A Cruise in Lagoa dos Patos - Part I
From Porto Alegre to Porto do Barquinho - Antonio Piqueres

“If you are out and about looking for a comfortable and reliable cruising sailboat for you and your family, the B & G Yacht Design plans should be your first choice.” Next we will tell how the MC28 Atairu bravely endured the challenging situations she had to cope with when crossing the inland sea called Lagoa dos Patos, a 280km long lake, with widths varying from 20 to 60km, with 6,5m depth in average, linked to the South Atlantic by a narrow pass called Barra de Rio Grande. Its waters are muddy for more than half its length, until reaching Sao Louranço do Sul, where it begins to become pristine by the influence of the sea waters that flood this part of the lake.

Saturday, febuary, 11, 2012 - We were caught as if we were fish (Atairu was entangled in a fish net)

Saturday morning I was busy installing mast steps in Atairu, one of the last tasks missing to be done in our check-list for the scheduled trip along Lagoa dos Patos. Two weeks ago we had been invited by a group of cruising sailors belonging to the same club as us, to accomplish a sailing trip along this lagoon. In the beginning it was supposed to be four sailboats, departing from Porto Alegre, bound for Pelotas in a round trip. However, for personal problems and lack of time to prepare their boats adequately, the fleet was reduced to two boats, the MC28 Atairu, crewed by me and my wife Ivana, and another boat, the Spring 25 (a Tony Castro design) Val Halla, crewed by Commander Fabio Beck, her owner, and José Campello, an old salt who had large experience in sailing these waters. While our cruising buddies tried my inflatable with outboard motor, I finished the installation of the mast steps.

Our departure was scheduled for two o’clock p.m., however we just managed to finish the last preparations, like lashing the inflatable to the fore-deck, with some delay, departing one hour later then scheduled, bound for Sitio Forte beach, still in the Guaiba River waters, the main stream that crosses the city of Porto Alegre and feeds the lake, extending for 25 nautical miles from Porto Alegre to the lagoon. This river has a minimum width of 2.5 nautical miles, and maximum of 13 miles near its estuary, having depths varying from four metres to one metre.

It was a twenty-two nautical miles stretch, with the prevision of five and a half hours trip. The wind was blowing from NW at about five knots, making things easy for us to reach our destination. Val Halla left first with us in her wake. Sunny day, light wind, we sailed in these perfect conditions for most part of the day until the light wind abated and we had to start the engine. For the first time we employed the auto-pilot (the Tuzinho as we nicknamed it). What bliss was its help!

At six p.m. Ivana and I were chewing the rag in the cockpit about how would be our long time nurtured adventures along the lake, since this was the maiden long distance trip of the boat, when Ivana saw a warning flag twarthships, signalling a fishing net, when Atairu was stopped almost instantly. One of the things we most feared had just happened: we had been caught by a fishing net. In a jiffy I turned the engine on in idle and called Val Halla by VHF, asking them to assist us. We turned the engine off and using the boat hook started pulling the net and cutting it with a sharp knife, since there was no other alternative. I cut the thick nylon rope that makes the net’s hem, but Atairu was still entangled. Val Halla approached us and Campello, the crew member, jumped aboard to give us a hand, while Val Halla gained some distance again not to risk getting trapped also.

In no time flat Fabio, the skipper, swore a bad word and all of a sudden his boat was also halted, obliging him to stop the engine. He had been also caught by the fishing net. Holding a knife, Fabio jumped into the water trying to free the propeller, which by now was fouled by the net. (His boat uses a strut to bear the propeller shaft). Meanwhile Ivana, using the boat hook, brought aboard another thick nylon rope which was also cut off. At this very moment Atairu started to drift and Campello advised us to run the engine in idle, just in case. Slowly Atairu was getting free, but Val Halla hadn’t been that lucky. Only at eight p.m. we managed to tow Val Halla to safe waters.

We left that trap sailing in the direction of the navigation channel, since the last thing we wanted at that point was another mishap like that, and with utmost care we pointed to our intended first stop-over, the so called Praia do Sitio (Site’s Beach). Campello stayed on the foredeck checking the channel buoys in the darkness of the night. At ten p.m. we anchored at Praia do Sitio, having towed Val Halla for all that time. We had a quick supper and collapsed into our bunks. Before breakfast next morning I snorkelled with a knife in hand, intending to remove any net still attached to Atairu’s under-body. For my surprise there was no vestige of any piece of net around the propeller.

Campello admitted that the bulbous keel configuration, and having a propeller shaft skeg instead of strut, prevented the net from fouling the propeller. (If so, it is a point in favour for the project). Aboard Atairu we were ready to depart once more. However Val Halla was still requiring to get rid of the net fouling her propeller. We had to lash our 70m long spare anchor rode to the towing line to bring Val Halla close to the beach, where thanks to her extremely shallow draught (slightly more than one metre), it was very easy for the crew to remove the remains of the net. The task took some time to be done, and at nine a.m. we were ready to depart again.

Sunday, february, 12, 2012 – Establishing a restaurant (grounding in Porto do Barquinho)

We had our breakfast underway, being already sailing in the lagoon waters. Sunny day! We were sailing in light winds, 6 to 9 knots, from the N/NW quadrant. Our course was straight to Porto do Barquinho, our next stop-over, on the east side of the Lagoa dos Patos, being one of the most secluded places on the lake shores, about 12km distant from the local hub, the town of Mostardas. Porto do Barquinho was built with the intention of providing an outlet for the rice and onion crops that prevail on the east side of the lagoon. The port building project was started in 1924, and revised in 1977, being almost concluded in 1979. Like so many other governmental projects in this country, it was neglected and abandoned without finishing the project, never mentioning that the linking roads to the production sites were never built.

