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  • Writer's pictureAna

Ilha dos Lençóis - The island of sand dunes

Ilha dos Lençóis is a set of small mangrove islets separated by small “river” channels just a few miles off the coast of northern Brazil. An island exposed to the battering East to Northeast trade winds that cross the Atlantic Ocean.

This constant pressure from the wind along this coast creates a landscape of sand dunes for long stretches, locally known as Lençóis.

Ilha dos Lençóis is a much more imposing set of dunes than the ones we visited previously.

Whilst Camocim is part of the mainland, a stretch of sand that extends out to sea, Ilha dos Lençóis sand dunes form small islets amongst the mangrove.

The Northeast side of the island Ilha dos Lençóis is where the lençóis (sand dunes) take their most majestic and impressive expression with tall dunes that extend out to sea and create a protected channel where a fishing community is established.

The remoteness of this place is quite stunning, the conglomerate of small islets that form this bigger island is home to three small villages without connection to the power grid, water plumbing and even mobile network. People here rely on a community generator and wells for their basic needs.

The villages are comprised of very simple wooden huts built informally by their inhabitants on the sand dunes, often using salvaged wood as means of protection against the wind and sea from blowing their sand away (erosion) and at the same time blowing more sand!

Most men are fishermen or seem to be engaged in the constant construction and repair of their wooden boats and houses, whilst the women seem very focused on day-to-day family life.

“Streets” here are of sand, nobody wears shoes, maybe thongs/flip flops, but most walk barefoot in the extremely fine sand. Kids run around on the beach when not in school, and goats, a few donkeys and cows roam around the mud flats at low tide together with Scarlet Ibis (Guarás) and Vultures. Hawks fly above the mangroves and the anchorage.

We arrived at the entrance of the main channel to Ilha dos Lençóis on a Saturday night after having left that morning from São Luís, all we could see were little flashing lights in green, red, blue and white, they were just like the ones we had seen hours before of the fisherman net markers/buoys so we assumed it was very likely the that the entrance was netted across so we carried on with our plan of anchoring by the entrance behind the sandbank and mud flats to wait for the morning high tide. Here we would have some protection from the prevailing waves and swell at least until high tide when we could safely enter the channel.

5 am, the swell started rolling over the sandbank, soon enough, the alarm rang, it was time to lift anchor and move to the comfort of the more protected anchorage in the middle of Ilha dos Lençóis. It was a surprise to see that what we thought were fishing nets markers/buoys were actually several wooden fishing boats also at anchor. Had we known that we could have anchored further in more protection. We made our way through the channel, the depths quite correct as per Navionics, we could see this was a reasonably busy place with all the comings and goings of the fishermen. The first anchoring area, right next to the huge dune already had 4 or 5 fishing boats working on their catch, this was without doubt the prettiest place to anchor in Ilha dos Lençóis but we felt we would be quite cramped with the fishing boats, so we carried on closer to the small village where we anchored.

With such tide ranges (5 to 6 meters), strong currents (up to 2 knots) and wind in different directions we stayed in the cockpit watching how The Dream would behave in this local setting. The tide going out created a lot of entertainment as the fishing boats started to dry out on the mud flats, and their crews worked non-stop mending and untangling nets, sorting out their catch to be offloaded. Close to the peak of low tide we felt we didn’t like our position very much feeling that the wind against the tide was keeping us a bit too close to the shallows for comfort and peace of mind but having noticed that the fishing boats that were in the first anchorage area had now moved to the village we decided to take the opportunity and plunk ourselves right in the middle of that area allowing us a more comfortable anchor swinging area despite the wind direction being against the tide and current. By now the north side of the channel entrance had completely dried out, and the tide had turned direction although still on an outgoing tide. This place has that peculiarity from mid-high tide to mid-low tide the water flows in two directions (one stronger than the other), but once it paces that mid-tide point and the north side of the channel either dries out or fills in the water runs in the opposite direction from what it was just moments ago despite still being on an outgoing or incoming tide for hours. This allows for moments of confusion when trying to figure out if it’s an incoming or outgoing tide because the boat will very likely not be in the position one expects.

With the new anchoring spot now sorted it was time to sort out our mobile network situation. When we arrived during the night we had managed to get one bar signal at the anchorage on the outer channel entrance, just enough to be able to send a message to the family saying we had arrived and all was ok, but even that had taken ages to be sent, but now in the actual island we were not even getting that one bar even if we hoisted the phone or router to the top of the mast. We had two different operators' SIM cards, and none was getting any signal, not even 2G!

We waited for the high tide with our devices up the mast in hopes we would get some signal at some point with this extra 5 meters height to no avail.

