Sailor, refugee, doctor, Angolan: How José Caldas came full circle

Jose Guilherme Caldas (left) first sailed off the island of Mussulo in Angola when he was 9 years old. In 2005, 30 years after he had to flee his country's civil war, he took his first solo cross-Atlantic sailing trip. Billy Black

1975: Luanda, Angola

José Guilherme Caldas was at the cinema with his parents and older brother -- it was a 6 p.m. prime-time movie in Luanda -- when he heard the gunshots outside. He remembers it like it was yesterday. Each shot sounded like a dull thud.

Tha tha tha tha!

Rapid and continuous.

Get down, his father yelled. It'll end in 10 minutes or so, and then we can go home!

It was the end of the War of Independence and the beginning of civil war in Angola, and gunshots were so common that the 14-year-old Caldas didn't even flinch. Lying on the cinema floor, he whispered to his brother in Portuguese.

What kind of gun do you think they are using?

It's definitely a Kalashnikov, his brother whispered back.

No, I think it's an AR5.

Ten minutes later, the gunshots began receding and then faded away. The Caldases walked back home together, with their father holding the boys' hands a little more tightly than usual.

That night Jose's parents decided they couldn't risk their children's lives anymore. They had waited for things to get better in Angola, and nothing had changed. They had to flee. And they had to do it immediately.

Ten days later, Jose and his mother left the country by plane. He took it all in one last time -- his blue, one-story house, his street, his school. His father and brother followed a few months later.

José would have to wait 30 years to breathe his country's air again.

2018: Jersey City, United States

José, now 57, looked up at his 40-foot boat, Mussulo, with a smile playing on his face. People in the dock were having loud conversations about the weather, the ocean and sunscreen, but he looked serene.

He named his boat after the island of Mussulo along the coast of Luanda. It was the first place he'd ever sailed, and ever since he had to flee Angola, he'd named all of his boats after the island.

He was in Jersey City with his skipper, Leonardo Chicourel, after finishing sixth in the first leg of his first Atlantic Cup, the biggest sailing event in North America. They set sail in Charleston, South Carolina, and finished 745 miles later in New York harbor. The next day, June 2, they were going to race toward Portland, Maine, 414 miles farther north, where the race would end.

It was an off day in the competition, and they were going to race in a charity event.

"I have a lot of work to do tomorrow, so you guys will help me sail today," José said to the six other people -- friends and co-workers who'd come to day sail -- on the boat. A ripple of laughter echoed off the boat.

He held up a map, describing the route of the regatta.

"We are going past the Statue of Liberty, making a curve and zig-zagging twice before heading back to Liberty Landing Marina," he said. Everybody nodded.

As soon as the charity race began, his eyes locked in on the sails and the ocean. He was clear with his instructions, methodical when he moved the sail from starboard to port. During a particularly risky maneuver when another boat was at right angles with Mussulo, Leo and Jose yelled short phrases in Portuguese. With his hand on the tiller, Jose slowed the boat just enough to let the other boat pass.

"Holy f---, that was close," one of the day sailors on the boat said, clutching his hat.

José smiled.

"There was so much space between us and them, another boat could have passed by," Leo and José said at the same time, smiling at each other.

"In sailing, everything has to work in synchrony -- and when it does, it's like magic," José said.

1970-1975: Luanda, Angola

José was 9 years old when his older brother first took him sailing. The island of Mussulo was a popular spot, and the view of the Atlantic Ocean was gorgeous.

José distinctly remembered the wind on his face the first time he climbed into the boat.

"Humans have a soul, the boat has a soul, and when we click, it's beautiful, and that's what I felt that day," he said.

From then on, he was hooked. He raced in all the local sailing competitions, and when he was 13, his father bought him a small South African boat called a dabchick. It was basically a dinghy with sails. He sailed whenever he wasn't in school or doing his homework. He aced his exams -- he wanted to become a doctor, just like his father, and he knew his parents wouldn't stop him from sailing if he were a responsible kid.

This was the life he knew and loved.

But by the time he turned 15, the civil war would change everything.

He'd ride his motorcycle down the street from his family's house and see a person lying dead on the ground. Gunshots would become so common that they wouldn't wake him up from his sleep. "Unless it's a big bombing that shakes the earth, we stopped waking up to war in the night. That's how normal it was," he said.

Pack a small bag. We are leaving Angola soon, his mom said to him not long after the shootout near the cinema. Brazil is going to be our home now.

José got on his motorcycle and rode to the point of land in Angola from which he could see Mussulo. He parked his bike and walked on the beach. He stood there for a long time staring: at the beach, at the island, at the world around him.

"It was the best life I could have asked for, and it was being taken away from me, and I hadn't done anything wrong," he said.

1999: Sao Paulo, Brazil

When José left Angola, something in him shut down. He stopped sailing despite living close to the sea. He poured his heart into becoming a doctor. He studied in Vitoria, in the north of Brazil, and after finishing his subspecialization in neuroradiology in Paris, he moved to Sao Paulo to start his practice and teach at the university. He was one of the first in Brazil to join the field of neuroradiology.

