The logistics of Amazon voyagingAug 20, 2012
The power voyager Passagemaker alongside a dock at Manaus on the Amazon River.
Near instant access to vast caches of electronic information has shrunk our globe so it’s almost unthinkable that misconceptions about cruising destinations still persist. Our boat — a 50-foot, teak-hulled trawler named Passagemaker — has been motoring up the Amazon River for the past two months, discovering a wealth of fauna and flora and anchoring off colorful settlements ranging from world-class cities to Amerindian villages. Amazingly, the only other foreign boaters we have met were two upbeat Americans from Seattle, rowing their spunky 21-foot sailboat down the Rio Negro. But where are the non-Brazilian power voyaging yachts? They are nowhere to be seen. There is no reason, however, why your boat could not be in the Amazon River too … with you and your crew in complete personal safety surrounded with all the comforts and conveniences of a motor cruiser, surrounded by a tropical paradise.
Most pertinent to note is the fact that, for the greatest part, areas adjacent to the Amazon River hardly resemble the virgin jungle lovingly depicted in nature documentaries. Communities are strung like peas along these river banks to access the precious, life-giving water, which simultaneously provides a main transport artery. Hence, boats of all shapes and sizes are ubiquitous … from cruise ships to cargo vessels, from tourist ferries to water taxis, from fishing boats to powerful tugs moving barges about. After all, the Amazon is navigable by oceangoing vessels for more than 2,300 miles. The sheer presence of relentless boating traffic signifies the existence of all facilities required to service this industry. Moreover, adjacent to the city of Manaus, we were blown away to encounter luxury yachts the likes of which could be expected to adorn the most affluent marinas in Fort Lauderdale.
One of the floating fuel docks found on the Amazon River. Louise Visagie and the crew of Passagemaker found the quality of diesel fuel excellent and decided there was no need to use the boat’s diesel pre-filters.
Sizable towns are found at intervals of roughly 50 to 75 nautical miles along the Amazon River, from its estuary in the Atlantic to the bustling metropolis of Manaus, 800 miles upriver in the heart of the rain forest. Fuel (gas and diesel) is available from convenient floating fuel docks (called postos) in all these settlements at an average cost of $5/gallon, which decreases slightly upon approaching the duty-free zone of Manaus.
We have found the quality of fuel to be excellent, allowing us to forgo the use of pre-filters. Although some fuel docks accept your international Visa or MasterCard, it is best to check prior to purchase. If cash is preferred, all towns possess either of two banks (Banco do Brasil or Bradesco) at which ATMs accept international cards.
Of course, where there are people, you will find plenty of general groceries and supplies, and have means to access medical care. Discard any notion of being trapped away from civilization. If anything, uninhabited areas are in scarcity, and someone is guaranteed to pass your boat every day. Brazilians do not approach or harass boats. On the contrary, they have appeared almost oblivious to a foreign vessel dropping its pick outside town. There are no disruptive visits from officious immigration or police patrols either. We have never felt a greater degree of personal safety on foreign soil, or discovered more peaceful anchorages than along the Amazon River.
Beyond the cities of Manaus, Belém, Macapá and Santarém, there are only small outboard services and extremely basic boating hardware supplies in small towns, as can be expected elsewhere in the world. Yet most boating needs can be addressed from the cities, albeit indirectly in some instances. If the rich and would-be famous of Manaus can maintain their luxury yachts based in the Amazon, you can effect repairs in case of emergency. (It is also possible to arrange for river transport of spares along the river’s course, should you require parts elsewhere.)
There are no agents for name brands in the Amazon, this is especially true when it comes to electronic equipment. One option is to approach ships’ chandlers to arrange for importation of general spares via their agents in major Brazilian seaports. However, our American fellow-cruisers have found the cheapest option to be direct importation from the U.S. via the post office, though this does assume one has the time to await delivery. Courier services such as FedEx are available as well. As for general supplies, you can find everything if you look hard enough. For example, we discovered a store stocking every imaginable type of hose and hose fitting (www.reidasmangueiras.com.br), including valves and other accessories. Batteries are widely available, including gel cells, but are rather expensive.
Haul out services available
Do not be fooled by what inhabitants of Manaus call “marinas,” which are merely safe locations where luxury yachts are stored in riverside garages — there are no clubs with recreational or walk-on facilities, swing moorings or even yards to do your repairs. However, should you require an emergency haul-out, Manaus has submersible dry docks able to lift more than 500 tons. Skilled labor is also available in these boatyards, which boast machine shops and can do specialist welding in stainless steel and aluminum at quite reasonable prices. Contact Francisco Raposo de Almeida (who speaks excellent English) at ERIN boatyard in Manaus for more information on services available at email@example.com. Incidentally, it is possible to work through accredited local companies and conservation authorities to purchase durable and very affordable Amazonian hardwood (such as cupiuba, itauba and purpleheart) from legal sawmills.
The bottom line is — carry your own spares if possible. But if an unforeseen emergency occurs, you will not be stuck in the Styx. There are sizable cities in the Amazon, through which you can import parts from either the rest of Brazil or the States. If all else fails or time becomes an issue, you can always catch a direct flight from Manaus to Miami. So if you have ever dreamt of trading beach bars in Bermuda or street cafes along the French Riviera for something off the beaten track, it is well worth considering taking your power voyager up the Amazon River without losing sleep over logistical issues. The overwhelming friendliness of the Brazilians alone, always eager to assist, will win you over. And you will have an opportunity to sit back and enjoy the wide-open spaces and exploration opportunities offered in the heart of the Amazon Basin.
Louise Visagie hails from Cape Town, South Africa. She is currently first mate on Robert Beebe’s historic motor yacht Passagemaker.