Midnight on July 27, 2007, was the start of my 38th birthday. What normally was a happy time turned grim when my Westsail 32, Wanti, slammed into a remote section of the northeast Brazilian coast.
I awoke to a thunderous, crunching sound. My first reaction was that we had hit a reef. I jumped from my bunk and scrambled to the deck. I was greeted by a shocking sight &mdash Wanti was surrounded by breaking waves which, with each surge, pushed my beloved boat higher up onto the beach. I stood helplessly on the deck, bracing against the cabin top as each surge knocked the fully canvassed boat toward the shore. My Brazilian crewmember, Hosana Farias, called from below "O que é isso (what is it)?" I replied, "We've run aground. We hit the coast, but the boat is okay."
Wanti had set sail a year and three days earlier from Barrington, R.I., on a trip that would take us to the Azores, Portugal, Porto Santo, Madeira, the Canary Islands, Cape Verde, and finally Brazil. We had weathered five gales, several violent squalls and had recovered from a knockdown off the African coast. I could not imagine that a simple and fundamental navigation error would spell out the final chapter in the wonderful history of Wanti.
As dawn approached, it was clear that the receding tide had left us high and dry upon the coast. Oddly, I was filled with an empowering sense of optimism; the salvation of my boat was still possible. But we would need assistance.
We were grounded in a remote section of Lençóis Maranhenses National Park in the northeastern state of Maranhão. Lençóis is one of the jewels of Brazil. Composed of high, sweeping dunes, the landscape appears like a massive desert speckled with random pools of water. As far as the eye could see was sand and it felt as if we had suddenly landed at the edge of the Sahara. We were approximately 180 miles from the capital city of São Luís which was our final destination. The only signs of life were a smattering of thatched lean-tos which appeared to be uninhabited.
By 0600, we were greeted by a local fisherman and his nephew. They had spotted our stranded vessel. The fisherman was a welcome sight and he advised us that his village was several miles away and that we might be able to find assistance in the larger city of Santa Maria. I knew I'd need tractors to try to get Wanti refloated. This would be a tall order given our remote location. The full moon had brought us upon the shore to the maximum height of the tide and the tidal range left us 150 feet from the ocean at low tide. This was a huge distance to move the boat and to make matters worse, we would have to make all rescue efforts within a short six-hour span before the tide turned.
The fisherman kindly offered his nephew as our guide and agreed to watch our boat as we set off. The possibility of looting was very real &mdash an abandoned, foreign sailboat would quickly gain the attention of other local inhabitants. In Brazil, â€˜abandoned' meant that your property became public. The chances of my boat being pilfered increased with every hour we spent away.
Our journey by foot took us across splendid dunes and cliffs of sand from which the eye could survey a massive range of sand mountains. There were no roads, no signs, no paths, no people. After two hours, we came upon the young boy's village. Here, finally, was some civilization and we happily paused for a short rest. The local village quickly gathered around to stare at these two aliens that had been dropped into their world. Here there were no cars, no electricity, no stores &mdash the only way to access the village was by foot. Villagers were kind people, offering us drinks and a snack.
After our brief respite, we walked for another three hours. We came upon a wide riverbed and had to wade through the river up to our chest. From the time we had left our boat to the time we arrived at the outskirts of Santa Maria, five hours had passed. We quickly set out to find help.
We spent the next three days walking all over town trying to locate assistance of any kind. We tried to convince tractor owners, but they weren't interested. We discovered that a fishing village known as Travoso had tractors. They had apparently been involved with rescuing a stranded European vessel last year. Travoso was only accessible by 4 x 4 as the fishing village had no roads and no phones. After much negotiation and time, we finally paid the price for the 90 minute ride to Travoso: $500 BR (about $250 US). Ouch.
A village with a tractor
We left the following day. After 90 minutes of driving, we came to the tiny village of Travoso. The town's population numbered around 150 people, mostly fishermen and their families. We were brought to a small mud house on the edge of an inlet that led out to the ocean. My eyes caught sight of a weathered, red tractor parked in front. The owner was Hermano Cruz and his wife Cecelia. They heard our story and, with some persuasion and diplomacy, we were able to convince the couple to look at our boat. From Travoso, our boat lay about 12 miles south. Hermano loaded up the tractor with a crew of male villagers, fired it up and off we went. About an hour and a half later we arrived at Wanti. Seeing my mast in the distance, my heart jumped for joy.
As we approached, I could see that everything onboard was intact. This was a relief. Half of me had expected the decks to be stripped and the interior of the boat to be plundered. By the time we returned, Wanti had been sitting on the shoreline for more than three days.
Hermano scanned the boat from all angles. He exchanged words with his crew, seeking opinions and after a 15-minute survey, he announced, "Vamos voltar amanha sair seus barco (we will return tomorrow and free your boat)." My heart lifted and I felt that we did have a chance. The villagers once again packed onto the tractor and it departed. The villagers had agreed to return tomorrow morning at 1000 to start work. We had not discussed any cost for the efforts and I was reluctant to set a price without seeing what type of progress we could make. In Brazil, everything is negotiable.
