Camocim to Tutóia, or give it a second and third thought to Alcântara
After having spent a week in Camocim enjoying the dunes when it wasn’t raining and relaxing while it downpours on us we felt it was about time to leave.
It was lunchtime, but it felt like the strong winds had not started as usual, John saw an opportunity that would allow us to arrive at our next stop early morning allowing us to wait for the high tide around lunchtime if we felt needed at Tutóia.
The Harbourmaster had already filled our departure papers when we went to their office to formalise our arrival, and although it was the day before what we had scheduled we figured that being Labour Day they wouldn’t fuss much about our early departure despite all they said about keeping to what was on the papers.
We had been fretting a bit over our passage through the sandbar because now the high tide was after lunch, and every single day around lunchtime the wind would pick up quite a bit creating a generous chop and waves over the Coreaú River entrance. We were seriously debating the option of leaving during the night's high tide, considering the murkiness of the waters it truly didn’t make much of a difference leaving during the day or night if the conditions were right and if we had our previous track to follow.
But that day it seemed the wind had not picked up yet as per usual, so we quickly ate our lunch, packed up all that still needed to be put away and rushed to lift anchor so we could venture the bar just before high tide slack tide and most importantly before the wind picked up.
We approached the bar, and the breeze started filling in, a bit of chop was starting to form. Eyes glued on the previous track and on the depth soundings, and we could confirm that Navionics was slightly wrong we had 2 metres more under our keel than the tide time they show. At the top of the tide, we would have 0.7 more than now, but this was sufficient for us to cross the bar. We pushed through, this time not so slowly, we knew that the shallowest bit we would find would be worst case scenario 3 meters most likely 3.5 meters, and we knew where.
The wind started picking up, but John steered us steady following our previous track while I confirmed the depths.
As we approached one of the narrowest parts of the channel there was a small fishing boat anchored just about the middle of it. By now the wind was blowing 25 knots sustained, and a good chop had already formed, these weekend fishermen looking at us stupidly not making our life any easier on this narrow passage (given our draft), John was a bit worried about what to do given we didn’t really have space to turn around. I said: “Just pass right behind them very close“, and so we did. We could easily have tossed them a can of beer that’s how close we passed behind them while they looked at us jaw dropped.
With this small hiccup cleared now, we just needed to pass the extra narrow passage without being pushed too much to port by the strong crossed wind and waves, as we passed this bottleneck we would have to turn to the wind and pound a bit until we exited the bar and reached the 5-meter depths zone when we would then turn to Port and put the wind on our stern.
We had to wait for an under sail fishing boat to pass our bow before we could turn the boat with the swell to go set up the whisker pole, with that done we could now open the Jib sail on the pole and sail downwind towards our next stop. As we gained distance from the Coreaú River entrance the wind settled to shy of 20 knots true and shortly after to around 13 to 16 knots. Behind us and to our Starboard side some seriously heavy clouds threatening us.
We carried on for a few hours monitoring the radar, waiting to see when would they catch up with us.
The first one (photos below), quite a long squall some 10 miles long according to the radar but quite narrow ran parallel to us just 2 miles to our Starboard. We could see the heavy rain and sea state that had picked up because of this system, but wind-wise, it was not affecting us at all. Eventually, the cloud overtook us and started dissipating.
The second squall (photo below) was already behind us, not moving as fast as the first one felt, but this one for sure was going to give us something. This one was very dark and compact, we could see its edge raising quite high, so the moment we felt the wind was being sucked (usually a sign we are about to get smacked hard) we put a reef on the Jib, as I looked back and saw how dark the cloud had suddenly become I call it for a reef 3 on the Jib just in case.
We were right, this squall hit us hard, it gave us lots of rain, created big thunderstorms as it hit land and took all our wind. Once it overtook us and started dissipating ahead of us we were left with less than 10 knots winds for a couple of hours, but eventually, some wind came back between 10-13 knots allowing us to sail albeit at a slow pace.
The third squall came during my off-watch, between 9pm and 10.30pm.
It started as two squalls running parallel that merged into one huge squall. At the sight of it when John woke me to help put the reefs on the Jib I called for a third reef once again. Winds blew up to 30knots, the swell irregular and rolly.
Once the worst of it passed over us the squall transformed into just rain and more rain, the radar covered in irregular patches of pink (photo below). The rain stayed with us for a few hours, but at least this time so did the wind.
Somehow we were running two-hour watches, or better say John was allowing me 2h of rest although he was not able to sleep on his off-watch and was cutting it off sooner than he should.
By the time I came on watch at 3am the wind had completely moved to the Port side and was now very light, just around 10 knots, often less. We needed to gybe.
We furled the Jib, unpoled the downwind sheet and quickly unfurled the Jib now on the Starboard side. The current was keeping our momentum.
In the distance ahead of us lightning lit up the horizon. And some fishing boats we guessed were in the vicinity of the river entrance to Tutóia.
As the morning approached the wind died off to 5knots, making downwind sailing impossible. We were still moving, but that was just the current pushing us in the right direction. We furled the Jib and started the engine, the wind would only return when we were by the mouth of the river trying to find our way in.
The approach to the river mouth was confusing, the charts didn’t match what we were seeing, and the depth was nearly 5 meters less than charted for the first channel (Canal Velho), we could see waves breaking where the channel was supposed to be so we proceeded to the second entrance. For a while, the depths matched the charts, but as we started heading into the second channel (Canal das Gaivotas) the discrepancies started, we were not even yet inside the channel, and the depths were 2 to 2.5 metres less than charted. It was close to low tide so when all of a sudden the depth sounder showed us just 3 meters we just had time to do a full turn and trace back our track as the waves made us jump the sounder showed us a minimum of 2.6 meters (we draw 2.3 metres) when it should be 5 metres deep.
