Cruising Notes

Cabedelo / Jacaré / João Pessoa (Brazil)

Cruising notes given in good faith, but not to be taken as gospel
Canoas setting out from the riverbank in Jacaré (Note the church, topped by a statue of Mary.)

Jacaré is a fishing village situated on the eastern bank of a small muddy river. Rather than carve its way directly out into the sea, the river, on reaching the coast, seems to hesitate. It veers to the north and waits a while before finally taking the plunge. If you care to take a look at a chart of the eastern coast of Brazil you will see that most of its rivers behave in this irrational way. Each one has created a tongue of land to hide behind.

Opposite the village of Jacaré, on the far side of the river, the sun sets over a vista of palm trees and sugar cane fields. Behind the village, just a few hundred yards away across the low spit, lies the Atlantic.
Upstream from the village we find the city of João Pessoa, capital of the region. Downstream, at the river’s entrance, is Cabedelo, a rather sleepy commercial port.
Small and shallow as it may be, the river is the focal point for this region and it has given its name to the whole state – Paraíba.

Being situated on the eastern-most point of Brazil – and, indeed, of the entire American continent – Cabedelo and the Rio Paraíba would seem to be an obvious landfall for sailors crossing from the Cape Verdes and planning to cruise either north or south along coast of Brazil. The anchorage at Jacaré is, from some points of view, an ideal first port of call – but it does have its drawbacks, as we shall see.

Don’t go thinking that this is an entirely rustic place

The village high-street (The church is seen again in this photo. The houses were built about 20 years ago.)

Although I have called it a fishing village, in reality Jacaré is now much more than this. 20 years ago the settlement consisted of just one row of adobe houses. The only road was a rutted track, impassable during the rainy season, and the villagers really did earn their living from the river and the sea.
Then the government built a terrace of concrete huts and installed running water, electricity, and a cobbled road; which was all well and good.
But…

Now – there are still a few fishermen who go out each day in their flat-bottomed canoes; but there are also several hundred other folks who earn their living elsewhere. Some work in Intermares – the new seaside development on the far side of the spit – and some cook, clean, or serve in a line of bars and restaurants which have appeared immediately upstream from the village.
These bars were not built to cater to the locals. They are the resort of Brazilian tourists who come from all over the country to watch the sun set. (They stay in a seaside development to the south of João Pessoa.) At five each evening the bars come alive, and Junandy – the local self-made celebrity – gets out his sax and serenades the dying day; from a canoe.
Thereafter the music gradually increases in volume. Most of it is live, but for some reason the performers have a tendency to play the same thing every night; and there is a limit to how many times you want to hear the Portuguese version of Hotel California. Speaking for myself, I have an even shorter limit on the number of times I want to hear the local tunes, which are played on an ensemble of piano accordions… but I guess this is a personal matter.
Sometimes the music is all over by eight, but at other times it can still be blaring out at four in the morning. Sometimes it’s so loud that you’ll think the band is playing on the boat anchored just next to yours.

At the setting of the sun Junandy hops into his boat with his saxophone
Every night for the past 20 years he has serenaded the dying day with Ravel’s Bolero

The bars are a good place to sample the local staple fare: tapioca pancakes. These are traditionally made from cassava flour and are topped off with grated coconut and cheese (or rather, with a yellow rubbery substance which the Brazilians call cheese…). Tapiocas are one of the fastest fast foods to be found anywhere in the world: they are made, while you watch, over a hot plate. While the ordinary folk still eat the plain and simple product, the tapiocerias at Jacaré have kept up with the times and they offer 100 different flavours, some of them savoury and others sweet.

Rich boys and their toys

Besides the bars there are also a couple of marina developments. For marina development read: a series of small wooden jetties, some of which cater to passing yotties whilst the others have been erected for the benefit of nouveau riche Brazilians.
And for nouveau riche read: people who think that money maketh a slob into an important person who can throw his weight around and drive his boat through the anchorage at 20 knots. It may well be that old money behaves this way too, in this part of the world – but thus far we have not delved below the surface of Brazilian society and can only judge by our own European standards; so we call them nouveaus (when we aren’t just calling them slobs, bastards, road-hogs, etc, etc).

Beyond a fleet of beached canoas, flash motor yachts line a floating jetty

The nouveaus keep their motor yachts and jet skis out of the water in two boatyards. They tend only to be around on Fridays and at the weekend, and their chief delight is to rush up and down the river with their music blaring loudly. In the summer months they like to head for a big sand-bank – Areia Amarela – which lies just south of the river’s entrance. (Mind you don’t stumble upon it as you enter.) Aerial photos show this yellow patch of sand absolutely thronged by scores of motor boats of all sizes.
What it is to have your own boat and get away from the hoi-polloi, hey?
And whereas in our part of the world a man buys a speed boat in order to have the fun of driving it, here in Brazil you only drive the thing if you can’t afford a chauffeur!

