Friday, May 12, 2017

The Brazilian Coast: Buzios to Abrolhos

Part I: Buzios

Our trip consists of passages and landfalls. When we tire of one, we find relief in the other. The short passages take you away from civilization and reduce the world to sea, sky, and the thoughts in your mind. Long passages cut to the quick, find the bottom of your patience, and if you look out at the sea and sky long enough, what once seemed so obvious reveals itself as complex beyond your ability to understand. After a long passage, sighting land, and the details of man and nature that come into view as you draw nearer, allow you to re-enter the world as if seeing it for the first time. Imagine that for many days you are alone on the ocean reacting only to changes in wind, rain, and light, and then you are suddenly standing in the food court of a Brazilian mall watching four men drink nearly frozen beer out of a comically large mug with mini taps mounted on the bottom. Or you are riding in a taxi through a busy market place at a rate of speed ten times faster than a sailboat can move, doing nothing to make it go. This is how we live, you think. How it is at home too. This is the goal of civilization. Our travels in Brazil have brought us to these experiences, but also to the opposite. The experience of approaching a coast that has not been touched by man, an undredged channel, an uninterrupted erosion, a coastline instead of a sea wall, or amber-lit Malecon. Landfall as it must have been in all the great stories of the sea. These are the places that entice me to endure the hardship of long passages.

Buzios juts out from the Brazilian coast like an upturned thumb. This peninsula is pocked with bays on the southern and northern shores. Regardless of the wind direction, which changes throughout the year, there are always calm waters to be found in Buzios. The islands off the peninsula, and the shallow waters, are home to fish, whales, and rays. On our approach the wind and current were coming from the north as is said to be the pattern after May. As we rounded the peninsula the windward shore was awash with spray creating mist that rose up from the indentations in the coast. The ocean was bright cobalt against the granite of the cliffs and the dark sea caves like mouths agape. It was breathtaking. We saw a Whaleshark surface and Rays were doing back flips. In the distant I saw whale spouts. I was sure that my decision to stop here would be commended by Max. And then we turned the corner. The protected waters of the bay, and the small, curved beaches were choked with boats and people. There wasn't room to spread a towel on the sand, and high speed water taxis flew across the water. Terrible music sounded from dozens of motorboats and we could here the loudspeakers coming from the tourist sailboats that never raise a sail. Crap, I thought. Max is not going to like this. We anchored by the yacht club and decided to go ashore and give the place a fair shake. A fishing boat came over to talk to us and took us into town.

Buzios is Nantucket Gone Wild. The streets are a non-stop commercial assault. Each stretch of sidewalk is the territory of a restaurant where waiters must impede your progress with a menu in the face and promises of seafood and cheap Chacaca. Max thought he could find a fishing store, but all you can buy in Buzios is a high enb bikini, very large sunglasses, or one thousand dinners out on the town. Many storefronts are filled with mannequins donning the haute-couture version of the already flamboyant Brazilian bikini. Taken to the next level you may purchase one that has a front but not a back, a back with a minimal front, one that shows only the bottom of your breasts, or just the sides somehow. Real women, well almost entirely real, walk the streets modeling these bikinis, veins like arthritic fingers bulge from their gravity defying assets. If you aren't in the market for this, a pair of sunglasses, or a picture with a bronze statue of Bridget Bardot, Buzios has nothing to offer. We struggled to find a supermarket. We indulged in expensive coffees, checked our emails, and left early the next morning. More than ever I was convinced that our next landfall should be the Abrolhos Archipelago, a place known for its remoteness, healthy reefs, and drastic restrictions on human behavior.

We sailed 250 miles north to Abrolhos dodging the traffic of the oil fields offshore. At this part of the Brazilian coast the weather becomes so much more favorable. It almost snuck up on me that we were in such calm waters, with a light breeze and no squalls on the horizon. Sailing on the southern coast had been characterized by riding depressions northward and accepting that that plan came with capricious weather, intermittent rain, and dark patches on the horizon that could completely reverse the wind direction. We had grown used to that and hoped the sailors who advised us that this would change were right. They were. North of Buzios we found ourselves in what might as well have been the trades, though a weaker wind seemed to prevail. We spent all day outside again, able to use all deck space. No rain, no spray, just ease and comfort for a change.

Part II: Abrolhos

Abrolhos is for the birds. On one island the Brown Booby nests. Another the White Booby defends. The tallest island, and most striking with steep, feces-stained cliffs seen from afar, belongs to the Magnificent Frigate Bird that soars higher than the others, making its living off stealing the freshly caught fish of the Booby. The birds that had gone to sea for food greeted us five miles out, and as we got closer to landfall, we saw black clouds of activity above each island.

The approach to Abrolhos

The reefs of Abrolhos come into view ten miles away as a camouflage pattern of turquoise. These reefs create shallows stretching from the mainland to the archipelago which lies thirty-five miles offshore. These reefs had unpleasantly surprised many navigators giving the islands their name, an evolution of Abra los oyos, open your eyes. Navigating in from the south is preferable because there is a clear path of adequate depth straight to the mooring in front of the largest island, Santa Barbara. We arrived in the morning and called the Abrolhos Lighthouse on 16. They were welcoming and encouraged us to take a mooring in front of the main island. The bright colors of the green water hitting the black, porous coasts of the volcanic islands make the approach to Abrolhos alone worth the trip. Where the islands curved in to create beaches, I saw the now familiar cinnamon colored sands of the Brazilian Coast. The islands were almost free of human influence and I was thrilled to look at them and know that they looked as they always had. It is rare to make landfall and see what a sailor a hundred years ago may have seen.

