The shortest route is not necessarily the quickest or the easiest
The passage from the Cape Verdes across the Atlantic to the north-eastern corner of Brazil is pretty much the shortest ocean crossing that one can possibly make – it’s less than half the distance of the passage between the Canary Islands and the Caribbean – but although the miles are far fewer, weather conditions on this route are apt to be somewhat less favourable. Somehow or other you have to get through that infamous belt of calms which girdles the centre of the world.
At best, things are slow; at worst you might sit around for days on end, “a painted ship upon a painted ocean”. Either that, or you might cheat and make use of your infernal combustion engine…
In any event, the Atlantic crossing to Brazil can never compare with a classic sleigh-ride crossing made on the back of the Trades.
We crossed to Brazil from the Cape Verdes in the month of June. This is rather later than most people would choose: most folks leave the Canaries in November or December and cross the Atlantic – and the equator – in the winter. Thus, they arrive in Brazil during the southern summer.
The Cape Verdes are a safe cruising ground at any time of the year, and the passage from those islands to Brazil takes one south – and not into the hurricane area; so there was no risk attached to this late crossing. However, it has to be said that July is not the perfect month to be visiting north-eastern Brazil, as we shall see.
The crossing took us 20 days. This is much the same length of time as a previous crossing to Brazil, made in the month of March from Guinea Bissau (which is slightly further to the south).
On the March crossing we simply headed off, straight across the pond, towards the north-eastern corner of Brazil, and we managed to cross the equatorial region without ever encountering the doldrums. We met with no rain squalls, the sun shone upon us every day, and we never had less than ten knots of wind.
On this recent occasion, leaving from the Cape Verdes, we headed directly south. For the first five days we enjoyed a fair tradewind but then we ran into the convergence zone with its belt of grey skies and zephyr breezes: classic doldrum conditions. As a point of interest, the French (RFI) forecast for that day placed the convergence zone at 3˚ north, and we were still at 8˚ north.
The Doldrums – Wet, Grey, and Not Very Windy
The next five days were spent lolloping along through near-calms and rain squalls.
The rain was wonderfully heavy. Having spent the past few months in parched and dusty islands we rejoiced to feel it flowing over our skin. We were also very pleased by the way it pressure-washed our filthy decks. By leading halyards and other lines from the sails down into buckets and big laundry tubs we were also able to fill our tanks.
Less desirable, but no less impressive, was the way the raindrops softened the sharp edge of every wavelet and – in bouncing back up – created a thin white haze which reduced visibility to less than half a mile. On one occasion a ship, reckoned to be two miles away before the heavens opened, vanished from our sight and also from the sight of the radar; the radar could no more see through the rain squalls than we could.
On average, we saw three or four ships every 24 hours during our transit of the doldrums. Most were on a course which ran parallel to ours – they were evidently heading to and from Cape Horn – and some of them passed very close. Indeed, one large ship actually had to alter for us; so we did need to keep a sharp and constant look-out. Not all ships keep a good watch…
Between the squalls the rain just drizzled, but we didn’t mind that either. It was warm drizzle and that makes all the difference. Every now and then the sky above us cleared, and then it was so hot and sultry that we had to cool off with buckets of sea water, pouring them over each other. The air humidity, at this time, was 85%. The air temperature was 30˚, and the water temperature 28˚.
None of the squalls was ferocious – there was, as I recall it, only one occasion when we needed to drop the main; (our main comes down in anything above a force 5) – and nor were we ever completely becalmed for more than an hour or two at a time. Actually, we rather like to be becalmed and we would gladly have drifted around in the doldrums for a few days more, but for one problem: while we drifted about the current was silently but swiftly ferrying us westward towards Cayenne.
The Equatorial Current – in Full Spate
When we left the Cape Verdes the current was running at about half a knot and was carrying us towards the south-west; but by the time we reached 5˚North, 25˚ West it was running at 2 ½ knots and it was setting directly west. We were still heading south, but since we were only able to manage 1 to 4 knots through the water (depending on the strength and direction of the wind) that current, setting at right-angles to our heading, was having a rather deleterious effect on our course made good.
In theory there is supposed to be a counter-current running eastward between the west-setting equatorial currents which circulate in the North and South Atlantic oceans, but this didn’t materialise.
On the evening of the day that we reached the centre of the ocean and were exactly midway between Africa and the Americas the wind died away altogether for a couple of hours. When it returned it was blowing lightly from the south west. By now we had passed beyond the southern limit of the doldrums, as they stood at that time, and we were beginning to experience a south-westerly swell. This collided with the old familiar north-easterly swell, rolling down from the northern hemisphere, making for a rather muddled sea.
