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On the 28th  December the annual (well almost) jangada regatta will take place in Prainha do Canto Verde. The regattas are of great importance to the fishermen. For the boat owners, winning places a higher resale value on their boats, a proof of the boats speed, and for the bigger boat owners (those over 6 metres) the prize money can be substantial. For the crew, the prestige of winning is as equally significant as the prize money.

All this adds up to intense rivalry, all be it of the good natured variety.

Neu is entering our boat Kai. The boat is 5m.37 long and, when sailing on form, is considered one of the fastest in Prainha.

Jangadas need constant maintenance to keep them sea worthy but, for the regatta they need a lot of extra work to be in with a chance of winning. When I first witnessed the preparations for a regatta, I was astonished at just how much adjustment can be made to a boat that is basically held together with nails and rope.

adjusting the mast housing

adjusting the mast housing

The base block for the mast might need to be replaced, to make it higher or lower, or it may need to be moved forwards or backwards. There are insert pieces in the block that have the holes to take the mast. If necessary these inserts get  replaced and the holes cut afresh. The mast housing itself gets moved back or forward, the ropes that hold it in place being wound round, knotted then undone and redone again and again. After a sea test everything might get redone several times before the captain is satisfied.

Then there’s the mast. It will be lengthened or shortened depending on the size of the sail. This is done by attaching lengths of a specific type of wood, both strong but with a slight flex, to the top of the mast.  These pieces, like everything else on the boat, are individually cut for that specific boat. The best booms are made from one piece of timber but if needed, other pieces can be added to give more length.

Each boat is freshly painted. Old sails are rigged up to act as shade for the workers and the boat. Trying to paint on the sand in the wind, in blistering temperatures is not an easy task. The boats are always painted in three or more colours. One for the deck, one for the underside, a main one for the sides and then two or three stripes. Over all a very colourful affair. As well as protecting the timber, it is a matter of pride to have the boat well painted.

Kai, freshly painted

Kai, freshly painted

Each sail is made from metres (in Kai’s case 26 metres) of sailcloth. It is a skilled job to cut a jangada sail. Three lengths of cloth are laid out on the sand and the basic, curved triangle is cut. I wouldn’t know where to begin on that part, the cutter has to use the cloth to its best advantage, matching the length of the mast and boom and getting the top curve of the sail just right.

Then the lengths are stitched together. Some of the men still sew their sails by hand but most get someone with a sewing machine to do the job. Neu asks me.

For this regatta the sail is so big that it took me two hours just to sew the three panels together. Its heavy work, lifting metres and metres of fabric through the machine and each seam has to be double stitched to reinforce it.

Hard work pulling this lot through the machine

Hard work pulling this lot through the machine

Meters of sail cloth waiting to be stitched

Meters of sail cloth waiting to be stitched

Just as I was nearing the end, Neu told me that as this sail was so big, we would have to rip each length that I had just stitched, in half along it’s length and then re sew it, making six panels out of the three. I have to admit that I sat with my mouth open for a minute, oh well.

This is the first time I have sewn such a big sail. The previous regatta that we entered Kai in, the sail came already sewn. I had wondered why the sails were made from six panels, rather than the usual three. Its because the sail is so big, the sheer amount of cloth would cause it to billow too much if it didn’t have the reinforcement of the extra seams.

Four hours after I’d started, the lengths were finally all stitched. The sail got taken back to the guy who cuts the shape, for him to re cut the edges. Then back to me for the edges to be hemmed. I have learnt over the sails I have stitched for Neu, that if the sail hasn’t been cut quite right, the hemming is never easy, generally needing a bit of fiddling about to get right. On the contrary, when the sail is cut well, the hemming is simple. On this occasion I was able to continue sewing from the moment I started, all the way round, only stopping when I needed more thread.

The sail has now gone to be sewn onto the rope that will hold it to the mast. From there it will go to be painted with the slogan of one of the regatta sponsors, who’s paid for the sail, (which is another reason why the men like to enter their boats, a sail is a costly item, the regatta gives them one free).  When the painting is finished the sail will be tried out. If Neu is happy with it, all well and good, if not it will be re cut or maybe have an extra piece attached, in either case its more sewing for me.

In the weeks leading up to a regatta, the men use every spare minute to get the boats right. The beach is a constant hive of activity with men sawing, hammering and sewing. All of this is done with a host of advisers crowding round the boat, all have something to say, and generally the man doing the work pays no attention to any of them. When they’re not working on the boats the men are out on the water racing each other.

Getting ready for the race

Getting ready for the race

I would love to take part in a regatta but I’m not sure enough of the commands or physically strong enough to make up part of a crew. Neu does let me take part in the test races though and even these are taken seriously. I always find the races just this side of terrifying. When the boats are sailing at speed and we are hanging on to the ropes, leaning out over the side, trying to get the boat level on the water as the huge sail pulls the boat the other way. I know how easy it is to capsize, I know how easy it is to snap the mast, I know it can be dangerous and its exhausting but non the less, I love it.

Kai is recognised as being a champion boat, he (all jangadas under 6 metres are referred to in the masculine) has won several regattas in the past.  Neu thinks he’s in with a good chance of getting a place in the top three, he didn’t get a great start position but Kai is sailing well at the moment. If the sail is as good as I think it is, if it combines well with the way the mast housing is set and so on, then maybe we will have a win, who knows.

©Claire Pattison Valente 2008

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