Going for the big fish

In 2004 I packed up my life in London and started a new life with my husband Neu in his native village on the North East coast of Brazil. Neu, like the majority of men in the village, is a fisherman (fishing being the main source of income for the 200 families who make up the community) and one of the many differences of my life in Brazil, is getting the chance to go on deep sea fishing trips.

Setting to sea before sunrise.

Setting to sea before sunrise.

In the dark of early morning, the men make their way to the beach, they talk in hushed voices, the volume rising with the coming of the sun, they banter and joke while they prepare their equipment and boats, ready for another fishing trip.

The men fish all year round using traditional fishing sail rafts known as jangadas,  they range in size from small one man boats of roughly three metres length, to the three or four man boats of up to six metres and are noted for the beautiful shape of their huge sail. The jangada is based on a native Indian sail raft that the first explorers to Brazil encountered, although there have been some modifications, the basic design is still as it was centuries ago.

Until recently most of the craft have operated without even basic safety equipment, the use of life jackets was seen as being a bit soft and an unnecessary expense. The Navy, who act as the coastal authority, are promoting safety and it is now illegal for a boat to put to sea without documents for both the boat and the fishermen and enough life jackets for the crew.

The fishermen catch a variety of species using hand lines and nets, Bonito, Sardines, P1040666Snapper, King Mackerel and Jacks. Tarpon (Megalops atlanticus) known in Brazil as Cumuripim, tops the scales, often weighing in at 50 kilo’s plus, the Brazilian record is 98.5 kilos [Peixes Marinhos do Brasil. Marcelo Szpilman]. Financially the most important catch of the year is Lobster.

It’s 4:00 in the morning and we are heading for the beach. Today we are fishing for cumuripim from Neu’s 4 metre Jangada, Valente. Down at the beach we meet up with the other crew members, Neisin and Dolas. While making sure all is correct with the lines and bait prepared yesterday, they discuss the force and direction of the wind and how it will affect the days sailing and fishing, all the while laughing and joking about the latest gossip and teasing each other.

The boats sit high up on the sand and have to be manoeuvred to the waters edge by placing heavy wooden rollers under the boats and pushing the jangadas over them. There are several men who earn a meagre living by helping with the boats, some are retired fishermen, others are young men who don’t yet have a place on a boat. Aware of the approaching dawn (the men like to catch the tide and put to sea before sun rise at five.) and without any obvious signal from Neu, they prepare to move the boat.

Two men place their shoulders against the uprights of the seat at the back of the jangada, one man takes the rope fastened to the front of the boat and the rest of us position ourselves where we can get the best grip. No one tells the men where to go and the positions are not fixed, they just slot in around the boat where they’re needed.

Neu calls “Vai—Huhpp” and as one, we push and pull the boat, those at the back digging their feet into the sand to get the most purchase, the man in front leaning backwards as far as he can, using all his body weight to help haul the boat forward. The boat begins to move, slowly at first then gathering momentum. Suddenly there’s a call to halt, with shouts of “whoa, whoa” the men are now acting as breaks, not wanting the boat to roll forward, if it goes too far it will be off the rollers and difficult to return.

The men step back from the boat, Dolas lifts the end of the heavy roller that is now clear of the back of the boat, he heaves it up onto it’s end and lets it fall forward, it lands with a satisfying thunk on the sand. Using his feet he rolls the cigar shaped roller to the front of the boat, the men at the back of the boat use their body weight to pull the back of the boat down while the men at the front lift. Dolas pushes the roller under the front of the boat, Neu ordering him to re-position it slightly until it’s at the angle he wants, then the whole process begins again. So much effort just to get the boat to the water line.

At the waters edge the final preparations are made. The rope holding the sail wrapped around the mast is unwound, allowing the sail to momentarily flap in an hysterical dance with the wind, then the wooden boom is lifted and the sail recaptured. The boom is pushed out away from the boat taking the sail with it, revealing it’s beautiful curved triangular shape. Neu hooks his toes into the base of the sail, forcing the sail down with his foot while pulling on the rope, tying the rope off to keep the sail taut.