Fisherfolk

Fishermen haul their net at slack water

While the wealthy 2% try their best to impress themselves, the other half (?) get out on the water in a rather more sedate fashion. The local fishing boats and ferries are long, narrow vessels whose closest resemblance is to a punt. In the past, one assumes, they must have had dug-out canoes, but the modern canoas are constructed from broad planks of tropical hardwood. (Hardwood seems to be the only type available in Brazil).

The fishing here is all done with monofilament gill nets. Generally these are set in the middle of the river or amongst the anchored yachts. In the rainy season (July to September) when the river is fast-flowing and filled with all manner of debris, the men often seem to catch as many branches and twigs as they do fish, and they spend much of the day sitting at the side of the road mending their delicate apparel.

Dragging a prawn net through the shallows

When the tide is not right for fishing in mid-stream the men sometimes use cast nets. They can also be found wading along the muddy shore in front of the village with a prawn net.
From time to time they set up a huge net on the far side of the river, on the edge of the mangroves, and this net is always attended, at low tide, by a line of big white herons. It’s quite funny to see the men, in their boats, on one side of the net and the herons on the other.

The one thing that the men don’t seem to do is fish with a line, and nor do they appear to use traps of any kind, although these are very popular elsewhere in Brazil.

If you want to buy fish or the local prawns (which are excellent) then you need to hail a passing fisherman or ask in the fisherman’s depot  – a small concrete-built hut standing at the end of the village high-street. The people of north-eastern Brazil seem to lack initiative or business acumen, and the men won’t come knocking on your boat offering their catch for sale.

So much for the attractions…
Now let’s take a closer look.

Landfall

The silo on the port bank of the river’s entrance

Jacaré lies five miles upstream from Cabedelo.  Your first glimpse of this port will be of a tall white grain silo – easily mistaken for a block of flats – which stands at the river’s entrance, at the end of the spit. This part of Brazil is incredibly flat – having just spent some months in the Cape Verdes we found it almost depressingly flat on first acquaintance – and so the tower stands out like the proverbial sore thumb. Not that it stands alone; not any more. Beyond it you will also see the apartment blocks which form the new seaside settlement of Intermares (Between-Seas).

The channel leading into the river is dredged. It’s quite narrow, so you want to pay close attention to the buoyage and you don’t really want to have to beat up it. Certainly, you don’t want to try beating up it against the ebb tide.
To be honest, if the tide is ebbing you don’t even want to be motoring up the channel, really. In the rainy season the ebb tide can run at up to three knots.

Provided that the tide serves, entering at night is quite feasible as most of the buoys are well-lit; or at least, they were when we entered…

Cabedelo

Seaside slums in Cabedelo

You only have to glance at the waterfront slums in Cabedelo to see that this place is not one where you should wander about with your camera around your neck. Cabedelo has a bad reputation – but don’t let that scare you. You’ll be coming here to clear in; but you’ll come by train or by car. You won’t anchor here and go ashore in the dinghy – not if you’ve got any sense.

On the other hand, if you’ve arrived under cover of darkness heading up river will not be an option. The channel is unmarked and the river very shallow in places; so if you’ve arrived in the night you will just have to make the best of things and drop the hook here.
Ceccon’s cruising guide shows an anchorage immediately beyond the wharves, and we used it.
Mind you, I have to say that other yotties afterwards told us that we must be nuts…
We did make the dog sleep on deck; and the navy did come along, early in the morning, and tell us to be gone at once…
Perhaps things have changed since Ceccon wrote his guide?

Anchoring at Jacaré

From Cabedelo you pootle on up the lazy river until you come to a series of small jetties.  This is Jacaré – but your precise choice of anchorage will depend on your inclinations.

Brian Stevens

The founding member of the Jacaré yachting scene was Brian Stevens, an Englishman who fled his homeland during the era of petrol rationing and the three-day-week. Tired of hearing about strikes and so forth, Brian herded his wife and kids aboard an ancient gaff-rigged fishing boat and headed south and west; and Jacaré is where they washed up.
When Brian set up his boatyard here, 20 years ago, he had the river pretty much to himself. When passing yotties put in he invited them to use his showers and take on water, and he also built a cradle which could be used by folks wanting to scrub. (More on this subject in a moment.)
So it was that, in the old days, cruising folk used to moor off Brian Stevens’ boatyard. But Brian no longer provides facilities for yotties. Although still delighted to be of assistance to passersby, and still happy to help with such things as refilling gas bottles and searching out obscure engine parts, he now concentrates his energies on building river catamarans.