As soon as we were secured to the mooring, we were surprised to see two people swim out to meet us. They climbed aboard, introduced themselves as volunteers for the Marine Conservancy, and offered us a brief history of Abrolhos, running us through the rules. We were only permitted on two islands and had to be accompanied by a guide at all times. We could move to any of the dozen moorings as we pleased, attaining protection from all winds and easy access to the reefs. In guidebooks these rules are described as Draconian, but I understand them to be necessary to maintain such a pristine environment, especially when Humpback season comes around and the tourists show up in drogues. I enjoyed having the guides with us. One, Guillermo in case he is reading, was thrilled to sail with us around the islands and took us snorkeling to see the different species of turtles. He was able to answer all of my bird questions and tell us about life as a student in Rio where there are frequent student strikes. Maybe we were just excited to hang out with some one other than each other for once. We even tried to take him with us to the next port.

Guillermo points out the nesting Bermuda Longtail
With Guillermo we swam to the lowest island and toured the nesting grounds of the White Booby. There is only a small path along the water where visitors are allowed to walk. We were told that if a bird is in the path, we must always defer to the the ocean side, so as not to threaten the breeding grounds. On the path we saw many adolescent Boobies, seemingly confused by the cowlicks of an advanced state of molting, their masked faces like that of an aged clown, freshly powdered. They stared up at us with yellow, curious eyes, but did not move. Higher up on the island the mothers were looking out to sea, ambivalent to the open and upturned beaks of their hungry and demanding young, awkward puffs of bright white filling the nest. Around the corner of the island we found a pair of the Bermuda Longtail, who prefer the protection of an overhanging cliff to the openness of the Boobies' nests. The Bermuda Longtail mate for life and, all around Abrolhos, the couples swoop trying to out sing one another. You would think that they are all white but closer they are iridescent as pearls with red beaks and dramatic black markings on their cheeks. Unlike the silly looking Booby, they have intelligent eyes that suggest an understanding of the effect their elegant flight and the calligraphic detail of their tail feathers have on admirers.

Bermuda Lontail

A female Magnificent Frigate Bird
The reefs in Abrolhos were the healthiest we have seen, and the diversity and size of the fish the greatest. As each of the islands belongs to a type of bird, each of the reefs is home to a type of turtle, the Hawkbill, the Green, and the Loggerhead turtles being present in great numbers. In the mornings we could see them surfacing all around our boat for a few gulps of oxygen before returning to their rich feeding grounds. We snorkeled as much as we could entertaining ourselves by chasing around fat, blue Parrot Fish or just staring at the neon of Angelfish as big as Thanksgiving platters. Max was lucky enough to see a cloud of Cuddle fish and a Great Barracuda.

In the evenings we sat on the deck and watched the birds, the slipping away of the sun and were the only two voices. We waited to see the lighthouse keeper remove the curtains that protect the lantern from its own ability to magnify light. We turned the lighthouse on one night and were able to look into the rings of glass to see just a regular light bulb turned into one of the brightest lighthouses in the world by the precise alignment of the thick glass gills. We had seen the glow of the lighthouse from 20nm away as it bent around the curvature of the earth. From the deck of our moored boat it looked like a diamond just catching the light of a chandelier, except that it was the only light.

Abrolhos reminded me of the grandeur of nature and the superior parts of man. A place dedicated to a celebration of the ocean beyond that of day drinking and eating treats hawked by sun weary beach vendors from plastic cups that moments later are rolling towards the surf or spilling from garbage cans. A place where the birds fight over struggling silver Needlefish taken to astounding heights, dropped, and caught again, instead of french fries from ketchup stained baskets. Instead of the thonged, tattooed, and silicone enhanced bottoms showcased by flabby beach goers, and preceded at all times by selfie sticks and beers gripped by acrylic talons, there were just the seven inhabitants of Abrolhos, each with a specific duty, treading lightly in flip flops and t-shirts reminiscent of conservancies and projects to which they had dedicated their time. It is the expectation of Abrolhos that visitors will arrive with everything they need. They will not even go ashore unaccompanied, let alone end up sipping Caiprihinas and dancing the Samba with a girl who looks like Gisele. It is a different kind of Brazilian vacation. You may only take away an appreciation for the vibrant life below and above the surface, not even a postcard, which you can even get on Cape Horn.

On approach to Abrolhos we were flanked by a pod of breaching Humpbacks arriving to warmer waters to mate. To think that we had been following them around South America for a year felt surreal. We had seen them in Panama teaching their calves to breach. We had seen them in the Arctic waters of the Beagle Channel getting fat on clouds of Krill. And then they were swimming north at about our speed, launching themselves into the sun and displacing buildings of white spray. They were on their way to Abrolhos where the males would sing to the females and start the process again. We had never intended the migrations of the whales to factor into our trip, in fact I had considered it hazardous, but now that I have seen them I would do this trip again just for that reason.

We left Abrolhos on another bright blue day just as the reef was coming to life. Escorted out by a pod of dolphin, I scanned the surface for the last curry-colored patches of surfacing turtles. We were 300 miles from our next stop in the city of Salvador and the weather looked favorable for days.