While Neu is dealing with the sail, Neisin and Dolas place the centre board in place, check the rudder is securely tied to the seat at the back of the boat, open the smaller sail at the front of the boat and ensure all equipment is secure.
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The sky is lightening and there is a palpable sense of urgency as the boats leave the beach. Wanting to get the best spots to fish, no one wants to be the last to leave.

The men manoeuvre the boat into the shallows, timing their efforts to get the best lift from the incoming waves, once the boat is floating the rollers are removed and returned to their Screen shot 2012-01-08 at 10.33.11place up the beach. Neu tells me to get on and hold on tight, it can be rough getting through the surf.

He and his crew push the boat further out, until they are chest deep in water. With immaculate timing Neu, followed by Dolas and Neisin, haul themselves on board. Neu takes the long oar and standing at the back of the boat, steers the boat through the surf, while we line up along the side and grip ropes lashed to uprights on the deck, leaning out over the water to act as a counter balance to the huge sail.

Out in deeper water the large rudder is fixed in place. The waves are causing the boat to buck and tip and Neu has to be sure footed not to be thrown from the boat as he lowers the rudder over the back into the water, locating the fixings and pushing the metal rod through them to hold the rudder in place. He slots the steering arm over the rudder and gives the order for the centre board to be pushed right down through the boat.

Using an old tin can tied to a thin wooden pole, Dolas soaks the sail to increase it’s wind resistance. He dips the can into the sea and launches the water high up onto the sail, its an action full of grace that looks far easier than it actually is, I know because I still can’t do it properly.

Getting through the surf can be a dangerous time. Capsize in shallow water and there is a risk of being trapped under the boat or sail. A capsize can easily result in a snapped mast or other damage to the boat and although repairs are relatively straightforward, providing the damage is not to the main body of the boat, any repair is a financial strain.

The wind is good for us today. Cumuripim can swim relatively close to the shore and Neu expects to reach the fishing ground quite quickly, an hour or so. The dark of night is turning away behind us and an orange strip slides along the horizon. We head towards the glow, the colours in the clouds are beautiful, shades of grey with pink, orange and deep purple. Neu has seen this sight many, many times but he says he is always awed by it. For the first time this morning we are all quiet. Slowly, ever so slowly the sky lightens, the orange strip burns a bigger slice into the horizon and then with a sudden rush the sun blazes it’s way up over the edge of the world, within minutes it is high in the sky. The spell broken, Neu begins to sing.

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We continue out for just over an hour, sailing a zig-zag course. Each time we need to change direction the mast has to be repositioned. Neu gives the order, I move to the centre of the deck, partly to be out of the way and partly to help with balancing the boat. When I first went sailing with Neu my Portuguese wasn’t good, we had gone out on his smallest boat and I didn’t understand his order to sit in the middle of the boat, the next thing I knew, we were both in the water and the boat was upside down. As he had previously been telling me this was a good place to fish for sharks, I spent the time it took for us to right the boat imagining a visit from Jaws.

The sail is released and Dolas and Neisin lift the mast, shifting it from one side of its housing to the other. The sail is re tightened and the centre board pulled up. Once the jangada begins to move forward the centre board is pushed down again, the sail is re soaked and we are under way once more.
When we reach the fishing ground, land is just a thin pale yellow strip on the horizon behind us.

P1040332The anchor is dropped, the sail taken down and lashed to the mast, the centre board removed and placed on the deck. The mast and  boom are taken down and laid over the mast housing at one end, running the length of the boat to rest on the seat at the other.

Once all is secure, the lines and bait are taken out. Neu has two lines, the rest of us have one each. We are using hooks about four inches long, they have a spade end that is bound with a length of stainless steal wire, which in turn has nylon line of 120lb breaking strain attached to it. For bait Neu likes to use a type of mullet known as Sauna or a long thin silver fish known here as Espada. Today he uses a whole Sauna about six inches long, hiding the hook within the fishes body, so the fish appears to swim at the end of the line.

When the lines are baited Neu ties one around my leg. I’m somewhat nervous about this, imagining myself being caught by the fish, rather than the other way round, until Neu explains that the knot will undo when a fish takes the bait, at least it should do. Last year Neu caught one that took the bait so hard and fast that it pulled him right off the boat.