A light headwind and a confused wave pattern; conditions such as these are not the ideal ones for a heavy cruising boat. If we held the starboard tack we could head no better than 240˚ and make no more than 1 knot. This, when combined with the westerly current, sent us along at 3 ½ knots … towards Guyana (280˚). Well, we obviously weren’t going to do that; so over we went, onto the port tack.
Sailing along on the port tack we could point 130˚ and this, when the current had done its bit, sent us along at 1 ½ knots on a bearing of 030˚. This course was the exact reciprocal of the direction in which we wanted to travel. It pointed back towards the Cape Verdes!
Don’t Burn Diesel; Get to Know the Ocean
I guess this is the stage at which normal people start their engines… but if you do that, every time things aren’t going your way, then you never find out what would have happened. You never know what you and your boat can manage; you never really get to know the ocean; and you can never take your place alongside the people who sailed in the glorious days when the wind was the only driving force.
Magellan, Drake, the Beagle, the Spray, and Bill Tilman’s fleet of old gaffers – these and many, many others have fought free of the equatorial current without burning one drop of diesel; none of them had engines and yet none of them got carried north into the Amazon – and so we were pretty sure that we could do it too.
Pedro e Paulo, Here We Come – whether we like it or not
The wind’s erratic behaviour was probably the effect of a tropical wave passing overhead. By the following day it had swung towards the east and was behaving according to the books. But the current remained strong; far stronger than on our previous crossing. On that occasion we had deliberately altered course and headed west to take a look at St Peter and St Paul – the rocks lying 600 miles off the north-eastern corner of Brazil. This time we were in a hurry – we had to be in Brazil before July 1st so that Caesar could go and do his bit in Nicaragua – and so we had decided to stay well to the east of the rocks. We knew that if we crossed to the far side of the ocean prematurely then we would have to beat south; knew it from our previous experience.
But that current just wouldn’t let go of us, and the wind wasn’t strong enough for Molly to stand up to the bullying. And so it was that on our 12th day at sea we passed two miles to the west of the Rocks.
Fernando de Noronha – A Really Dumb Decision
At the Rocks we finally caught up with the good old south-easterly tradewind, and now we found ourselves able to romp south at about 5 or 6 knots. That breeze was all that Molllymawk needed in order to be able to deal with the over-zealous current. Things were looking good; and so, having been ferried this far west, we now thought we might as well go the whole hog and sail close by Fernando de Noronha (an island lying some 350 miles to the south-south-west of Peter and Paul and around 200 miles off the corner of Brazil).
Fernando is well worth a proper visit, if you don’t mind throwing your money around. We stopped here in 1990 when it cost 12 ½ p per night for a yacht plus two crew. Now (2011) it costs 160 Reals per day for the boat plus 40 Reals per day for each person. For us, the distress caused by having to fork out approximately £150 per day would have cancelled out our enjoyment in seeing the dolphins pass through the anchorage each morning or in climbing the hill to look at the fairy terns and red-footed boobies nesting in the trees. After all, we can see dolphins, boobies, and fairy terns for free while we are at sea.
However, we thought it might be nice to sail past and cast our eyes over the green hillocks and over the striking volcanic megaliths which adorn the island.
Yes, despite the fact that we knew that the current was running like a river in flood we now threw everything away: we sailed downwind and we sailed west of south, and all for the sake of some scenery!
We aimed to pass close along the coast of Fernando and skirt the bay where the dolphins breed. If we timed our arrival carefully then we could enjoy the sight of them heading out to sea – in one long column, as I recall it, leaping and spinning as they go – and they might even be tempted to come and say hello to us.
However, nice timing is not a hallmark of the cruising life; not unless you are one of those people who insists on always travelling at a minimum of 5 knots, pressing the starter button whenever the speed falls to 4.9; or – contrariwise – not unless you are willing to slow down and kick your heels while you wait for the new day.
The wind blew and we eased our sheets, and for two days Mollymawk rolled along – for two whole days we wantonly threw away our easting – and we arrived off the anchorage in Baia de Santo Antonio just as the sun was setting…
Waiting for tomorrow’s new dawn was not an option, because we were already worried about whether we would manage to meet that July 1st deadline.
The Current Situation
After that, things became even more interesting and we discovered why it is that people don’t tend to sail down the east coast of Brazil during the rainy season.
