On Saturday I got the opportunity to go sea fishing for the first time in a long time, the film maker Charlotte Eichhorn* asked me if I would be willing to go out on a jangada and film the men fishing, so this was the main reason for the trip.
My husband Neu was signed off sick by his doctor early in 2011, his kidney failure having reached the point where he is no longer physically capable of working as a fisherman, but as a doctor in the social security office stopped Neu’s sickness benefit in December, insinuating Neu was making a fraudulent claim, we have to make money where we can until the appeal.
As this would be a shorter than normal fishing trip, Neu agreed to take me, we wouldn’t make a fortune, Charlottes limited budget had to be divided between those of us on the boat and the boat owner (Neu no longer owns a boat big enough, so he borrowed his cousin’s) but of course we might get lucky and actually catch some fish. It all helps and to be honest, Neu is desperate to get back to sea, he suffers if he goes but I think he suffers more when he cant, so any excuse is good enough for him.
The alarm bleeped us awake at 4.30, the worst part for me of any fishing trip is the shockingly early start but, once I’ve dragged myself out of bed the excitement takes over. We set off for the beach and met Menes, who was coming with us, on the way.
As I munched on an apple for breakfast, Menes and Neu discussed the weather (very windy and not coming from the right direction for us) and what supplies they needed to buy, as Charlotte wanted me to film how the men prepare and cook their food while at sea. I left them waiting for the small store to open and went down to the beach to meet Charlotte who would be filming us setting off.
Charlotte was wandering along the beach in the early morning light, looking worried and then relieved when she saw me. Brazilian’s attitude to time and appointments is often very laid back, Charlotte is Swiss, couldn’t be more opposite. Charlotte was punctual, we were late so she was wondering if we were going to show at all.
We sat on a jangada watching some of the other boats putting to sea, Charlotte explaining some more about the shots she was looking for and I, some of the limitations of filming on the jangada, namely that on a rough day like today the boat will go up and down like a bucking bronco, I cant move around much to film, both while we are sailing and while fishing because the boats not that big at 5 meters and I have to be be careful of not getting in the way and then of course, we couldn’t guarantee catching a fish.
Chat, chat, chat and a small boat going out to sea, having a bit of difficulty getting through the breakers, it was clear that I wouldn’t be able to film anything of us going out, spray or full on waves hitting the boat would kill the video camera if they soaked it, best to leave it safely tucked inside the boat until we hopefully reached calmer water.
The breakers charged down on the solitary fisherman, the small boat only a few meters into the water was being thrown back towards the beach like a bobbing cork, then a sneaky wave turned the jangada sideways while another slammed into it, the man fought to save his boat but the waves had the upper hand and the boat capsized. Needless to say, neither Charlotte nor I caught it on camera.
Men went to help the fisherman right his boat and retrieve his fishing gear. Dragging his mast and sodden sail out of the sea, the damage was clear, the top of the mast had struck the sea bed and snapped, there would be no more fishing for him today and a repair job he can ill afford.
Neu and Menes arrived, they exchanged a few words with the dripping fishermen who was laughing at his own plight, it always amazes me how the fishermen can and do laugh in the face of adversity, the man was more embarrassed at having capsized than worried over the damage done.
A small group of fishermen were waiting at the jangada we were to be sailing on, in part keen to see Charlotte and her filming gear, in part the mad Englishwoman, who for some reason likes to go to sea when she could be at home cleaning the house, some of them don’t understand it but I know where I would rather be.
A large jangada is a heavy beast on dry land and requires the force of many men to manoeuvre. Neu’s brother Kito Velho, with whom I have been fishing many times, was amongst the group of men who would help us put to sea. Another fisherman (who doesn’t know me) commented to Kito that I would be in for a surprise going to sea, would have to sit (as most people unused to balancing on the deck have to do) and would probably be sick. Kito shook his head and I was chuffed to hear him declare proudly that “She knows how to sail the jangada, she knows how to fish, she knows, she knows. And she goes standing up!”
While the men are getting the boat ready for sea I feel a bit useless, you rarely hear someone giving orders, they all just know what needs to be done and get on with it. I’m always nervous of doing the wrong thing and showing myself up so I stand around waiting for Neu to give me something to do. Today, I think almost to prove a point to the fishermen who think I cant do things, he told me to pull the centre board into place. This is a very heavy wooden plank, a couple of meters long that goes down into the water through the centre of the boat to stabilise it, I can do it but it’s heavy, very heavy, thanks Neu!
At 6 am, a little later than expected we pushed the boat into the shallow water, Neu told me to get on board and they pushed the boat further out, until they were up to their chests in water, then a mad scramble to get on deck before the boat takes off, it’s easy to get left behind at this point, which is why Neu makes me get on earlier. Diomedio (the 4th person on the boat today) goes forward and even while the boat is slamming up and down on the breaking waves, holds on to the rope with only one hand (I’m tightly holding onto it with two) and uses the aguador (a can attached to a long stick) to scoop water from the sea and throw onto the sail soaking it and improving it’s ability to catch the wind, speeding our passage.