The 200 metres of line is wound around a piece of polystyrene that looks like a big, squashed cotton reel. I asked Neu why no one uses a rod and reel, it comes down to economics. A rod and reel is an expense few can afford, most of the men fish with several lines out at the same time. If they lose the polystyrene holder they have a chance of getting it back as it floats, if not then it’s only the cost of that bit of line and hook that is gone, a rod would be much more costly to replace.

Now we just have to sit and wait. We can’t move about the jangada easily as its too small and feels very unpredictable as we rise and fall on the swell. Occasionally a bigger wave smacks into us, giving Neisin or Dolas a soaking as they are sitting up front, or bucking the back of the boat fit to tip me off the seat.

We pass the time eating crackers, rapadura (a sweet block made from sugar cane) and some fruit and then play a game with matchsticks until it becomes almost as boring as not playing.

Suddenly the match sticks are flying, Neu shouts and grabs at his line. At the back of the boat a shower of water rises high into the air and in the middle of it a large Cumuripim, flashing silver in the spray and sun, comes back down, hits the water side on with a tremendous thwack and then it’s gone. Neu shakes his head and pulls in the line. It all happened so quickly, I‘m not quite sure what’s happened. Neu explains that the Cumurupim dislodged the hook when it slapped back onto the sea. The wire is now twisted like a corkscrew and Neu says it’s no good to use anymore.

The Cumuripim swim and feed very close to the ocean floor, when they take the hook they go for the surface with incredible speed, the smaller ones (under 30k) often leaving the water to a height of several metres.

The fish spool out the line very quickly, a big fish can sometimes take all the 200m in a few minutes. The fishermen have another 200m back up line on a separate spool, a big cumurupim can take out 400m or more. When the fishermen approach the end of a line they have to attach another, for this they have a loop prepared in one through which they thread the end and tie a knot, this is all done in the blink of an eye, preferably by a mate, but if fishing solo then its just down to the man.

Once a fish is hooked, the men need to use skill and strength to bring the fish in. Neu has brought fish in after 20 minutes and others after more than an hour. The men wrap the line around their bare hands to pull the fish in, incredibly tough work and, not surprisingly, they often suffer cuts from the line in the process. Occasionally a fish won’t give up, if it can’t be brought round when the fisherman reaches the end of his supply of line, he might have to let it go, something the men are loath to do, not least for the cost of the line but also the fate of the fish trailing it. The men try to avoid this at all costs, diving into the water to retrieve the buoy, or re setting the sail on the boat to chase after it.

On this trip, after a further hours wait, a second cumuripim takes Neu’s line, it too gets away and Neu decides to call it a day. Greatly disappointed we head for home. Back on the beach, any fish caught are quickly de scaled. The scale’s are used for some forms of arts and crafts as they are the most beautiful iridescent silver, some the size of my palm. Sometimes an old man takes them to make a medicine for asthma, I don’t know what he does with them but don’t like to imagine the taste. Once the fish has been cleaned, the head and eggs are taken home to be eaten, the carcass is sold to the local fish merchant.

The cumuripim season starts in late September when they migrate down the coast. When the men are fishing for cumuripim they fish solely for them. If they catch one they are in the money, if not they have nothing. This year the cumuripim have been evasive, hardly any cumuripim have been caught so far. Neu has caught three (in roughly 2 months of fishing) but they were all small in comparison to the 56K one of last year.

Cumuripim / Tarpon

Neu’s 56k Cumuripim / Tarpon

When proper accounts are taken, how much is paid out in food, boat maintenance and gear, the men might not break even in a bad year like this. It is soul destroying to set out in the early hours and spend the best part of the day, or several days out at sea, only to come home empty handed, yet the men mostly take it in their stride, always hoping that tomorrow will be a better day.

Depending on what they are fishing for and the size of the boat, the men will be gone for anything from one to five days. The large jangadas have a space inside to store their food, water and gear. The fishermen can slide into this space to rest, pulling the hatch down to keep the water out. Here they can sleep, escape the blazing sun or the wind and rain of a tropical storm. The space is approximately 45cm at it’s highest point, tapering down to 35cm. With two or three men in such a confined space, lying on the bare boards of the underside of the boat, in high temperatures with the noise of the sea slapping the sides, it can hardly be described as comfortable.