Visiting yachts anchored scarily close to Junandy’s bar

Brian Stevens’ empire lies midway between the two other focal points on this riverbank, the one being the aforementioned line of bars and the other a pair of small marinas.
Surely, no one in their right mind would anchor off the bars, you say? But there are people who like loud music. This place is the other “traditional” anchorage. Mind you, 20 years ago there was only one bar, or so we are told.

Marinas (so called)

Nowadays most folk anchor off Jacaré Village which is a small marina – or rather, a pair of small jetties – belonging to a French ex-pat called Philippe. (Don’t confuse it with the Jacaré Marina Club. This is the place where the rich fellas store and moor their stink-pots.)

Mollymawk anchored off Philippe’s marina

Philippe’s marina is capable of accommodating 20 or 30 yachts; and opposite the floating pontoons, on the other side of the muddy track, he has built a barn-like structure which is known as the club house.
If monsieur were a little bit less inclined to want to fleece passing yotties then this place might become an important venue on the cruising circuit… but as it is long-term cruisers tend to avoid the place.

Meanwhile, yotties who prefer to anchor off and who might be inclined to use some of Philippe’s facilities are required to pay an all-inclusive fee if they want to enjoy any one of them. Thus, if you want to leave your dinghy on Philippe’s jetty you also have to pay for potable water, wifi internet, and access to the bar-come-cafe. This privilege costs R$80 per week for the skipper, plus a further R$10 per week for each additional crew member. So, for us to have used Philippe’s jetty would have cost approximately £40 per week.

Anyone still tempted to make use of Philippe’s facilities should note that the Jacaré Village wifi signal is very weak and slow. Unless you have a suitable external aerial you will need to anchor fairly close to the end of the jetties in order to make use of it.
(Other internet facilities include a cupboard-sized cyber-cafe in the village high-street and a rather larger and more expensive one on the far side of the spit, in Intermares.)

High-rise Folkboat. Note how she has ridden up on her chain as the wind and the river fight to control her.

Wherever you decide to anchor, be sure to leave far more space than you would normally leave between yourself and your neighbours.  When the spring tide is flooding and the wind is blowing against it, from the south, then the two forces fight with one another for control of the moored yachts. The yachts consequently behave like tethered beasts, charging to and fro and round and round their anchors. Because the holding is good few people ever drag, but it sometimes doesn’t look that way: often you will swear that your neighbour is motoring across the river with no one on the helm.
Clearly, if boat A is cantering off to the east while B is charging wildly westwards there is a chance that they will meet. Thus, when you anchor here you need to allow enough room for each boat to swing through the full 360˚ without overlapping your own circle.

Getting Ashore

Your first problem in getting ashore is to traverse the water which lies between you and your goal. On spring tides the current can run at up to 3 knots. Despite this, of seven yachts anchored off in the month of August only one resorted to the use of an engine. The rest of us aimed to time our travels to coincide with slack water.  When we failed in this respect we might find ourselves gaining the land quarter of a mile down-current from our starting point… and, conversely, when setting off from the shore one sometimes needs to row along in the shallows for several hundred yards before venturing out and throwing oneself into the stream.

Mollymawk and Faraway anchored within rowing distance of the shore

Hey, this is all part of the cruising adventure! To have your moored yacht charge towards you at 3 knots, as you arrive from upstream, is an experience not to be missed!
One day I will tell you about the time when Nick knocked an oar out of the dinghy as we came alongside…

Assuming that you don’t want to fork out £30 per week you will have to go ashore somewhere other than in Philippe’s marina. Landing on the riverbank is perfectly possible, and security does not seem to be a problem, but at low-water springs this is a very muddy undertaking.
The other alternative is to land on the new jetty which lies just upstream from Philippe’s place (and downstream from Brian’s). This mini-marina belongs to another ex-pat – a very generous German guy called Peter. At the time of writing Peter is happy for yotties to leave their dinghies here free of charge, provided that they don’t obstruct the berths. While we were in Jacaré he was also offering a free internet service…
Peter is a good friend of Brian’s.

Taking on Water

Peter is less happy to supply water, being under the impression that this procedure will clutter the jetty, but the fishermen who base themselves in the adjacent hut were happy for us to fill our cans there; and they didn’t charge us either! Mind you, since all of the water in Jacaré is virtually undrinkable this is not an especially useful facility. We recommend catching the rain instead.

