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Two Thousand Miles to Brazil: Part III

Christina buys fresh provisions from the Dominica fruit mon
Christina buys fresh provisions from the Dominica fruit mon

In the first two parts of this amazing adventure (Two Thousand Miles to Brazil: Part I and Two Thousand Miles to Brazil: Part II) Thomas and his family sail south aboard their old Puerto Rican fishing boat Oasis. The plan is to reach Brazil before Thomas’ wife Christina gives birth to their second child. Heavily pregnant and suffering from constant seasickness, Christina asks her husband to change course for British Guyana. Thomas agrees and they sail on …

Gaston was quite seasick at first but got used to it by degrees, sleeping a lot and playing with his Lego or looking at pictures in his books. The rule on board for safety is he must remain inside as soon as the anchor is up, although he can sit on the first step with his head out to look around.

On the fifth day, we came across vast mats of Sargassum and saw an unusual amount of sea life, which made me check the still empty fishing line often. Eventually, I pulled it in and it had broken; a fish had obviously been caught but must have been too big for 60lb line. I must admit I have never had much luck with fishing.

On two different days we had periods of very light wind, so light that the mainsail would slat annoyingly with the rolls. This is unusual on Oasis since she has a generous amount of sail and the big keel damps down the rolling very effectively.

About halfway, the familiar and gorgeous deep blue gave way to a duller green color. As we sailed through whorls on the edge of the North Brazil current, the blue returned for a day— although not as deep as normal—and then it was back to green.

This also marked the transition to the zone of stronger current, regularly reaching two-and-a-half knots, which would therefore set me downwind up to 60-miles a day, but more usually about 50.

As the days went by my wife started acclimatizing somewhat and when the waves were calmer she would even go outside for some fresh air in the afternoon. But still, she was definitely rather impatient for our arrival. She would anxiously await the noon sight when I would quantify the previous 24-hours’ progress and would ask me over and over how much longer it might be. I would say that the current was stronger than I had thought, or that it was hard to estimate, because I can’t guess what the wind will do tomorrow, or I would just say we’ll get there when we get there, stop asking me that!

On the 23rd of April, we were getting very close, the water had turned a light brown color, and I eased the sheets slightly. The boat roared ahead, in between and through squalls. We were fast approaching land! I took sight after sight to get as accurate a position as possible. I started taking soundings. Eventually the lead struck bottom. We had around 12-meters of water, and still no sight of land …! River mouths can be extremely treacherous places and more so when the land is so flat that you have to get very close before being able to verify your position with landmarks.

The sun was starting to sink and I kept on putting reefs in and taking them out, in response to the many squalls, whilst trying to go as fast as possible. Eventually, land ho! A thin, grey strip hardly visible at first and then quite quickly resolving into an unbroken stretch of trees disappearing into the distance in both directions. Oh, to get inside the river before nightfall!

This river mouth is vast, and it took another two hours before I could just make out the other bank. There was the lighthouse and, by now, in the fast fading light, I could count the flashes and sure enough we were right where I had calculated. On and on I pushed, in six and seven meters of water until it became quite dark and I figured we might as well throw in the hook for the night.

We spent quite a rough night anchored at the entrance in the middle of this immense estuary, with the current against the wind creating small breakers which would, periodically, wash right over the boat.

At dawn I set sail and we came across a fishing boat called Natureza and I passed very close so I could ask in Portuguese the state of the tide. We carried on for two more hours and every time I took a sounding it came as six meters, so I started becoming a bit nonchalant and only sounded every ten minutes. Suddenly, we went aground! And the tide had started to ebb already. I tried and tried to break us free but after five minutes it became clear that we would dry.

A couple of fishing boats came to satisfy their curiosity and they waded across the sand bar and gave us a visit. I asked for as much information as possible in Portuguese regarding the channel up river. Christina eventually looked at me and I knew she had finally figured it out; we had never been sailing to British Guyana, we had arrived in Brazil after all!

No wonder it took two weeks to sail here.

It took us another five days to travel with the tides up the Oiapoque River to the town of Oiapoque. The current runs generally at about four knots. The entire way is completely deserted, apart from three tiny Indian settlements of hardly 50 people. The rest is all just towering Amazonian jungle rising straight out of the water on both sides, harboring millions of colorful parrots and red ibis. There was also the eerie call of the howler monkeys, which sound a bit like the wind in a powerful hurricane. Every day we would see a dozen or more fishing boats and canoes going out to fish or returning with their catch. Towards the end, the rising tide becomes rather weak and does not last long, so I got a fishing canoe to tow us the last few miles.

Oiapoque is a bustling fishing town of 50,000 people, with shops everywhere selling everything and anything, making quite a contrast with the quiet solitude of the river. Oiapoque nets over 3000 tons of fish a month, most of which gets trucked all the way to the booming state capital of Macapá.

Early on May 1st, our third day in Oiapoque, my wife woke me up and said, “I can feel the baby coming now.” After several hours of increasingly frequent and strong contractions, she decided to go outside. I hung some sheets from the boom to preserve her privacy. She alternated between standing and squatting to help push. After an hour more, at around eight o’clock in the morning, the baby was born to the sound of applause from the neighboring fishing boat.

We gave him the appropriately Brazilian name of Lucio and got him his birth certificate straight away.

So it all worked out in the end; we are now four, looking forward to our new life in beautiful Brazil. And apparently, sailing from the Caribbean to Brazil is perfectly possible after all!

Editor’s note: You can read all three parts of this amazing adventure online by going to www.allatsea.net

Thomas Tangvald is a naval engineer and is sailing with his wife and boys to where he can settle down and set up an office and workshop.

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