As it approaches the Brazilian coast the equatorial current divides in two. The northern part flows up along the north coast, towards the Caribbean, and the southern part veers round and flows down the east coast. The dividing point for the current is around the latitude of Maceio (10˚ S). Thus, anyone heading down from Fernando – anyone who has not managed to hang onto their easting so that they can make a landfall south of Maceio – must buck the system.
“No problem. Bucking the system is the name of the game, hey! That’s what life’s all about!”
But not the weather system. Not usually. That’s one system we cruising yotties prefer to ride, going with the flow.
At one time we had planned on making a landfall on Salvador (13˚ S), but our foolish detour had put paid to that idea and we were left with no choice but to buck the system.
According to the Brazilian Cruising Guide (by Cecҫon) the south-bound current flows at about 1 knot, in the region where it divides, in the southern summer. In the winter it is said to flow at an average of 2 knots.
If you are only doing 5 knots through the water and are tacking along, zig-zagging your way down the coast, then a 2 knot current is a considerable hindrance; but it is not the end of the world. However, as we drew closer to the coast it became clear that the current was actually flowing at far more than the rate advertised.
20 miles off the coast, hard on the wind in a light breeze, we were suddenly hit by a gale-force squall which had crept upon us under the cover of a black night. We dropped the main and furled the genny, but even under mizzen alone we were still travelling through the water at 7 knots. However, according to the GPS we were only actually making up at 2 knots…!
Landfall – so near, and yet you can forget about having supper ashore
On the following day we sighted Cabedelo (the port for Joao Pessoa, at 7˚S), and this – being the nearest haven – became our destination. Since it was only 24 miles away we reckoned that we would be in by the following morning, wp and dv, and all that.
Well, w (weather) never does seem to p (permit) for cruising yotties. Not when they have had the audacity to wash their hair and change the sheets in premature celebration of the arrival ritual.
And d (for Deo) was not v (volente, or willing).
We spent the night squall-bashing. We spent it messing about in winds which boxed the compass and rain such as has surely not fallen since Noah set sail; rain which killed the wind altogether, it was so heavy, and which fell on us like a small waterfall. How could there be so much water in the sky, I asked myself? Is there a lake up there? Is it those mysterious waters “above the vault of the heavens” which are falling upon us? (Genesis 1.7)
Those clouds floating around up there must weigh tons!
Fighting for every inch of the way south we found ourselves carried, regardless, to the north. And at up to 5 knots!
Should we give in and make for Natal, which lay 28 miles to the north?
Well, not yet anyway. Not until we’ve bashed our heads on the wall for a little while longer. After all, our longer-term plan was to go south down the Brazilian coast, and so we were loathe to throw away miles already won in this battle against the elements.
God Bless the Satellites
It is interesting to note that had not been for the GPS – bless its little cotton wotnots – we would not have had a clue where we were. It was two days since we had seen the sun or glimpsed the stars, so that back in the good old days, when navigation was an art, we would have been relying on DR. If we had allowed for the regulation 2 knots of current our DR would probably have put us right off Cabedelo / Joao Pessoa by this time, and so we would have headed merrily in towards the coast and sailed into… Natal.
They look quite similar on the chart, so that we might even have anchored and gone ashore before we discovered our ineptitude…
(Since writing these lines we have actually come across someone who did that exact thing, back in 1973.)
If the Wall Won’t Fall it’s Cos You’re Not Hitting it Hard Enough
So it went on – with rain, calms, grey skies, more rain, and the odd squall – for 36 hours. At one stage I found myself steering 180˚at 2 ½ knots and making good 060˚ at 2 knots; and all the time the rain sluiced over me in a way which had gone through the phase of being unbelievable and passed beyond comic until I reached a state of mind which said, “So this is life: wet, stupid, and pointless but perfectly painless; so we’ll just plod on until something changes.”
Happily – because we now had only four days to go to that July 1st deadline – things did change. The current eased up a few knots, the wind settled in – from the south, alas; but at least it gave us something to play with – and two full days after sighting Cabedelo we finally beat into the channel which leads through the sand banks, fired up the engine (yes, we do have one), and arrived in Brazil.
The moral of the story is, don’t throw away your easting. And, unless you like a fight, don’t try getting down the northern part of the east coast of Brazil in the middle of winter (June/July).
If ever we make this crossing again in the southern winter then we will aim to keep offshore by as much as 200 miles and will not turn west and head for Salvador until we were on the same latitude as that city.