New Adventures in Natal

Another unscheduled Ocean Watch fuel stop leads to a foray by kayak across a river and into the mangroves. "Herb's Watch" from our December 23, 2009, CW Reckonings.

The view from a kayak: The spindly suspension bridge at the mouth of the Rio Patengi welcomes visiting sailors to the Brazilian port of Natal.

The view from a kayak: The spindly suspension bridge at the mouth of the Rio Patengi welcomes visiting sailors to the Brazilian port of Natal.Herb Mccormick

It had been many weeks and many miles-and it'd been many degrees cooler then, too-since I last undid the straps securing my Little Wing 14 carbon kayak from its rack on the antenna arch aboard our 64-foot cutter, Ocean Watch. But our Around the Americas crew had finished taking on fuel in the Brazilian port of Natal, very near the easternmost tip of South America, and I had a couple of hours to kill before sunset. My last real paddle had been near the glaciers off the town of Pond Inlet, on the northern reaches of Baffin Island, but it didn't take long now for the point to be driven home that I was no longer above the Arctic Circle.

Hours earlier, just after midnight, we'd slipped under the big suspension bridge that spans the current-swept river leading into Natal, and that very same bridge was now off to starboard as I stroked across the brown water at slack tide. Not long after, I was deep in an intricate maze of mangroves, with egrets wading in the shallows, fishermen casting nets in knee-deep waters, intriguing sounds wafting from the jungle, and the occasional small fish leaping through the air right by my side. Nope, I was no longer in the Arctic, nor anywhere near it.

We hadn't planned on stopping in Natal, but unscheduled, on-the-fly visits have become standard operating procedure on our voyage Around the Americas ( quite some time ago. Our battle to round the endless coast of Brazil, mostly against headwinds and adverse currents, had put some serious hours on our Lugger diesel engine, and we were once again pulling off the interstate for fuel. Our sailing directions mentioned a fuel dock at the Iate Clube do Natal, not far from the river's mouth, and we'd dropped the hook near the club's mooring field in the wee hours of the morning to see if it was true.

As it turned out, the yacht club did offer fuel, though the dock in question was actually a concrete slab left over from an Allied seaplane base back in World War II. As we approached it, the current was ripping, and securing Ocean Watch was a rather tricky affair, but once the dock lines were down, everything else went off without a hitch. It was a Monday and the club was officially closed, so the dockmaster agreed to let us stay put overnight, on the promise that we'd be gone the next day by 0600.

Up on the club's porch, we met a Swiss singlehander named Jean-Luc who was happily stranded on the premises waiting for engine parts for his 33-foot Beneteau, Lucky Jo. To say Jean-Luc was enjoying the excellent WiFi connection, the lovely swimming pool, and the many pleasures of Natal would be a serious understatement. He was in no hurry to resume his cruise.

After my paddle, we commandeered a cab-and Jean-Luc!-and headed to town for dinner and a look around. Our new friend had been there a few weeks and had the place wired. He proved to be an excellent tour guide.

At 0600 on Tuesday, after what seemed like about 20 minutes of sleep, we were pointing Ocean Watch back out the river and into the open sea. Our brief stop in Natal was like a dream, but a most pleasant one, indeed.