"Being a neurosurgeon is very similar to being a sailor," he said. "You have several moving parts that needs to work in synchrony, and it's just you out there, trying to figure it out. I liked that solitude and that work ethic."

He set up research facilities that helped train new surgeons. He gave lectures every other day. He worked 17-20 hours a day, taking 10-minute lunch and dinner breaks. He got less than five hours of sleep a night.

After 10 years of this grind, not surprisingly, Jose needed a break. He decided that he missed sailing. He missed who he was when he sailed.

So he bought a boat.

In just a few years, he would make his first solo cross-Atlantic trip from Brazil to Angola and return to Mussulo, the island that taught him how to sail.

2018: Jersey City, United States

The cockpit of José's boat is tight. Two six-foot bunks are stowed against the sides, a satellite radio station takes up the center of the cockpit, and a small bathroom is tucked aft.

"They don't ever use the bathroom in there. It's nasty. They use two buckets, one to pee and one to wash themselves. Hopefully they don't mix them up," said Antonio Nunes, CEO of Angola Cables, the fiber optics company sponsoring José and Leonardo's boat.

José does this not for the money -- the Atlantic Cup offered prize money in the past but not this year -- but for the love of sailing.

José is allowed to eat 3,000 calories a day during the race; Leonardo is allowed 4,000 calories. Jose has 25 percent more body fat than Leo. "They are always physically active when they're sailing, and what they eat is very important," Nunes said. They heat up oatmeal, they chew on jerky, and they look forward to the one piece of chocolate mousse they are allowed every day. One of them will always have to be on watch, so they take turns sleeping on the beds. They buckle up so the waves won't wake them up.

When José goes on month-long sailing trips, this routine can get claustrophobic.

"That's why we have Pintas to help us. He is our third crew member," José said. Pintas is a 3-foot-tall stuffed giraffe in a Mussulo T-shirt. Leo and José cackle as they hold the giraffe and make him wave at people on other boats.

José and Leo are incredibly different people. José is more methodical, more clinical in his approach toward sailing. Leo is more vocal, more amped up. Leo recognized that the first time they went on a cross-Atlantic sail together in 2013, from Cape Town to Rio. High waves made sailing dangerous, and their main sailing rig fell during the last few hours of the cruise, and they had to make a risky maneuver to reach Cape Town. Another Angolan boat had capsized, and a sailor had died in that race.

"Sailing teaches you a lot about yourself and the people around you. That day, I learned I could trust Jose with my life," Leonardo said.

2005: Mussulo, Angola

From the time José started sailing again, he knew: I need to go back to my country. I need to see Angola again. The civil war ended in 2002, and he heard from childhood friends that things were getting better.

He knew that there was only one way for him to go back to his country.

It was on a boat.

In 2005, he decided to sail across the Atlantic for the first time -- all alone.

He was out on the ocean for more than a month. By day 30, his friends were starting to get worried. It usually takes around 25 days to get from Rio to Luanda, and they hadn't heard from him. He had to get back on course a few times after the currents guided him elsewhere.

"The currents were strong. It took longer," he said simply.

On day 31, disheveled, smelly and hungry for hot food, José spotted Mussulo, the island that taught him how to sail, in the distance. His heart was beating so hard he could hear it over the noise of the waves.

When he arrived, he felt as if the entire city of Luanda was out by the ocean to greet him. People didn't sail to Luanda all that often, and it was a big deal.

My country is OK. My country looks well, he thought to himself.

He visited his childhood home. He walked the streets. He touched his school gates, staring into space and taking it all in. When he went back to the sailing club, his ex-girlfriend from before he left was standing at the entrance, looking for him. She'd heard somebody from the city talk about a man sailing across the ocean. She had a gut feeling it was José.

He came back to Angola every month after that first visit. A year later, they got married on the island of Mussulo.

When he wasn't sailing off Mussulo, he was working to set up a research partnership between Angola University and the University of Sao Paulo. Because of that partnership, today, some 30 Angolans have specialized in neuroradiology.

"The world has given me so much. How can I not give back? It's the right thing to do," José said.

2018: Jersey City, United States

José still practices medicine and teaches at Sao Paulo, but he has come to a point in his life where he can walk away from it for a while if it gets to be too much. "My team will take care of it," he said. Angola Cables did not win the charity race -- a last-minute maneuver caused them to slow down behind the first three boats -- but "in our hearts, we won," Leo said, and José nodded, smiling. They finished fifth in the main event, going from Charleston to New York to Maine in 16 days.

The duo is already thinking of next races: the French Regatta in 2019 and maybe another Cape Town to Rio cross-Atlantic race.

The biggest idea is the global cruise that's in the works, which Nunes let slip.

"They want to sail around the world. They are working out the details, but I won't be shocked if they decide to stock up and start from one end of the world and end up on the other end in 80 days," he said with a laugh.

One thing's for certain: The adventurous journey will pass by the coast of Angola.