We had learned from our experiences sailing in northern Brazil that sometimes the antenna range was very small and in only one direction, so we decided the following morning to jump in the dinghy and go to the two villages to see if we could find a solution. One of the villages had a tall antenna structure but with two antennas mounted at low heights and pointing down, so we tried there first. No success.

Then we crossed paths with a local young family on their pirogue and asked about it, the answer was quite disappointing, no mobile coverage on the island, but the houses had Wi-Fi.

We wandered in the village close to our anchorage with hopes we would find an area where we would get a signal still without success until we stumbled on a little grocer/sailor's "point" that had a poster saying it had paid Wi-Fi service. Jackpot, we thought!

But the service wasn’t working the lady informed us. We must have made such a face of disbelief that she decided to give us her personal Wi-Fi password. In this situation speaking Portuguese and being Portuguese (for some reason Brazilians we met seem to have a great fascination with Portugal and the Portuguese accent) had been an extremely helpful card. We grabbed a beer, asked if she had coconuts for the following days and announced two other boats would arrive soon to join us, Laura, our new friend was very satisfied with that information, certainly the extra business would come in handy. We would become regular visitors once a day at high tide, for a bit of internet, some eggs, onions, tomatoes or potatoes.

The days here would be peaceful ones just relaxing and enjoying the scenery. The huge dune to one side with Vultures flying circles above, the mangroves on the opposite side with Scarlet Ibis (Guarás) feeding on the mud flats and Hawks flying above.

The fishermen coming and going, their routines of beaching their boats at low tide to work on their hulls, their nets and moving their catches marked the tides and hours of the day.

While waiting for our friends we started working on cleaning the hull at low tide when the current subsides considerably.

This would be the second time having to clean the hull, since arriving in Brazil. The first time in Salvador in February? The hull was utterly covered in thick slime, but now we were covered in small barnacles!

Clearly, the warm (30C degrees and more at times) and super nutrient-rich waters of the rivers and channels we were visiting were great conditions for this growth. Cabedelo, Camocim, São Luís and now here Ilha dos Lençóis were visibly places where we could see this kind of growth be likely, but still, for a moment we feared our Coppercoat was not working, but as I dived with a plastic spatula and scrubbed the hull the small barnacles were coming out super easily, in fact, I could even dislodge them with my diving gloves if they weren’t so many. The few bigger ones required a bit more work, but when compared to the propeller the same size small barnacles were quite difficult to remove, and the bigger ones required significant work and force. The difference in effort required on those two surfaces reassured us that all was fine we had probably experienced a bloom period.

Later talking to our two boat friends that also had Coppercoat applied at a similar time as us it was confirmed they were experiencing exactly the same.

The arrival of our new friends days later meant more exploring now in their company.

Each day a different activity.

First, we went hiking the dunes in their company.

We climbed to the top of the big dune and soaked up the views over the village, the channel and our boats. We marvelled at the magnificent scale of this landscape. Quite different from the ones we had visited previously in Camocim whilst at the same time quite similar.

It felt like we were back in Tunisia close to the Sahara desert, but this time there wasn’t any Star Wars movie set to discover, here it was just pure nature.

After a few hours walking slightly randomly on the dunes it was time to go find a good fresh water pool to cool down. That would prove itself an adventure because the pools here are neither as big as the ones in Camocim but also surrounded by a lot more vegetation, a bit like an oasis. Some of these pools didn’t look appealing, but we did find a good one to enjoy.

On a second get-together, the plan was a BBQ night onboard the catamaran that had caught a big Mahi-Mahi, a Wahoo and Trevally. Lots of laughter, great chit chat and company.

We also explored the “seaside" of the island, a place that had marked on the charts a possible track to see the nesting turtles, and although we had no idea what time of the year the turtles nested here we decided it could be interesting to see where the trade winds and swell that form these dunes along the coast impact this island. We went to explore close to low tide leaving one of the dinghies beached on the safe protection of the channel (that at low tide dries up on this side) and walking the beach. We could see the many shifting sandbanks that plague this coast, little inlets and lagoons forming at low tide.

We were also surprised by what looked like a freshly dead mangrove forest area. It seemed that the wind had blown a considerable amount of sand forming a new dune, and that this advance of the sand had suffocated the mangroves. It was an interesting view, that reflects the constant change nature of this place. Now with more attention, we could see that the opposite side of the channel where we were anchored at the north entrance (where we were exploring) also had a big area of dead mangroves, but these were still standing very tall not as broken and battered by the wind as this side we were exploring.

Another big day out together saw us joining Mother's Day the weekend-long party the village throws every year for their mothers. We were invited by our friend Laura.

