterlies to low-lying Blanquilla Island fifty miles north of Margarita. The plucky Islander, with her modest 23-foot waterline thrilled us by averaging over six knots on the eight hour passage. The plastic squid we trailed snagged us a moderate-sized mackerel for lunch. Our standard fishing rig consists of 100-feet of 300 lb test monofilament or nylon line connected to a stainless steel leader and a lure. In the cockpit an elastic strap absorbs the shock load from a heavy strike. Big fish are brought within gaff reach by winding them in on a sheet winch. Not sporting, but efficient.

The next day we explored Blanquillas dry uninhabited western coast by foot. Walking the powdery white beaches left us nearly snowblind. Back in the water near the anchorage we floated hand in hand over reefs as colorful and densely populated as a tropical aquarium. That night we shared a pair of tasty red snapper given us by a friendly gang of Venezuelans on a passing fishing boat.

Since afternoon an increasing east wind sent a demon swell curving around the end of the island into the anchorage. Normally this would send us into sleepless heavy rolling mode, but I defeated it by setting a second anchor to hold the stern into the swell. Wind permitting, I always try to set a stern anchor at the first sign of cross swells, pointing either the bow or stern into the waves.

Hopes for an effortless passage north were killed next morning by a whistling 25-knot east-northeast wind. Leaping through confused seas with winds forward of the beam and seas rolling over the steeply inclined deck brought a few previously undetected leaks to our attention. A port dripping over the head of my bunk and waves sloshing under the edge of the dodger and over the sliding hatch track to stream onto the foot of my bunk had me retreating to spend the night wedged between two cushions on the cabin sole. Mei at least had a dry bunk, but she regretted eating that leftover fish curry for breakfast.

Near land, one of us is always on watch in the cockpit, noting course, weather conditions and any hazards to navigation. Offshore we keep less strict watches, relying partly on the Furuno radars alarm to warn us of approaching vessels. By adjusting gain and sea clutter sensitivity controls to eliminate false alarms, the unit worked dependably. I set the guard zone for an eight mile radius and set the power save mode to sweep for thirty seconds every ten minutes. The sole drawback to the Furuno is the two loud beeps it emits every ten minutes as it cycles on and off, interrupting sleep and thereby defeating the main benefit of radar on a shorthanded vessel. Mei found it easier than I to tune out those annoying beeps. When tired enough I also slept through them. Still it seemed an idiotic feature in such an otherwise useful piece of safety equipment.

Even with two people onboard, we adopted my singlehanders habit of wearing a safety harness whenever we went on deck. Attempting to retrieve a person overboard is a poor alternative to keeping them attached to the boat in the first place. What is the point of wearing a harness only during heavy weather when many crew are lost at sea after a missed step or getting clobbered by a sweeping boom during moderate conditions? Kind of like wearing a seat belt only when driving drunk. Accidents at sea happen at least as often due to lack of concentration in normal conditions than they do in heavy weather when your guard is up.

Winds and seas gradually calmed as we neared Culebra Island off the east end of Puerto Rico. At dawn we were forty miles shy of the anchorage with five knots of southeast wind. In these light conditions the Aries windvane tended to wander off course so I hand steered under spinnaker to make port before dark. The boredom of the tiller encouraged me to experiment until I found that by careful sail trim and by attaching a light elastic strap between the wind blades counterweight and the main frame to act as a motion damper, the windvane would steer in the lightest airs.

We stayed in the well-sheltered harbor of Culebra a few extra days to reseal leaky ports and buy fresh provisions. As we left the island for the open North Atlantic, Mei caught a wahoo that she served up with a soy, garlic and ginger sauce and rice. It was the last fish we caught for many miles to come.

That afternoon as I wiggled into foul weather gear prior to going on deck to tuck a reef in the main, I suddenly heard a loud motor. Simultaneously the radar alarm went berserk. I leapt on deck certain we were being rammed by a ship only to see a US Navy helicoptor circling us. He moved in until the pilot and I were staring eyeball to eyeball and his rotor wash heeled us over sharply. Watching me hang near vertically by my fingertips from the windward lifelines, he finally waved and flew away to the south. After a moment to catch my breath, I completed the reef. Four days later we sailed out of the trade winds zone into variable light winds and calms that persisted until we reached Bermuda. I eventually jerked the 4 HP outboard motor from its sea berth in the cockpit locker and placed it in its specially constructed outboard well in the lazarette. We had enough fuel to motor twenty-four hours. When we arrived in Bermuda there were only a few liters remaining.

Watching Polaris rise higher in the sky each night as we made our sluggish way north reminded me that ever since GPS made every fool an instant navigator, my sextant languished forgotten in its box. I had good intentions. At the beginning of each passage I promised myself Id take a few sights to keep in practice. Of course I never did. One calm afternoon, Mei, who I'll remind you is new to offshore sailing, asked me how to use a sextant. Unable to come up with an excuse, I pulled the venerable Freiberger sextant from its moldy wooden box, cleaned it up and corrected its mirror alignment errors. I gave Mei two minutes instruction on bringing the suns lower limb to kiss the horizon while rocking the sextant in a pendulous arc. She nervously took her first sight and then I took one. I worked out my sight and laid down a line of position within three miles of our GPS position.

"Like riding a bike," I said and then explained that three miles is pretty good accuracy and that she should not be discouraged if her first sight was way off target. She nodded in due respect to the ancient mariner and then looked wide-eyed in excitement as I plotted her sight which crossed directly over our actual position! Oh its really so simple. Let's do it again, she said. "Yes...ahem... rather simple... but remember the sea is unusually calm today. It's much harder with a high sea running," I replied. Then I shut up and packed away the sextant - for a very long time.