We are running out of time in Brazil. Our 90-day visas are about to expire, but the weather isn’t very cooperative. Will we be able to reach Uruguay in time?
Rio de Janeiro (BRA) – Rio Grande (BRA)
“Your turn, it’s 4 o’clock” Ivar says. “Already? I feel like I fell asleep only seconds ago.” Floris grunts when Ivar wakes him for his night shift. “Everything is so quiet, are we moving at all?” Floris wonders as he puts on his clothes. “We were going too fast, so a couple of hours ago I heaved-to. But you can start sailing again, it won’t be long before we have daylight and it’s safe to sail through the strait.” Ivar summarizes his plan. Floris puts the rudder back in neutral position, rolls out the genua and puts Herbie– our windvane – back on. We’re back in sailing mode! We underestimated our speed during our trip to Ilha Grande. We only left Rio de Janeiro yesterday afternoon, and are already near the beautiful island.
The Blue Lagoon
With the first daylight we carefully steer Luci around the many rocks and between a narrow passage to arrive at a well-sheltered and paradise-like anchorage aptly named “The Blue Lagoon”. The clear blue water touches a white sandy beach in the calm rhythm of the waves. In the background we spot coconut palms amidst a plethora of trees and plants. So many tropical birds sing that we feel like we’ve been invited to a bird concert. When the sun climbs higher, the paradise-like status of our bay is soon to be confirmed. A speedboat arrives, followed by another, and another. A tsunami of tourist boats takes over, their loud music silencing the birds. In the late afternoon they all leave as suddenly as they appeared and peace in our bay returns. We paddle ashore to explore the island. Unfortunately, the sandy beach is less beautiful from up close. Plastic washed ashore, mixed with litter from beach visitors, make it look like a waste dump. We fill six large waste bags during our 2-man-beach-clean – a small favor in return for treating us to this beautiful place. It also happens to be World Cleanup Day. Knowing that countless of others are contributing to this great initiative all over the world, makes us even happier to do our part.
The next morning we wake up early to go snorkeling on the reef. As soon as we jump out of our kayak countless curious fish surround us, some of them come so close that we can almost touch them. We continue snorkeling as long as we can bear the relatively cold water. Back on the boat we feel warm again and also do an underwater check-up on our antifouling. We are pleased to report that the test is going very well. We applied the copper-free SeaJet 038 Taisho some six months ago on Tenerife. Despite spending time in the tropical waters of Cape Verde and across the Atlantic in Brazil, there is hardly any growth of barnacles and weeds on the hull; a very good result for this more environmentally-friendly product.
Waiting for Wind
We would have loved to further explore beautiful Ilha Grande, but the clock is ticking. This vast country offers so many places worth visiting, and also our inland travels to explore agroecology solutions took their time. We now only have two weeks left on our 90-day visas, while we still have to sail almost 1,000 nautical miles to reach Uruguay. And the further we sail south, the less predictable the weather becomes.
“Where are the fair winds that brought us here?” sighs Ivar. For as far as the weather forecast goes, there is hardly any wind expected. Fortunately it’s not far to Parati, so we reach this colonial town with very light winds in a daytrip. The streets flood with high tide, but apparently this was designed on purpose to clean the streets. Nowadays it’s very popular among tourists, which probably explains why the buildings are well- maintained and the streets are dominated by souvenir shops, art galleries and fancy restaurants.
We anchor away from the town for a few days to await fair winds. The many inlets, islands and anchorages close to Parati, combined with the relatively stable weather all-year-round makes it a popular area for both local sailors and cruisers alike. But it’s also a windless corner of Brazil. Tired of waiting we head further south using a not-so-great weather window and end up using the engine more than we like.
We decide to await some more wind on nearby Ilhabela. Luxurious boats, hotels and villas reveal its status as one of Brazils favorite holiday destinations. The Yacht Club Ilhabela positively surprises us with 4 days courtesy (i.e. free!) stay at their moorings. Still, Floris can’t hide his disappointment when he learns that the club’s swimming pool is under construction. The new infinity pool is due to open next month. It’s seems we’re just too early in the season.
Despite its popularity, the island is still remarkably green and even has some good hiking trails. With enough repellant to protect us from the many mosquito’s, we follow one of them. Countless beautiful trees, plants and birds provide an amazing rain-forest experience. And when we also discover a waterfall with crystal clear fresh water, we feel like we’re in paradise.
Although we very much enjoy our time here, the winds remain nowhere to be seen and we start to get a bit nervous. Will we make it to Rio Grande, Brazil’s most southern port, before our visas expire?
A Bridge Too Low
When some wind arrives a few days later we release our mooring buoy and set course to the island of Santa Catarina. Slowly, very slowly we close in on the island and reach its northern tip in almost four days. We drop anchor at Jureré Internacional. Just in time, as the weather is about to change. Our worries about too little wind change into worries about where to seek shelter for too much wind. The bay of this resort town offers good shelter against strong southerly winds, but this place is open to the north, which is where strong winds are expected to come from in a few days.
We decide to head for the city of Florianopolis. For many boats this would be just a few miles further to the south, but in our case it’s more complicated. Since the bridges that connect the island to the mainland are too low for us, we need to sail around the island of Santa Catarina and back north to the city. It takes us all day, but we are rewarded with an anchorage off the Yacht Club Florianopolis that offers good protection from the strong northerly winds.