The sea was very rough going out, we had the occasional towering wave looming up, causing shouts to hold on tight, it’s quite something to be on a small boat facing a wall of water, but Neu managed to steer clear avoiding the worst of them crashing down on us and within 5 minutes we’d passed the worst of it. The jangada sailed like a dream, a beautiful boat, so despite the wind being against us we reached the fishing ground an hour and a half later, land was just visible as a thin strip on the horizon.
The anchor was thrown in, the mast taken down, the fishing gear taken out and Diomedio realised he’d forgotten the bait! The men use a line with nothing but hooks, giving it sharp tugs through the water until some small fish goes for it, but it can take a long time before a bait fish is caught in this way.
The argulhas (Ballyhoo halfbeak, Hemiramphus brasiliensis) swim in large shoals, a man goes out on a small raft dragging one end of a net behind him, he rows in a large circle around the shoal until he comes back to the boat, the two ends of the net are then drawn back in, the captured fish are stored within the boat and the guy with the raft goes out again. This is repeated over and over until either they catch no more or the boat is full, bearing in mind the necessity of getting back to the beach while the catch is still fresh).
As soon as they had bait the men began catching fish, nothing really big, good for lunch or as bait for something bigger (unfortunately it was too complicated trying to film and fish so I had to concentrate on the filming). With one of these bigger bait fish, Diomedio hooked an raia, (Southern Stingray, Dasyatis americana) these average about a meter across and weigh roughly 30kg but can grow up to 2 meters with the record weight of 111kg (Marcelo Szpilman. Peixes Marinhos Do Brasil. 2000) which frankly is a monster. These are very dangerous fish to catch, they have a serrated poisonous barb on their tales with which they defend themselves, whipping their tales with ferocious speed in all directions, being caught even slightly by the barb from a small ray is enough to cause extreme pain requiring a trip to the hospital, an adult ray can kill a man.
Diomedio and Neu took it in turns to try and bring in the ray, the 80lb breaking strain line was thin for catching such a fish (for rays they usually use 100lb line), the risk of snapping the line was high and it cut into their hands as the ray fought to free itself. Diomedio said he thought the ray had got to the bottom, it is almost impossible to pull them off if they do this and sure enough, a moment later the line snapped. Diomedio tied a new hook to the line, re baited and threw it over the side, it had barely gone in the water when Neu hooked another ray. This time it didn’t get to the bottom and after about 5 minutes of playing the line the large ray appeared alongside the boat.
Diomedio readied the gaff while Neu guided the ray to the part of the boat where it could most safely be brought on deck. The ray was not going to give in without a struggle and it caused the water to foam and spray as it tried in vain to free itself, Diomedio was able to get the gaff into the front of the ray, it was hauled on deck and despatched, it’s tale was removed to prevent anyone being caught by the barb.
Diomedio opened up the ray to see if his hook was inside it (it wasn’t, meaning it was not the same ray) and then secured it to the front of the boat. The men reckoned it weighed about 25 kilos and would yield about 15 kilos of saleable meat.
At R$2.00 per kilo Neu wouldn’t see any money from it, any fish caught are divided in such away that the boat owner gets half and the rest are divided equally between the crew. Veio (the boat owner) later kindly chose to only take an equal share, meaning the men had a quarter each (I didn’t count) so ray for dinner all round. In different circumstances the men would have stayed longer to catch more.
Having caught the ray and knowing we had filmed a great catch for Charlotte, the men set about cooking the smaller fish for lunch. Menes squeezed down into the boat, into the shallow space where the men sleep on trips of 4 to 5 days at sea.
An old battered metal bucket nailed to a thick block of wood at the base and half filled with wet sand was brought out, the charcoal and coconut husk to set fire to it, cups, 1 large shallow bowl, spoons, farinha (a meal made from manioc) and the fruit we had brought with us. Menes cleaned and washed the fish in sea water before putting them into the pan with fresh water (also brought along), nothing else was added, they held off the usual ton of salt as Neu is on a salt free diet. Neu teased out the inner of the coconut husk, held a lighted match to it and then lifted the hole thing up to catch the wind, in seconds it was blazing, the coconut husk was shoved into the coals and they were soon glowing red hot. The pan was set on to boil.
A short time later a couple of handfuls of farinha was put into a bowl, the boiling fish stock was added until the farinha swelled to resemble lumpy wallpaper paste. The farinha mix was dolloped out onto the lid of the hatch for me and Neu, our fish plonked alongside. Diomedio added two large dessertspoons of salt to the pan before mixing the liquid with farinha for himself and Menes. It’s not my idea of fine cuisine but believe me it tasted fantastic.
After lunch, the coals were tossed in the sea, the pan and bowls etc washed up and the boat washed down. The remains of the fish and farinha floated away to be devoured by a mass of agulhas come to feast, the sea boiled while their silver bodies glittered in the sun.
Charlotte was delighted with the filming I did, for copywrite reasons I can only show selected still images here, but she will give me the link to the trailer she makes for her film, hopefully I can put that up in the near future. Meanwhile Neu said he thinks we should go and do it again, maybe next time I’ll get to film then catching a cumurupim (tarpon, Megalops atlanticus), its a dream of mine to film and really would be worth watching.
©Claire Pattison Valente 2012