Hosana and I had chosen to stay behind as a security measure. We had plenty of food and water. I also had a tent onboard which we could set up for sleeping on the beach. Living inside the boat was extremely uncomfortable given its extreme heel. That evening we were greeted by the fisherman who had assisted us on the first morning that we beached. He invited us to join him for dinner at this hut just inland. Hosana and I grabbed a few bottles of the Sao Braz wine we had onboard. We were treated to a feast of salted fish grilled over a small fire. Despite recent events, my surroundings provided a curious relief: the undulating desert landscape, the brilliant canopy of stars, the distant sound of crashing surf and the orange moon that hovered just above the ocean.
With gleeful enthusiasm, we greeted the arriving red tractor in the morning. Fourteen people had accompanied Hermano. I was ecstatic. I quickly got to work explaining my game plan to inch the boat down to the water. We planned to secure two separate loops around the bow and stern sections using the hawsepipes as anchoring points. Using the might of the tractor, we would first pull on the bow and then on the stern, slowly scissoring Wanti down the beach.
Before we could even attach warps, we first had the task of digging out Wanti's keel from the wet sand. With all men working, we were able to expose the keel. Then, we used four logs to wedge under the keel. These provided a platform for the keel to roll over with each pull of the tractor.
The tractor digs in
Having positioned the logs, a 100-foot-long warp was secured from the bow to the trailer hitch. All watched as the tractor wheels dug in and smoke bellowed from the tractor stack. The bow moved slightly and started to swing, but it was clear the single tractor was having trouble managing Wanti's weight. This pattern continued for the next four hours. The men worked busily securing logs and pushing on Wanti's bow to assist the tractor's pull. Once some progress was made, the warp was then set on the stern loop and the men began to push on the stern as the rallying cry of "Embora!!" sent the tractor hauling.
To my dismay, after five hours of effort, the vessel had moved a mere seven feet. By 1700, the incoming tide made it impossible for the tractor to set its wheels in the soft sand and efforts were abandoned for the day. It was clear that two tractors would be needed. Hermano told me that there was a second tractor in Travoso that was owned by the municipality. He believed the tractor could be used tomorrow.
We joined the villagers for the tractor ride back to the house. Hermano had invited us to spend the night at his modest house and we accepted.
The sight of two tractors at the beach the next day was enough cause for my enthusiasm. Plus, we had a larger, 24-man crew, as word had spread of a "prize" for freeing my boat. We found Wanti in the same position that I had beached it with the stern facing the ocean and the bow pointed to the beach. The crew began to remove the sand blanketing the keel as two warps each were respectively secured to the bow and to the stern. The other ends of the warps were secured to the tractor hitches which were positioned adjacent to equalize and maximize the pulling force.
With the hail of "Embora!" the tractors would surge forward, wheels clawing for ground, eventually digging their large wheels deep into the sandbed. Lines would be reset, the tractors repositioned and then again, the tractors would strain with full force. Progress was clearly evident as the additional horsepower scissored the bow and then the stern toward the water. By 1100, we had moved 20 feet. I made a quick measurement and figured we needed to move at least 150 feet in total &mdash we still had 130 feet to cover. I become nervous that we would not reach the water's edge. I was deathly afraid my boat would not be freed.
Shortly after 1100, it was clear that the rudder was acting as a brake and it needed to be removed. Hermano insisted that it would be fine and, despite my rantings, he signaled to the team and the tracors to pull. A loud crack was heard. Closer inspection of the rudder showed that the tail of the rudder had been split down the middle from top to bottom. Already under considerable duress, I could not control my anger. I threw off my baseball cap in disgust and began to yell at Hermano, swearing at the top of my lungs, gesturing at the rudder and pointing to my head shouting, "How could you be so goddamn mindless? I told you to take off the rudder! Why didn't you listen?" I must have looked like a foreigner possessed by the devil. The situation was deteriorating.
By 1700, we had moved 60 feet. The tide had risen and as it continued to flood, it was apparent that the three feet of water that covered the sand would not be sufficient. Wanti would not refloat today.
Dejected, the crew of villagers and myself returned to the village that evening on the tractors. An eerie silence infected the exhausted group. It was an uncomfortable night at Hermano's house given the day's tensions.
Salvage day three
Day three began with confusion. It was unclear whether the villagers were going to rally to make a third trip to the boat. After yesterday's efforts, my morale had sunk and the villagers did not think they would be able to free the boat. They had spent two full days in exhausting labor without result.
Without the villagers and the tractors, my boat was a certain loss. I knew that we needed to take action immediately or enthusiasm for the rescue would disappear. The villagers knew that a cash prize was only possible if they succeeded.