The bigger the jangada the further out it can travel, reaching deeper water where it’s hoped the fishing will be better. Yet the time they can stay out for is limited, for several reasons: Any fish they catch must reach the beach fresh. The bigger jangadas leave the beach with blocks of ice in a large polystyrene box, for the fish not to spoil, the men have to return before the ice has melted.

Then there’s the amount of fresh water and food they can take. Their diet is mostly dry biscuits, rapadura, farinha (a toasted meal made from manioc) and fish. The men make a stew from fish they have caught and thicken it with farinha, sometimes they will take spaghetti, they eat this with farinha too, in fact everything is eaten with farinha. It’s a bit of an acquired taste but it’s cheap and very filling.

On one long trip with Neu, Dolas and another friend Menos, I got to see just how they go about making a stew. Firstly out came a shallow metal dish (actually an old street light cover) nailed to a thick wooden board, with a layer of wet sand in the dish.

Cooking at sea

Cooking at sea

Charcoal is piled into the dish on top of the sand. Menos looking for all the world like a fair ground worker balancing on the rolling deck, no holding on for him, pulled apart the fibres of a coconut husk to use it as a fire lighter. Meanwhile the salted fish we had brought with us was washed, first in the sea, then in some of our drinking water.

The fish was put into the stew pot, drinking water added and, amazingly, more salt. In no time at all the stew was bubbling. When the fish was ready, farinha, a whole kilo of it, was poured into a large shallow tin dish.

Fresh fish stew

Fresh fish stew

The cooking water was poured into the farinha until it was good and stodgy, then the fish put on top. That was our gourmet meal. I balanced the dish in my lap, Neu sitting on one side of me, Dollas standing on the other and Menos eating his portion straight off the box lid of the entrance to the Jangada. I can’t say the stew was delicious but after 8 hours at sea, it was well needed and filling.

Basic health and hygiene also limits time out at sea, no toilet, no showers and the men are being drenched in salt water from the minute they leave the beach. These things coupled with the fierce heat from the sun, with only the shade from the sail when it’s up, no shade when it’s down, make it impossible to stay out for too long.

I find it tremendously exhilarating going out on the boat, every trip is an adventure, especially exciting if a good catch is made. Yet fun as it may be, sailing a jangada is hard, physical work. Some of the fishing grounds are more than a day’s sail away, longer if the wind drops. As much as I would love to go on a long trip, I can not get inside the jangada, the idea of being in such a confined space with the lid shut, fills me with horror.

The longest trip I have undertaken was to sail along the coast, a distance of roughly 50km as the crow flies. As we had to sail against the current and the wind, which wasn’t kind to us that day, it took us eleven hours. All this time we were standing, balancing the boat with our body weight, our feet constantly in the water as the waves washed over the deck. I was fit to drop by the time we arrived.

The Master has to be alert at all times, if he loses concentration or doesn’t react quickly enough the boat can easily go over. A deep water capsize poses further dangers to the crew. A large jangada requires at least nine men to re-right it, if no other big boats are in the area the crew are stranded on the upturned hull until help arrives. With luck the crew will have been able to salvage their food and water, if not this adds to the discomfort of what can be a very long wait.

Just as leaving the beach can be difficult, coming back requires skill too, get it right and the waves will carry the boat high up the beach, get it wrong and the boat can go over with the added risk of loosing the catch.

No matter how tired they are, the men have to haul their boats back up above the high tide mark. Considerably more men are needed to return the boats, as the incline of the beach can be very steep depending on the season and how the tide has affected the constantly shifting sand. The fishermen will usually give fish to those who help, so there are always more helpers for the boats that have made a good catch. Like insult to injury, those with a poor catch have a harder job of getting their boat back up the beach.

The hand made boats, well looked after, can last for twenty years or more and despite the hardships of sailing a jangada, the men are fiercely proud of their boats and justly deserve their reputation for being amongst the bravest fishermen in the world.

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