Friday we witnessed several fishing boats arriving in the afternoon full of young people, we could guess the sons and daughters that probably now live on the mainland. They were clearly not simple tourists as they seemed perfectly used to the challenges of disembarking the fishing boats that had been beached on the shallow waters while carrying huge bags and bundles of stuff, but at the same time no longer wearing the super simple clothes we had seen people wear in the village, these people had more stylish clothes. Later that afternoon music would be played extremely loud well into the night. Saturday again the loud music started quite early in the morning and would play non-stop until 3am, 3 DJs were playing the same 10 music songs over and over, overlaying some sound animations not suitable for the mother's audience or the few locals. It felt like they were trying to cheer a huge crowd on a rave party instead of the 30-odd mums and grandmothers, the few retired fishermen and handymen in the village. Again, the music played well into the late hours of the night, and we could only wonder how loud the music was in the village, we were anchored at a reasonable distance, and it was loud enough for us to be annoyed even with all hatches shut!

Sunday morning the music changed the theme, all music was about mothers but equally as loud. At lunchtime, we headed to the village to join the lunch gathering we had been invited to. We arrived at the place together with Laura our local friend, and the volume of the music was incredible, they had two speaker walls maybe 3 metres tall by 4 metres wide each, it was unbelievable and could possibly rival the Rolling Stones!

The mothers were starting to gather in the centre of this covered area where tables were set up, the younger kids gathering around. We too found ourselves a table a bit off the side of the speaker's walls to try and avoid the full blast and enjoyed a few beers while watching the mums greeting each other, all wearing their party clothes and sunglasses. How fun it was to watch them so friendly with each other considering they live so close each day and how dressed up they were!

The DJ’s reading poems and messages over the unreasonably loud music sent by the husbands and sons that were out fishing we guessed. Then the DJs started talking about how special this year's celebration was, after all, there were even these foreigners joining them. Food came in foil takeaway plates, each plate with several forks to share. A simple meal of spaghetti, chicken, salted dried beef meat, and also some pork, beans and farofa (fried mandioca flour). We, the outsiders shared some home-baked cupcakes and cake that disappeared the moment we placed them on the table.

And just like that the mothers gathering finished super fast. The music continued super loud, and we went for a cool-down swim in the freshwater pools on the dunes.

The party kept going until late night Monday!

We had a bonfire on the beach just in the dune nearby our boats, it felt truly magical being in such a pretty and isolated place.

We also had a great curry night with a few different specialities to share. It seemed every time we got together for a meal it was always a huge thing regardless of the menu, for sure there was no boredom!

When the village returned to its peace and quiet mode we got on exploring again, this time we were committed to finding the Brazilian clams we had foraged for in Salvador called Chumbinhos. The Scarlet Ibis (Guarás) feeding in the mud flats pointed for their existence. We just needed to figure out where could we go collect them here. Salvador doesn’t neither such tidal range nor this much soft mud.

When going to the village for our daily internet fix we really needed to wait for the high tide to avoid sinking in the soft mud and sand.

This had happened a few times already generating awkward and general laughter moments. Moments during which I had barely seen the clams. We decided to try out the mid flats opposite the village, the first attempt felt like had jumped in quicksand or mud, and I nearly sank to my knees, but it clearly was the right spot, it was full of already eaten clam shells. A quick look towards the small islet on the way to the next village beside our boat suggested the sand and mud mix was a bit firmer, and there had been birds feeding there most days so we gave it another try. Bingo! It was firm enough for us to walk on although occasionally our feet would sink to our ankles, and there we plenty of good size clams waiting for us to catch them. After a few minutes there collecting clams into my T-shirt we decided to return quickly to the boat to grab our mesh bag to collect them more comfortably and a bucket so we could put them in water immediately. We collected a really good amount just the two of us. The following morning one of our friends would join us, and we would pick up another good batch.

We washed them out of mud and sand before returning them to two mesh bags that we then hang off the back of The Dream in the water, for 48 and 24 hours respectively, allowing them to clean themselves out of the mud and sand they collected inside before we cook them.

Oh, what a feast we had on our last day in Ilha dos Lençóis eating these with our friends.

We said goodbye to Laura and her brother, that received us so well and allowed us to use their private Wi-Fi. We left them with one of our old Australian flags and one of my old courtesy flags to be used as decoration on their "sailors point”, a token of our appreciation for Laura’s welcoming effort to all sailors that come here.

***More photos of this place can be seen on Sailing The Dream facebook page just click on the album: Brazil - Ilha dos Lençóis - May 2023

***In the spirit of sharing our dreams and experiences we have shared this blog post in the NOFOREIGNLAND.COM website sailors community.



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