I suggested the night before that we obtain an additional two tractors from the neighboring city 20 miles away. With four tractors, we could more efficiently move the vessel given our experience over the last two days. This would take time, however, and that was a luxury we did not have right now. After some convincing and coaxing, we managed to round up the troops and start again for the boat. But it was a late start. By the time we arrived at Wanti, it was already 1100.
The crew quickly set to action. During one attempt, a warp snapped. Hermano and his wife demanded that I pay for a new warp. I argued with him that this should be his cost. We had agreed the night before that I would pay some price even if the boat was not salvaged. I made it clear that costs for the labor and the materials would be his and were not ancillary to our deal. Given my refusal, the situation began to escalate as Hermano and I found ourselves screaming at each other in Portuguese and nearly coming to blows. Furious, he began disengaging all warps and packing up his supplies in his tractor. I noticed that he was only aided by his wife, son and father-in-law. The other men refused to pitch in.
A large cash prize
I gathered a small and separate crowd of men and pleaded with them. Hermano was risking losing the large cash prize over a $80 BR (about $40 US) rope. Did the men want to go home with nothing after three days of hard work? The men listened attentively and, surprisingly, I found that my speech had its intended effect as a small party approached Hermano and told him, "Queremos trabalhar. Queremos sair o barco de Gringo ("We want to work, we want to free the gringo's boat.")
The next five hours passed quickly. The team worked with absolute focus and concentration. We were 150 feet down the beach. It was 1700 and the sun was beginning to set. I was convinced that we would have sufficient water to refloat. With water tanks emptied and all gear removed from the deck, the heavy displacement sailboat would be lighter and would respond to the advancing tide. Two long warps off the bow kept us facing toward the ocean. One warp made use of the 200 feet of chain and my 35-lb CQR anchor.
As the water level rose, Wanti would periodically teeter along its keel from port to starboard and then from starboard to port. A grouping of men were positioned astern, and as the waves surged, the men would attempt to push the hull in unison screaming "Embora!" As the tide rose, the men soon found the water up to their chest and shoulders. The water level was starting to look adequate. Water would flood the gunwale and pour over the toe rail surging the length of the deck. I needed five feet to meet the draft requirement of the Westsail 32, and, in surges, I could feel the keel pick up off the ground and then bounce along the bottom. It was the troughs of waves where the water level was less than five feet, probably four feet at best.
Part of our strategy was to have a fishing boat placed 300 feet offshore. A long warp would be secured from the bow of Wanti to the fishing boat. After some time, the warp was delivered to the waiting boat.
As the waves surged and Wanti lifted, the tension of the offshore warp was supposed to provide forward motion for the vessel. Standing alone on the deck, I could not feel the effect of the fishing boat, not even so much as a nudge, a slight skip, a minor advance. Meanwhile, the tide was advancing to a dangerous level. Soon, the water level had risen so high that with each surge, gallons of water poured into the cockpit. The fiberglass cockpit floor cover lifted and water began to flood the engine room.
The situation went from bad to horrific. The fishing boat tried to tow us off, but without success. Finally the tow line snapped.
The power of the waves
In the meantime, the surging waves increased in size and power. Waves buried the bowsprit as they broke over the hatches and cabin top. Seawater continued to flood the engine room and I knew that my Volvo motor was fried. I witnessed the incredible power of the ocean. The forward hatch was the first to go. The hatch had been locked in place by a solid stainless steel 5/16-inch threaded bolt and the hatch itself was made of 1.5-inch solid teak. I watched as the force of the waves lifted the hatch, breaking the lock, causing the hatch to flip open. Standing alone, I watched helplessly as water poured through the forward hatch. I made an effort to close the forward hatch, but it was almost impossible to get any footing on the forward deck against the waves superior force. Seawater began to flood into the cabin and I could see the water level belowdecks rose to the height of the settees. I knew with each surge, that the weight of the seawater would increase the weight of the hull.
On deck, I watched as the teak hand rails were ripped off the cabin top along with my rack system which had so faithfully housed all of my gear. The middle hatch which acted as a skylight was also ripped off and it floated into the sea. The surge was so violent that it became dangerous for anyone to be onboard. I shut the cabin aft hatch, kissed the cabin top, and jumped in to the sea. Wading to the neighboring shore, the large crowd of villagers gathered on the beach was my sole audience.
I reached the shore in shock. I was cold, numb, empty, speechless. The villagers gathered up their belongings and loaded themselves onto the tractor. Within 10 minutes, they had left me and Hosana alone on the lonely and desolate beach.
I had sailed across the Atlantic two times &mdash first to Europe and then from Europe to Brazil. By simply setting sail, I did what most sailors only dream of doing. I took risks and with those risks come consequences. In doing so, I had become a sailor. And, this in itself was awesome.
Neil Malik lives in Barrington, R.I. Upon his return from Brazil, he started a new company called Barrington Marine which has introduced a new line of sailboat rack systems called SailboatRacks. Malik is currently planning his next sailing adventure &mdash a passage across the Pacific following a rounding of Cape Horn.