Navigating the South Equatorial Current: Sailing from Brazil to French Guiana
After spending an entire week with our friends enjoying Ilha dos Lençóis, we knew it was time to leave this Brazilian paradise.
We had stretched out our time here after having checked out at the previous port of call because we would not go in the next possible checkout options due to the strong currents and vicious tides. We had counted on the remoteness of this stunning place to not get in trouble with the authorities. We also felt we were pushing our luck and that we could not count on their kindness and benevolent spirit if a patrol vessel came by.
We said goodbye to lovely Laura and her family, who had welcomed us so warmly in their village.
Lifting anchor with the afternoon high tide, we left the protected inner channel anchorage. We needed the high tide to safely cross the nearly-dry section of the channel.
The plan was to re-anchor on the outer anchorage just like we had done on the night we arrived. This time, it was still daylight, so we could perfectly see some of the fishing boats that had already returned to that anchorage to wait for the incoming tide to assist them in navigating the channel. We picked our spot much more protected from the swell than on the night of our arrival and enjoyed the views from this side of Ilha dos Lençóis.
It was going to be a quiet night. The plan was to weigh anchor the following morning with first light to try and make the most of the outgoing tide before the daily winds picked up, adding to the challenge of leaving this place.
We got up before first light, brewed coffee and sat in the cockpit enjoying dawn colours brightening the sky.
At 6.10 am, we radioed our friends on VHF radio channel 11 (as agreed) to announce we were weighing up anchor. They replied back, saying they would follow suit.
Five minutes later, we led the way out of the anchorage punching into the swell while hoisting the Mainsail to the first reef. We unfurled the Jib and slowly made way, motor-sailing against the South Equatorial Current, aided by the ebbing tide and gentle breeze head-on whipping up the sea state. It was uncomfortable, but we were motor sailing it.
That was when we noticed one of our Mainsail batten boxes was broken, and the fibreglass batten was rubbing the mast!
A quick VHF radio call to our friends to let them know we were going to furl the Jib, come head to the wind across their path (they were at a good distance behind us) to drop a portion of the mainsail and remove the batten altogether before continuing. A quick manoeuvre if it wasn’t for the waves created by the ebbing tide against the Guiana current and gentle breeze.
Batten removed a quick run to the cockpit to re-hoist the Mainsail onto the first reef while John steered us. After another rush to unfurl the Jib again, we could finally turn the engine off and enjoy a slight beat upwind for the next two hours until we could turn Northwest, around the top of Ilha dos Lençóis and then get the South Equatorial Current in our favour. That was when we landed the first fish of our journey, a beautiful Bonito tuna.
By the time we got out of the influence of the incoming tide, a pod of dolphins came to visit. By now, we already had half a knot of current in our favour, doing 7 knots SOW (Speed Over Water) on 70 degrees of AWA (Apparent Wind Angle) and 14 knots of TWS (True Wind Speed) still with one reef on the Mainsail but a full Jib.
Purposely sailing slightly under-trimmed to keep close to our friends who were still struggling with issues on their hydraulic autopilot and steering. They were still a bit unsure about their latest "repair" attempt. A calmer pace suited us fine speed-wise as we were still getting used to our new hydraulic autopilot. Plus, slowing down would allow us to arrive at the next port in daylight, using the morning high tide to enter the main channel.
As night fell, we settled into our passage watch routine. I took the first watch after dinner while John rested.
By 1 am, we were nearing the Equator line, crossing it from southeast to northwest, under sail for the second time this year. At precisely 1:01 am, we marked the milestone and then changed who was on watch.
During the night, we encountered a minor squall but no real drama. More impressive was the pod of dolphins arriving with the morning sun to usher in the new day.
On the second day, we constantly adjusted the Jib, altering between a beam reach and running downwind on the pole every few hours. Our focus was staying well within the South Equatorial Current, giving the Amazon River delta and its fierce tidal current a wide berth - 150 nautical miles offshore.
A genuine concern.
Early on day three, the sea vividly displayed the immense reach of the Amazon, even 150 miles offshore. Oddly swirling eddies and peculiar mixed waters testified to the wide discharge of the mighty river. Though distant, the strange seascape of choppy swells, whitecaps and swirling currents stood as proof of the Amazon's vast power.
Late morning we started crossing paths with several Brazilian fishing boats that were also chattering endlessly about the previous weekend, what they would have for dinner and what was the latest with their misses. Suddenly, the conversation changed to a non-stop whining I could barely understand. Eventually, I started discerning a bit of it, realising this one fisherman must have been talking about us because the conversation revolved around the sailboats near his fishing gear.
We couldn’t quite understand if he was indeed talking about us. We couldn’t see any other boat around us, but what were the odds of being within VHF range of a fishing boat whining about two sailboats when during the last nearly 5 months, we had not seen any other sailboats when sailing the Brazilian coast unless they were with us! I started calling him over the radio in Portuguese, using many different terms to refer to him as a fishing vessel because the vocabulary between Portuguese from Portugal and Portuguese from Brazil is quite different. He was not responding to my calls. When he finally replied, he said we were going straight towards his fishing gear, yet we still couldn't see him or the gear. And then, peering between swells, I spotted him and nearby buoys - he was right there, and we were heading straight for a huge net! We quickly turned starboard, avoiding entanglement.
Switching to English on the VHF radio, I urgently directed our friends to change course and clear the fishing gear. For them, it was quite a drastic change of direction, a 270-degree turn to port before being able to come in our direction, all this under sail.