The next day we stroll around Florianopolis. In the old center with its historic buildings and park, we hear speakers and music. A demonstration! Thousands of people protest against Bolsonaro, the extreme right presidential candidate who seems to be proud of his openly racist, homophobic, violent and environmentally disastrous political program. #EleNão, Not Him, is the theme of the demonstration and trending topic on social media. People from across the political spectrum have joined forces to show their disgust. To no avail, we are saddened to learn a few weeks later. Bolsonaro was elected as the next president of Brazil. Our thoughts and hopes are with the many friends we made in Brazil. We wish them lots of strength and courage to resist his extreme-right political agenda and continue to work towards a more socially just and environmentally conscious society.
What to do?
The strong northerly wind finally abates. Will good weather to sail south come in its place? Our hopes are quashed when we check the weather forecast. “A new front and strong southerly winds are approaching, so we don’t want to be out at sea.” Ivar says. “Which means we won’t make it to Rio Grande, before our visas expire“, Floris remarks. “Yet getting an extension from the authorities is not likely to work.” Floris concludes after an extensive research. What to do?
A dilemma presents itself. Officially we need to leave the country, and are only allowed to come back after having spent 3 months abroad. Reports from other sailors help us decide. We take the risk to administratively leave Brazil just before our visas expire, and then just stay in the country. Physical checks by the authorities seem rare and if we do get caught, we can blame the weather. As Florianopolis is the home base of all three required authorities – Federal Police (Immigration), Receita Federal (Customs) and the Capitania (Navy / Coastguard / Port Police), so we decide to pay them a visit. Still, checking out here proves easier said than done.
Checking Out Day
Before 09:00 am we head to town, armed with our passports, boat papers, and an impressive stack of stamped forms that we have collected since our arrival in Brazil. “Mmmh, I’m sure this is the place, but it doesn’t seem to be here.” Floris concludes after walking back and forth a few times to find the address. “According to noonsite, the federal police building should be right here. But that information is from last year.” We decide to walk to their headquarters instead and try to see immigration there. A three-kilometer walk and a half hour queue later, we learn that we’re still not in the correct building. “You need to be at NEPOM, they recently moved”, a friendly official explains in English. He must have seen our puzzled looks as he continues. “NEPOM stands for Núcleo Especial de Polícia Marítima, and is a special unit of the Federal Police” he says while pointing to a place on the map at the other end of town. And off we go again. This time, a quick Uber ride brings us to a grey wall with NEPOM written on it. An official explains they are going to close for lunch, since it’s close to 12:00. Stunned and disappointed with our unsuccessful morning in the bureaucratic machine, we also have lunch.
We’re back at NEPOM at 13:30h, and this time we’re in business. Our passports are treated to another immigration stamp and we receive an official exit form. The friendly NEPOM officer recommends visiting the Capitania next, which is just around the corner. But there we learn that step two of our check-out process is customs. The customs office is – of course – located at the other end of town. The rest of the afternoon we spent Ubering between Customs and Capitania until we receive all the required paperwork. Victory! Finally we get back to Luci, who’s been patiently waiting for us on the anchorage. Checking out took us all day, but now we’re free to go!
Fast Fierce Front
With the bureaucracy out of the way, the weather is taking up all our attention again. “Eh do you see these strange, dark clouds approaching?” Ivar says. “ It looks like the front from the south is approaching sooner than expected.” We had planned to sail to a sheltered anchorage ahead of the approaching southerly winds, but now we have to hurry to not end up on a lee shore. Quickly we leave and as we motor to our nearby new anchorage, angry thunderstorms bring heavy rains and 40-knot winds. We safely reach our new shelter and bless the good holding in these strong winds. The tropics are clearly behind us now, these fronts are a force to be reckoned with!
Our new anchorage is just out of sight from the Florianopolis authorities, which makes us feel somewhat better. But the southerly winds continue. During strong winds we stay onboard and work on our blogs, vlogs and research. And when the weather allows it, we explore Santa Catarina. The island offers many hikes, and our favorite is a trail to the other side of the island through the rainforest. After a week a weather window opens, and we pull up our anchor. But wait, it’s stuck. Ivar uses Luci’s weight to force it out and when Floris pulls it up the riddle is solved: our anchor is covered in heavy clay! This is without any doubt the best anchor ground we’ve had so far. The downside: Floris spends 45 minutes cleaning the chain and anchor. Finally, we’re free to go. We aim to reach Rio Grande before the next front from the south arrives, a trip of more than 300 nautical miles without suitable shelter along the way.
Staying under the Radar
With the help of fair winds, we make it to Rio Grande in time. We make our way up to the town in darkness, and given our dubious immigration status, it feels like we’re sneaking in. Our destination is the pontoon from the Oceanographic Museum. It offers free mooring for foreign cruisers. The museum staff are very friendly, and welcome us to the town without asking to see our papers. Phew.
We visit the museum’s basins for injured penguins and sea lions and can’t get enough of their funny motions. On our way to town, we pass the Federal Police building. “If you stay in your building, we won’t bother you” Ivar smirks. Not reporting to the authorities also saves a lot of time. Not that Rio Grande has a lot to see. It seems to have known better times, as judged by the many abandoned buildings. We stock up on groceries and prepare our last leg in Brazilian waters.
A weather window opening up which should get us to Uruguay’s first port. So only two days after arriving, we leave again. As we pass the industrial harbor, a grey vessel heads towards us. Its windows are bent slightly forward, a typical look for boats from the authorities. And sure enough, as it comes closer, we can read the letters “Marinha do Brasil” on the side. “Oh oh, trouble. Are they coming for us now?” Ivar wonders out loud. But then they change course and pass us while returning our wave. And before we know it, the strong outgoing tide washes us back to sea. “Phew! We’ve escaped! Seems like we made the right choice after all.” Floris sighs. Weather and bureaucracy? Surely not a good combination.