Clearing in

Flooded road in the suburbs of Jacaré

Jacaré is probably one of the easiest places to clear into or out of Brazil. The Policia Federal are based just outside the village in a huge echoing building. To reach it you have to walk for about twenty minutes and then cross the busy João Pessoa to Cabadelo highway. We walked through the sprawling suburbs of the village, amongst the little houses and across the swampy field… but we have since been told that this is prime mugging territory. (It was a good place for bird-watching, and we saw spur-winged plovers and burrowing owls, plus the usual ubiquitous kiskadees, lavadarias (white with black wings), and turkey vultures.)
The alternative route (turn right out of the village) is longer and more boring, and you might prefer to take a taxi.

Having dealt with the immigration authorities – or been dealt with by them – one then catches a lift into Cabedelo. (Cars flashing their lights are unregistered private taxis touting for trade. At the time we were in Jacaré they charged R$2 per person for any journey, of any distance, along the JP-Cabedelo road. The bus fare is R$2.50. The official taxi fare is a lot more.)

Cabedelo fishing boat celebrating the feast of their patron saint

Forget what I said about Cabedelo. When you approach it from terra firma it seems perfectly nice and as safe as any other place. You can ask your driver to drop you off by the port captain’s office. Afterwards you will probably want to visit the market, which is nearby.

Note that having cleared into the state of Paraíba and the port of Cabedelo you will also, eventually, have to clear out again…
And note, too, that this is not one of those places where you can hang out without performing the formalities; the navy visit the anchorage every weekend.

Shopping

Although there are a couple of small shops in the village of Jacaré one does better to walk across the spit to Intermares and make use of the Littoral supermarket. Some folks even prefer to journey down the road to the Bom Precio hypermarket, which is half way to the city. I didn’t find Bom Precio to be any cheaper than Littoral; and I can’t stand hypermarkets. Littoral is convenient and has much better fruit and veg than any other supermarket in the vicinity.
Pay with cash and you’ll get a discount. Spend over R$40 and they’ll give you R$5 towards the taxi fare home – but only if you ask for it.
(The taxi fare from here to the riverside in Jacaré is about R$8 or R$9, and the woman on the information desk will be happy to call for a car.)

Tropical fruits and fruit juices from the supermarket in Intermares

If you are planning to head south from Jacaré then I recommend stocking up here as if for a crossing. Prices in this part of the country are somewhat less than those in Salvador and a lot less than you will find in Rio de Janeiro. Moreover, shopping here is easy. Once you get out in the sticks – in the upper reaches of the Bahía, or in Camamu, for instance – then you will be lucky to find anything bigger than a corner shop to supply your needs.

Intermares also boasts an internet cafe, three chemists (pharmacies), a post office, an ironmonger’s (hardware store), and a petrol station (where you can buy a gas bottle on deposit, returning it after you have tipped the gas).  The petrol station is in two halves, one on either side of the highway, and the part on the further side also has an ATM machine where one can withdraw cash using a visa card. Just around the corner from the petrol station there is a bakery which sells all kinds of sugary pastries and cakes. You can also buy something which the Brazilians call bread but which has a closer resemblance to cotton wool…

João Pessoa

When it comes to buying bits of engine and pots of paint, and so forth, then you can either visit one of the mega DIY shops on the road into João Pessoa or else you can hop on a train and try your luck in that city.

The railway line runs from Cabedelo to Santa Rita, passing through both Jacaré and João Pessoa.

A visit to Jacaré is, in any case, not complete without a ride on the local train. This battered old thing travels along a single track which was installed to carry sugar from the hinterland down to the port. It has only quite recently been restored. There is a station in Jacaré, and the trains pass at hourly intervals. Or at least, they are supposed pass at hourly intervals; when the train breaks down then that is often the end of the service for that day.

The train – an adventure not to be missed

The most reassuring thing about the train is the security guards. With one in every carriage, one feels, there is unlikely to be any opportunity for muggers.
The most disturbing thing is the thought that they actually need all of those security guards… That, and the fact that the doors don’t always shut.

One of the guards once asked me, “Is this your first time on a train?”
“No…”
“Oh, so you have trains in America, do you?”
“Actually, I’m from England… but…”
“Is England in America?”
“No. It’s in Europe.”
“Is Europe nearer than America?”
This conversation is not untypical. Market vendors, for instance, were astonished to hear that in England we don’t have palm trees, soursops, or mangoes. Subsequently they wanted to know if we had any trees at all.
The Brazilian people are very parochial. Few of them give any thought to the world beyond their own border.

The train fare, whether you go from one end of the line to the other or travel just one stop, is a mere 50c; but mind you don’t miss the last one back, because the taxi fare is more than R$50.