It was clear that we could not go in at low tide despite the charts suggesting we could, but now there was reasonable doubt that we could go in even at high tide if conditions were not perfect! The next high tide was in the afternoon, and that means a steady breeze of at least 16 knots and a decent chop and swell.
There was no point in trying to anchor and wait 6 hours for the change of the tide, we needed to go somewhere else.
The question was where?
We could go straight to Ilha dos Lençóis, and that would be roughly 32 hours on top of all we had already done but meant arriving at night and with some potential for strong winds of at least 20 to 25 knots if the forecast arrived a few hours earlier. Or we could go to São Luís, close to 24 hours, but the place is very shallow, with great currents and tide range, so not our preferred option. The third option was Alcântara, a village on the opposite side of the Bay of São Marcos to São Luís that looked a bit more attractive, although we didn’t have that much information about it, only what was on the Brazilian "pilot pdf" which was very basic as always.
We decided to give it a go and head to Alcântara.
We set up the whisker pole again, unfurled the Jib and pointed towards our destination.
The wind was on 140-160 AWA starboard side at around 13 knots true.
We readjusted our expectations, made coffee and tried to enjoy the sail.
John tried to go and catch up on his sleep while I stayed on watch with my trusty companion Ella.
The day remained calm, with no squalls to annoy us, but our speeds didn’t improve much, in fact, they slowed down a bit when the current turned against us to 1 knot of current against.
We were now under the area of influence of the Bay of São Marcos strong tides, and despite being some 12h away from our destination our progress was dictated by the outgoing or incoming tide. The wind was also not helping very light occasionally gusting to 18 knots but only to drop out immediately. It was decided we would have to motor to be able to get to the bay of São Marcos mouth and catch some of the incoming tides, otherwise, we would have to wait for 6h and then enter the next incoming tide with adverse weather and in the night.
We took all the advantage any puff of strong wind could give us, and we did manage to get into the mouth of the Bay just 1 to 2 hours behind our plan. The view on approach still in the dark hours of the morning was quite impressive, there were dozens of cargo vessels at anchor. I think the only other place we have seen so many cargo ships at anchor at the same time was in Malta during Covid times.
The chartplotter screen was full of AIS targets, and the radar that we had been using to track squalls and identify fishing boats in the distance was creating a Polk-a-dot pink screen underneath all the AIS cargos. We started making our way into the bay assisted by the incoming tide, but soon enough we started feeling the influence of the changing tides, and our speed started dropping. We increased our RPMs to 2000 (we had done most of the night at 1600 and the very early hours of the morning at 1800), and we were now only doing 4.5 knots SOG.
At this point, we thought we could still make it across the bay and by getting into shallow water on the opposite margin get less influence of the current, but we were about to pay a heavy price for our delay.
Besides the strong currents, there was a surprising sea state. The outgoing tide against the wind was vicious, and on top of that, we were getting hit by squall after squall. Our SOG getting lower and lower, as we were just past the middle of the bay we were doing only 2 knots and shortly after our speed was between 0.9 and 1.2 knots.
The mind-blowing situation, we were literally motoring at higher than our usual RPMs only to avoid being dragged backwards!
If it was like this here how would it be in Belém or in the Amazon where currents are even stronger?!
We managed to slowly, slowly drag ourselves to the edge of the bay, peel off the super strong currents and make our way to our next stop Alcântara, a small village stopped in time across the bay from São Luís.
We crossed the bar without any issues and motored through the channel, the depths were all wrong and super deep. We passed a shallower area (10 metres at low tide) still reasonably close to the sandbar, but after that, the depths were nearly 20 meters or more. We slowly approached the river arm (that dries out at low tide) that leads to the village in front of which was supposed to be possible to anchor, but the depths were still close to 20 metres. We tried a bit further forward only to get the fright of our lives when the depths went from 20 metres to 10 metres to 5 metres in no time, it was a huge sandbank completely invisible due to the muddy water.
With much stress, we made our way out and back towards the entrance sandbank. It was getting close to sundown, and the idea of crossing the bay in the middle of the tide and then trying to anchor in São Luís in the dark in an anchorage that is quite challenging daunted us plenty, so we decided to anchor on that shallower area we had passed on the way in with the plan of going across to São Luís the following morning. We were completely in the way of the two small ferries that pass during the high tide so we left deck and cockpit lights ensuring we were well visible, not that it was needed because they passed just a few hours after dark when the high tide finally released them from the mud flats, there were no more movements that night.
The following morning we lifted anchor as the morning ferry was passing, it was almost high water, and we should have just enough time to cross the bay without too much trouble. There were just some sandbanks we needed to avoid because of the shifting currents they produce and then the challenge of finding the right spot to anchor in an area of heavy silting and strong currents. By the time we were dropping anchor the tide was already turning furiously, the water around us looked like it was boiling, and waves were splashing our stern violently.
It took us two attempts to anchor securely but was extremely uncomfortable.
This was the moment we realised this was going to be our last official port of call in Brazil. Without any viable options to anchor and enjoy this area, we were coming to the conclusion the north coast of Brazil is not suitable for cruising.
Now that we had experienced these strong currents we realised visiting Belém was out of the question, if here was this challenging over there would be either the same or even more difficult.
The Amazon was now also off the cards due to the even stronger currents, tidal ranges and the piracy risk in the Marajó area.
This was something that we had started to understand just in the previous days, the realisation of the challenges this coast presents. From this point on the challenges were only going to grow making our time here more stressful than pleasurable. Even though we had several weeks left on our visas for Brazil our time was up, and it was time to leave.
***In the spirit of sharing our dreams and experiences we have shared this blog post in the NOFOREIGNLAND.COM website sailors community.