We visit Brazil again and sail its northern coast. But before we can explore a stunning island and fishing community, we must repair our mainsail.

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Natal – Ilha dos Lençois (BRA)

“So much plastic, it’s hard not to get depressed!” Floris shouts while we kayak from our anchorage to Natal’s yacht club. The pollution in the Potengi River, which flows through the big Brazilian city, shocks us. At the same time, we’re not surprised. We’ve seen it before, just like we are familiar with the melodious Portuguese language. The hospitality in the local yacht club, too, brings back memories of our visit to Brazil in 2018. Back then we sailed the east and south coasts of this gigantic country on our way to Patagonia. This time we are on our way back home to the Netherlands and plan to sail to Suriname, the Caribbean, the USA and the far north. We’re very curious to see what Brazil has in store for us this time around.

Poverty and Wealth

While ubering and walking through Natal, we notice that there are no other tourists or foreigners. Yet we do not feel unsafe in this provincial capital with almost a million inhabitants. On the other hand, the visible poverty, the garbage on the streets, and the dilapidated public infrastructure do sadden us. Along the road are shacks where people lie on the street, next to piles of rubbish that are just a rain shower away from a one-way ticket to the ocean. “The public garbage collectors don’t seem to come here,” Ivar sighs. It makes us realize once again how closely ecological sustainability is related to social sustainability.

The colonial buildings in the old city center have clearly seen better days. Their cheerful colors are still visible behind the black mold on the facades, and many buildings are empty. At the same time, shiny residential towers with luxury apartments have been built elsewhere in the city. Expensive cars turn into underground parking garages and reveal their owners’ wealth. A gigantic shopping center exclusively boasts three levels of upmarket shops. The ground-level supermarket sells a variety of imported delicacies, but – hooray – also local pineapples, papayas, and bananas. The avocados are as big as melons! We buy as much as we can carry, uber back to the yacht club, and paddle back to Luci. While we unload our bags a tour boat full of frenzied passengers dancing to tremendously loud music passes by. Despite the country’s many challenges, Brazilians sure know how to party like no other!

Behind the Sewing Machine

With the clearance formalities and shopping out of the way, we turn to our next challenge: sewing. Just before arriving in Natal our mainsail tore. Unlike the gennaker, which tore to pieces soon after leaving Namibia, we really can’t do without the mainsail. It carried us tirelessly across the oceans. With more than 50,000 miles it long passed its guaranteed lifespan, so we are happy it lasted this long.

As there are no sailmakers here, we have to patch up the mainsail ourselves. But not alone. Via whatsapp, our friend Feitze gives us valuable advice. Before we left, he taught us how to sew and provided us with all kinds of spare materials, which comes in handy now. Feitze instructs us to build up layers from large and smaller strips of Dacron. His only worry is whether there is enough space under our small machine for the bulky sail? We roll up the bottom as tightly as possible and squeeze it under the machine’s arm. It just fits! “Fortunately, the tear is close to the bottom edge of the sail,” Floris says, relieved. We spend the rest of the day cutting and stitching before we declare it repaired and put it back on the boom. We hope it will last until we reach Europe but realize that the sail is reaching the end of its life.

Going with the Wind and Current

In our pilot book we read that the northern coast of Brazil is mainly inhabited by small fishing communities. The description of Ilha dos Lençois attracts our attention: the surroundings promise to be stunning, and its people are known for being very hospitable. We raise the anchor and soon after the Potengi River pushes us out to sea. “Let’s head for the deep water of the Atlantic Ocean to stay clear of the coastal fishermen and their nets,” Ivar decides. Just before we reach the 200-meter depth line, a fisherman calls us on the VHF, in Portuguese! We understand only veleiro (sailboat) and immediately understand that he means us. “There are buoys everywhere, swerve!” Floris points out. “You don’t want to experience this at night,” Ivar sighs after we have managed to escape the fishing gear.