João Pessoa lies about five miles upstream from Jacaré

João Pessoa is just about big enough to be called a city but is small enough to be surrounded by green countryside. At its heart are busy streets bustling with people, but if you walk for twenty minutes you can suddenly fall off the edge, as it were, and find yourself down by the river or wandering along a tree-lined road. It is, indeed, “the second greenest city in the Americas”… or so they say.
Ask someone to give you directions to the bica and you’ll discover a lovely parkland, right on the edge of town, with its own lake and its own spring (the bica), its own lovely woods, and its own zoo. (But the least said about the zoo the better…)
Outside the cages, agoutis rustle amongst the undergrowth and tiny saguine monkeys swing from twig to twig above our heads.

Meanwhile, down by the riverside…

You can also meet the saguine monkeys in Jacaré, but not the agoutis – they live wild in Amazonia but not here – and not the lion… and not the alligators. When you stay at Jacaré you are actually staying at Alligator – that’s what the word means – but there haven’t been any alligators seen on this lower stretch of the river in more than 20 years. There used to be lots of sharks, I am told, but they went away when the Japanese were forced to close the whaling station…
(The whaling station was based in the river mouth, and it featured an amphitheatre where tourists could pay to watch a fifty foot whale being disembowelled… ‘Nuff said.)

I may say that I was not totally convinced that there are never any alligators on this stretch of the river. After all, they found a big one a bit higher up, while we were here. And the people also told us that there are no more manatees, but one of those turned up and stranded itself, temporarily, on the beach beside Philippe’s marina!
I didn’t swim while we were in Jacaré.

Not that this is the sort of place where one would want to swim, anyway. At best the river is brown and murky. At worst, when the rain is carrying the interior out to sea, the water is the colour of chocolate… or of something not so nice as chocolate.
Sometimes, when you pump the loo, it looks dirtier than if you hadn’t bothered.

Fouling

That stuff in the water is not pollution; it’s topsoil stuffed full of nutrients. You and I and the crocs may not like the look of it, but various shaggy algae thrive on the mixture, and the barnacles simply adore it.  Yes, Jacaré is notorious for fouling.

Fancy a swim, anyone?

Your only friend, in the fight against the foul creatures, is a fish. I don’t know what kind of fish he is, but he hammers so hard on the bottom of the boat that sometimes you think there’s someone clamouring to come aboard! Alas, he can’t dislodge the crusty shell of the barnacle – I believe he’s trying to get at the content -and he isn’t interested in eating weed. Thus, if you spend too long on the Rio Paraíba you will need to clean the bottom.

A shallow draught yacht cleaning off and re-doing her antifoul on the muddy riverside

As I mentioned before, Brian Stevens used to have a cradle which he could roll down into the river. The customer was lashed to the cradle – or rather, his boat was lashed to it – and the whole caboodle then sat there until the tide went out. Unfortunately the cradle is no longer available and the only current options are to lean on Phillipe’s jetty (not strong enough for us), to strand the boat on the foreshore at high tide (only suitable for shallow draught vessels), to pay a diver to work on the boat, or to go down there yourself and flail around in the murk.
Nick opted for the latter choice and bullied Caesar into sharing the chore.  I was on hand to pass them the tools…

Finally…

Despite what you may have read elsewhere, Jacaré is NOT the ideal place to begin a cruise of the east coast of Brazil. The ideal place to begin such a cruise is in Salvador; or, if you prefer, in Maceio. This is because until you get to the latitude of Maceio (just north of Salvador) the current runs northwards along this coast.
During the summer the current runs at only 2 knots… so you can grit your teeth and push against it. But during the winter it can run at up to 5 knots… and with the wind, as likely as not, also in the south you can carry on banging your head on the wall for days and get absolutely nowhere.

But you can still have lots of fun while you wait for the weather to change!

Between the last week of June and the first week of October 2011 several boats tried to sail down from Jacaré to Salvador. Only one of them succeeded, and he motored for the first 45 miles. Two others put out, motorsailed for 24 hours, and at the end of that time had arrived off Natal… (They motored back down to Jacaré.) One had three goes before finally, in mid-October, he hitched a ride on a long awaited north-easterly wind.
The locals mocked us for even trying to get south before the last week in September.
So – don’t say we didn’t warn you…!

3 Comments

  1. I was there this Tuesday, listening to that Bolero and watching the beautiful sunset..! Very nice information – although I don’t sail. ;)

  2. I am going to move to Cabedelo for professional reasons and I Intend to have a boat there. This article was far more elucidating than all I have read about that place.

    1. Caesar URUGUAY  (Mollymawk crew) 

      Thanks Christian, glad you found it useful.

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