Often skipped by cruisers, Floris van Hees and Ivar Smits discover tropical anchorages, majestic animals and bustling cities while sailing Brazil and share their tips for cruising the east coast
Sailing Brazil: A cruise down the country’s east coast
The bright green vegetation of the Fernando de Noronha was the perfect backdrop as we took our first morning swim in a fortnight.
It extended from the top of the striking Morro do Pico peak to the golden beaches below.
As if on cue, a dolphin pirouetted out of the water close to us before another decided to take a closer look at the volcanic archipelago’s newest residents.
In the distance, a turtle came to the surface to breathe. Elegant frigate birds and acrobatic gannets flew around our Buchanan 47 ketch, Lucipara 2.
Our first encounter with Brazil was nothing short of magical.
The island was in stark contrast to what we had seen while sailing the 1,400 miles from Cape Verde across the Atlantic Ocean.
Flora and fauna were limited to fields of seaweed, a single bird and the two fish we caught.
The only proof that we were not alone were symbols of ships on our plotter. At night, we could follow the starry sky all the way to the horizon.
The weather was anything but constant; the northeast trade wind decreased the further south we got, until leaving us altogether in the Doldrums.
There, showers would come and go and just as we wondered how long we would be stuck in this windless zone, a tropical wave brought relief.
Its strong wind pushed us out of the Doldrums and into the area where the southeast trade wind blows. It made the remainder of our first ocean crossing a breeze.
Still, the longer the trip took, the more we longed for land.
Fernando de Noronha, about 217 miles off mainland Brazil, was ideally situated on our route to Salvador de Bahía; it felt like an oasis in a blue desert.
After our morning swim we kayaked to the beach to check in with the harbourmaster, Marcos.
He barely spoke English, so Floris’ Portuguese lessons came in handy. The costs for anchoring and visiting the island were steep, so we decided to limit our stay to two days.
Not wanting to lose a minute, we immediately went for a hike as soon as the paperwork was settled.
Past a small settlement we found a viewpoint from where we could look down on a pristine, golden beach.
Rarely had we seen such an idyllic beach. Coconut-laden palm trees completed the picture of a tropical paradise.
Sailing Brazil: Two sides to Salvador
When we approached Salvador de Bahía, a whale breached not far from the boat as if to welcome us.
Full of excitement, we sailed into a large bay lined by high-rise apartment buildings, which made the metropolis seem like a tropical version of Manhattan.
Our mood changed as we walked through the city. The historic centre boasts colourful colonial buildings, monumental churches, and museums, but heavily-armed military policemen on every corner revealed a darker side.
‘Don’t go outside the centre on foot,’ harbourmaster Dominique advised, so to visit a supermarket, we took a taxi.
We drove past dilapidated buildings, where homeless people lay on cardboard mattresses. At a set of traffic lights, a one-legged woman tried to earn some money by cleaning car windows.
Down the road an expensive SUV drove through the automatic gates of a luxury, camera-protected apartment complex. The city’s dichotomies were unmistakable.
We saw another face of Brazil when we explored Salvador’s large bay.
In the small village there are supermarkets, restaurants and even a public standpipe where locals and cruisers alike could fill their bottles and jerry cans.
The city across the bay felt like a world away.
After an easy day sail further south, we anchored at the friendly hamlet of Gamboa, and made our way on winding paths to the village of Morro de São Paulo.
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After a few hours of sweating, climbing, and clambering, we found an ideal resting place on a fairy tale beach. A refreshing sip from a coconut made it all worth it.
The water taxi back to our boat was a bonus. Further south, in the bay of Camamu, we found another idyllic anchorage at Ilha de Goio.
We were surrounded by coconut trees and managed to pick some ourselves; the coconut water was refreshing and delicious and we eked it out as we made our way towards Rio de Janeiro.
Sailing past the Abrolhos Islands, a screeching sound had us fearful that we had a sudden mechanical problem.
Our panic subsided when a humpback whale fin suddenly appeared close to Lucipara 2, followed by a second.
During half an hour we were treated to a whale song-and-dance performance. Their sounds resonated in the cabin. Occasionally they showed themselves, flapping their fins or revealing their tails.
The spectacle reached its pinnacle when two whales jumped out of the water in unison. What a show while sailing Brazil!
The animal watching continued past Cape Frio, where we saw large seabirds. ‘Yes, they are definitely albatrosses!’ Floris shouted after consulting our bird guidebook.
Without moving their wings, these impressive birds hovered just above the water and stayed with us for hours.
Like us, they made use of the steady trade winds that made sailing Brazil and along the coast quite comfortable.
Just as we approached Rio de Janeiro, the sun disappeared behind Sugarloaf Mountain.
The large, iconic statue of Christ the Redeemer, brightly lit, looked down on us from afar as we sailed into Niteroi, just across the bay from Rio.
We moored in the upmarket yacht club, Charitas, and after checking in took a dip in the huge pool.
We could have floated and swam all day but we still had to formally check-in, so we took a ferry across the bay to the centre of Rio to visit the Capitania for the necessary stamps – a must in every town.
Not much later, we strolled through the hip residential area of Santa Teresa, admired gigantic trees in the botanical garden and visited Christ the Redeemer to get a good view of the city, bay and beaches.