By now, I had returned to speaking in Portuguese with the Brazilian fisherman, who was still whining about his fishing gear and us, trying to determine if more unseen nets lurked ahead. Eventually, after much confusion due to the language barrier, we poorly grasped his vague directions about locations to avoid (he vaguely said Northeast and 45 min in that direction but didn’t specify at what speed). We could only vigilantly scan for nets, altering course for a few tense hours until we felt safely clear.
Night fell, and suddenly, we could see the lights of several fishing boats around us. They were so small that during the day we could barely see them in between the waves. With many built out of wood, it was difficult to see them on radar, so both boats were reporting whatever positive pings we had on radar detailing their position, hoping to then visually identify them in the distance. We seemed surrounded, needing to change course repeatedly to avoid them. They seemed to be fishing for prawns as they had long fishing arms extended.
In the meantime, despite having a very conservative amount of sail out, we were still too fast. After dinner, we saw a reasonably big squall approaching, so we chucked 2 reefs on the Jib just in case, but it only brought rain, no significant wind. The shifting breezes nearly died, forcing multiple gybes before settling into the original direction, now weaker. We re-opened the Jib.
By now, we were well in the South Equatorial Current. Due to the light breeze, our SOW (Speed Over Water) had dropped drastically to just 4.5 knots, whilst the SOG (Speed Over Ground) remained at 7 knots, sometimes more!
On the afternoon of the fourth day, we entered the Doldrums. The true wind dropped to 5 knots, our SOW to 2.5 knots, but we were still doing 5 knots SOG, occasionally 6!
We debated stopping at the river entrance that forms the Brazil/French Guiana border but concluded that the charts were not reliable enough to do that past daylight.
By late afternoon, we realised we had miscalculated how the strong currents would positively affect our progress. Lulled by lazy sailing in strong currents despite minimal actual sail, we were still too fast to arrive at Cayenne on the ideal morning tide. Had we sailed hard, we could have probably reduced one day of our journey,
We dropped the mainsail entirely, reducing our stability, and furled the Jib to the third reef trying to merely maintain steerage speed. Despite all our efforts not to sail, we still needed to somehow keep steerage and have some SOW (2 knots seems to be the minimum the new autopilot requires), but whilst we were doing only 2 knots SOW, we were not able to drop our SOG below 4.5 knots!
We had to take drastic action - we couldn't arrive so early. Entering the channel or anchoring for hours wasn't appealing. We started zigzagging, gybing tightly for a couple hours with limited success. The current was just too strong, still propelling us faster than desired. Finally, we gave up and let ourselves reach the safe water marker at least an hour before considering the channel entrance and well before the first light of the day.
We anchored for an hour, rolling in the waves pushed by the current. On AIS, we saw a cargo approaching the entrance. As we lifted anchor upon first light to enter the channel, another cargo started moving down, coming toward the entrance. Seeing such large ships could navigate the channel was reassuring - we could enter despite the charts' warnings. The incoming cargo was even bigger than the outgoing one. We finished lifting anchor and radioed our friends that we were heading in. They agreed and sped up to catch us.
We entered the channel, passing the first markers and behind the exiting cargo. The pilot boat sped by, heading for the incoming ship. We should have enough time to motor up and clear the commercial harbour before becoming a nuisance for the incoming cargo.
We knew the depths would be treacherous, especially around marker D18, where we read depths under 3 meters - disconcerting with a huge cargo bearing down in our direction. The pilot boat raced up the channel and then slowed to scream instructions to our friends. They then sped toward us, directing us to the channel shoulder. When I mentioned our draft, the pilot looked concerned, signalling us to speed up and stay mid-channel (our friends on a catamaran could easily navigate on the shoulder of the channel). That was when we realised there was a good chance these cargo ships plough through the soft mud if needed. As we accelerated, we realised the engine wasn't spitting enough water. It seemed we had just enough speed to clear the cargo without raising RPMs and further stressing the engine. We needed to reach the anchorage, drop anchor and cut the engine fast.
It was still spitting some water, so hopefully, no damage was done to the engine.
We reached the anchorage safely past the commercial harbour without interfering with the cargo ship. As we were approaching, there was one AIS target in the anchorage. Out of curiosity, we clicked on it, and the vessel's name was very familiar. It was the name of our French friends Eric and Flo Catamaran, whom we had met in Tunisia in November 2018! We had assumed from blogs of another French catamaran (that was a few months ahead of us in this region) that mentioned them that they had been in this region in previous years. Surprised to see such a familiar name, we grabbed binoculars and confirmed it was a Fountaine Pajot Bahia, just like our friend's catamaran.
What were the odds?!
We quickly dropped anchor, checked the engine and found no evidence of overheating, so we decided to address the water intake issue the following day after we rested.
We quickly dropped anchor and stopped the engine, did a quick check, and it seemed the engine had not overheated, so we decided to relax now that we were safely anchored and addressed this issue the following day.
Shortly after, our French friends passed in their dinghy, returning to their boat, waving to what they thought were strangers. We launched our dinghy and surprised them onboard their catamaran.
Their reaction when they saw us was of incredulity. Who would have known way back in 2020, when we saw them last, us heading to Turkey, them planning to cross the Atlantic to sail to the Caribbean, that we would be meeting again 3 years later in French Guiana!
***In the spirit of sharing our dreams and experiences we have shared this blog post in the NOFOREIGNLAND.COM website sailors community.