We give Cape Calcanhar, the most northeastern tip of the country, a wide berth before we turn westward. We now sail a downwind course and our speed increases immediately. The Guyana Current picks us up and gives no less than three knots of extra speed. We look with satisfaction at the large white patch on our mainsail, which is holding up well.

Nocturnal Arrival

Thanks to the strong current, we cover the distance to Ilha dos Lençois, more than 600 miles, in record time. In the middle of the fourth night, we arrive at a wide estuary that gives access to the village. But now what? We see flashing green and red lights that don’t make sense to us: they do not correspond to the buoys on the nautical chart. We decide to anchor and wait at for daylight and high tide before sailing the last part, which also takes us close to shallows.

Fortunately, the next morning everything is much clearer. While keeping an eye on our depth sounder, we try to follow the channel with the rising tide. To our great surprise we don’t see a single buoy, but thanks to the tidal difference of five meters, their absence is no problem.

Disco Fishermen

We anchor between two islands, right next to a huge sand dune. Antonia and Tim, a German couple from the only other sailing yacht, welcome us warmly and takes us in tow to the tiny village. There we meet Laura, the owner of the minimarket, which also serves as a bar and party location. Brazilian music blasts from speakers that can compete with Amsterdam’s Paradiso music installation. A tent has been set up in front of the shop where half the village gathers and occasionally dances a step. It is 11 o’clock in the morning but the beer is already flowing freely. It turns out: there’s a party this weekend. The reason is unclear. “It doesn’t matter, we’re in Brazil!” our new German friends laugh.

When we paddle back to Luci in the evening, all kinds of green and red lights flash again, almost to the beat of the music. We finally understand: the lights are on the fishermen’s marker flags. Their boats have dried up on the beach and complete the island’s open-air disco feel.

Everything Changes

In the days that follow we explore the stunning surroundings on foot. We climb the highest dune, where dead treetops reveal an ongoing battle between the sand and the rainforest. Between us and the sea are more dunes and wide sandy plains. On the other side is the endless green of the rainforest. We swim in idyllic dune pools while red ibises fly overhead, revealing the proximity of the Amazon.

In our (dated) pilot book we read that fishing is almost exclusively done with self-built, wooden boats. While these are still around, the newest and largest boats focus on a different economic activity. They sail back and forth to the mainland with passengers, provisions, and fuel. At Laura’s minimarket, we meet a group of tourists while they wait for the boat. They are all Brazilians who have come here to enjoy the beautiful dunes, beaches, and the party, of course.

Failed Energy Transition

Since our arrival, we have been wondering why the island’s diesel generator runs day and night, despite the abundant sun and constant wind. We finally ask Laura, who explains that a university installed solar panels and batteries years ago. They no longer work, and no one can fix them. Just behind the village are three stationary, rusty wind turbines. They look like they could fall over at any moment. However well-intentioned, the energy transition is clearly not going smoothly in this small, remote community.


When the wind turns south of east, we decide to continue our westward journey. That turns out to be easier said than done: several fishermen have set their nets right across the estuary. We do our utmost to avoid the flags and nets by slaloming around them and keeping the nets at bay. Just when we think we’ve made it, we’re trapped. Two sets of nets meet at the same flag. What was supposed to be our exit, marks the middle of a wall of nets. There is only one option: sail over it. We continue sailing parallel to the net until we are in the middle of two floats that hold the net in place. This must be where the net is furthest away from the surface. More than our draft of two metres, we hope. Anxiously, we turn and cross the “wall”. Fortunately, the vicious nylon is deep enough, and we escape unscathed.

The remainder of our journey along the Brazilian coast is uneventful. We leave the delta of the gigantic Amazon River to port, as we have decided to explore the rainforest in Suriname instead. The Guyana current soon picks us up again, carrying us in record time to the western border of this gigantic country. Thank you very much Brazil, it surely was breathtaking again!

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