The harbour comprises two piers measuring 837m and 762m, however presently missing being dredged, have uncharted mud and sand banks blocking its access. Nevertheless, the harbour is excellent shelter for cruising sailboats. We motor-sailed for most of the way, trying to reach our destination still with daylight. The crossing had no incidents, since we were sailing in charted waters and could follow our progress in the chart-plotter. When we got closer to our destination, Ivana took the binoculars so she could spot the harbour entrance, since the piers are practically flush we the sea level. We reached the piers’ entrance sailing in a light northeast breeze. We arranged for Val Halla to sail ahead of us, since she had the shallower draught, serving as a depth sounder for us. When we were in the open we had about three metres depths in average along the buoyed channel. Val Halla kept advancing, while we stayed in her wake, making turns and waiting for precise information. We noticed that when approaching the piers a little further the depth decreased dramatically. From where we were we could observe people camping to the east of the harbour.

Val Halla contacted us by VHF giving us the instructions on how to enter, but with the warning that we couldn’t go much further, since there was not enough depth for our boat’s draught. We passed at an arm’s length from a stick marking the channel, however to no avail, since seconds later we were grounded. We were in mid-channel so we couldn’t throw the hook there, leaving us no other alternative then to retreat. The sunset was simply gorgeous. Rounding the signalling stick I could see a heavenly nook densely covered by bush. My intention was anchoring were we were and let the wind make us drift towards that haven. However Lady Luck wasn’t at our side that evening. Atairu had just grounded. It was approximately 6 p.m. I asked assistance from Val Halla straightaway.

Unfortunately they couldn’t come in a hurry, since the crew was ashore. When they finally managed to come along in our assistance, Campello suggested taking our hook to a deeper place, making a 90° angle with our bearing, and use the windlass to try to free the boat. It was already dark. In a slow pace Val Halla took our anchor to the limit of our rode scope. After throwing it they signalled us to start the engine and turn on the windlass. The chain made a hell of a noise on the anchor roller, having to pull the boat thwartships, and Atairu pivoted over her keel. It looked like we were going to get free, but that was simply a wishful thinking. In a heavier pitch Atairu lowered her bow and the windlass gave us a warning that it reached its limit, soon desaccelerating as if it was to blow its fuse. By then the anchor was firmly held to the bottom. Just in case I turned off engine and windlass.

Atairu was more than ever stuck in the mud. Not even the rudder was moving anymore. Literally we were ready to open a restaurant on that spot in Porto Barquinho. It was 9p.m. when we gave up freeing Atairu, making a raft with Vall Halla to spend the night together. There was nothing more we could do by then. Mañana! Ivana prepared a fancy sauce recipe, which she added to a pastry prepared onboard Val Halla, and we enjoyed a delicious supper.

We all ate aboard Atairu, which saloon was much more comfortable than that of the other boat, sipping a fine crop wine accompanied by a colonial cheese. That night I hardly managed to sleep, trying to find a formula to take us out of that rat trap, who knows, using the spinnaker halyard to heel the boat.

Early in the morning we were considering the various options we had, when Adriana, the swing keel boat skippered by Emílio Oppitz, a kin sailor with lots of experience in Lagoa dos Patos waters, approached our haven. They were sent to us by a heavenly angel. Showing the solidarity common to all true cruising sailors, Emilio offered us assistance, suggesting to make the rescue in tandem: Val Halla towing Atairu, and Adriana pulling Atairu’s spinnaker halyard thwartships, decreasing Atairu’s 1,55m draught, while being propelled by her engine. I gave full throttle to the engine at maximum revs and in a touch of wand we were free again. Everything worked according to the book; a good project, a reliable construction, and Atairu suffered no damage during the operation. After thanking Captain Oppitz for his assistance, I concentrated in bringing the anchor up, a hard task, as Campello had already warned us.

We were slowly bringing the chain aboard until the remaining chain was vertical, when Atairu kept advancing forward pushed by her inertia. In the nick of time, in an involuntary reflex, my right hand little finger had been squeezed between chain and windlass. After a loud scream I managed to free my finger, but too late not to have consequences. A deep cut in the middle of my fingernail was bleeding in profusion. I tried to restore the loose part of the nail in its place, and in sequence wrapped a towel around the injured finger, trying to stop the bleeding. Ivana came to the deck with the boat’s first aid kit box, something indispensable in any cruising expedition, while Val Halla went alongside us and with plenty of skill, passed me a glass of water. Ivana made a thorough cleansing of the damaged finger and applied an antiseptic powder in the wound. Then I went forward once more to try to bring home the stubborn anchor, which this time came up without any hassle.

The pain in my little finger was almost unbearable, and the nearest adequate place for a good medical care was Sao Lourenço do Sul, two days away. I had learned a good lesson in the worst way possible: before trying to save the boat you must take care of yourself. About 8.40 a.m. we left Porto do Barquinho towards Barra Falsa, still in the east side of the lake. By then we couldn’t even dream with what we still had to endure. (The second part of the story is going to be published soon)

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