Back at sea level, we immersed ourselves in Brazilian beach culture, sipping caipirinhas on Ipanema beach.
At the same time, the many favelas on the outskirts of the city reminded us of the staggering social inequality that has become so characteristic of Brazilian urban life.
From Rio, it is a full day’s bus ride through rolling hills to Viçosa. We were there to meet Professor Irene Cardoso at a conference on agro-ecology.
Large-scale deforestation in Brazil is mainly due to livestock and industrial agriculture, including the growing of animal feed and other monoculture crops.
‘The typical approach is to cut down the valuable wood first, burn the remaining vegetation and sell the land to farmers. Where monoculture crops are planted, they deplete the soil and leave behind barren land. Agro-ecology, on the other hand, is based on cooperation with nature,’ she told us.
We saw the importance of agro-ecology when Irene took us to a coffee farm in Araponga. Between and around coffee bushes a variety of plants and trees ensured a healthy ecosystem.
Yet the coffee forest offered more than ecological benefits.
‘Farmers pooled their savings to buy this land. Using natural methods, they made the land fertile again after the former landlords had exhausted it. Besides coffee, which they sell for income, they grow various crops for their own use. It works well; more and more people are joining the cooperative. People are even coming back from the slums to farm here!’ Irene explained.
Back on board we chose our next destination: Ilha Grande.
Literally a large island, which, thanks to numerous bays, beaches, and surrounding islands, is one of the most beautiful sailing areas in Brazil.
We would have liked to have explored here longer, but the clock was against us.
Time to clear out
Of the 90 days we were allowed to stay in Brazil, we only had two weeks left, and we still had to sail 1,000 miles to Uruguay.
The further south we sailed, the less predictable the weather became.
‘Where are the stable winds that brought us here?’ Ivar sighed. Hardly any wind was expected for the next 10 days.
Thanks to our light-wind sail we managed to reach Parati, a picturesque town dotted with colonial buildings.
While we enjoyed the atmosphere there, we also constantly checked the weather reports to see if we could sail on.
With the slightest of breezes and a lot of patience we sailed to Florianópolis. There, the zone of calm wind ended abruptly.
A cold front with strong southerly winds was forecast and we didn’t want to be at sea when it arrived.
Meanwhile, our 90-day visa had run out, so we visited the authorities to formally clear out.
But rather than leave, we anchored in another bay and waited a week for northerly winds to take us to Rio Grande, Brazil’s most southerly port.
In the dark, we sailed up the river to the pontoon belonging to the Museo Oceanographic, which we knew to be free and informal.
Since we were already cleared out, it felt like sneaking in. It worked: no one asked for our papers.
On our way out, we held our breath as we sailed past the Capitania and an incoming navy ship.
They both left us alone, so with a sigh of relief we said goodbye to a magnificent country.
Sailing Brazil made an unforgettable impression on us.
In a fantastic cruising area, tropical islands, fascinating sea creatures, and bustling cities alternated at a pleasant pace.
The security situation in some places had us worried beforehand, but did not cause any problems.
We were, however, shocked by the scale of social inequality. The contrasts between the elite and the homeless poor were enormous.
Fortunately, we met inspiring people who were and are working on solutions to tackle deforestation and poverty.
If only we could have stayed longer than three months to sail this large, absolutely breathtaking country.
Tips for sailing Brazil
The security situation in Brazil raises questions among sailors. There are many reports of crime and violence, especially in the cities.
Some anchorages and bays have a bad reputation because of past incidents. These are often known to harbourmasters and other sailors.
Noonsite (www.noonsite.com) can provide an up-to-date overview. We had no problems.
The marinas and yacht clubs we visited were secure and we followed the advice of local people and fellow cruisers. We always locked our boat properly when we went ashore.
On hikes, we only took a limited amount of cash with us. The coastal towns we visited are heavily dependent on tourism, so the authorities have an interest in making sure visitors are safe.
We saw many police officers in all the places we visited and did not feel unsafe anywhere. As far as we are concerned, safety is therefore no reason to avoid this part of Brazil.
Upon arrival and departure in Brazil, a visit to the Immigration Service (Policia Federal/ NEPOM) and Customs (Receita Federal) is required.
In addition, check-in and check-out with the Port Police (Capitania) is mandatory in each port.
The order in which the authorities should be visited (Immigration, Customs, Port Police) is important. Most officials often only speak Portuguese. Some basic skills in that language proved useful.
As Dutch citizens, Brazil granted us a 90-day stay as a tourist.
In principle, an extension is not possible as you have to spend at least 90 days outside of Brazil before being allowed to enter for another 90 days.
Rules may differ depending on your nationality.
Publications and charts for sailing Brazil
Royal Cruising Club Pilotage Foundation Cruising Guide to the Coast of Brazil by Pete Hill, 3 part series available on Kindle, 1st edition (Royal Cruising Club Pilotage Foundation, each book £5)
Brazil Cruising Guide by Michel Balette, 1st edition (Imray, £39.50)
Havens and Anchorages: A companion to the South Atlantic Circuit for the South American Coast by Tom Morgan, 1st edition (Imray, £19.95)
Admiralty 526, 551
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Source: Yachting Monthly