My Dizzying Depths

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Outside magazine, November 1997

My Dizzying Depths

In the turbulent waters of the Pacific Northwest, a seaman confronts old demons
By Jonathan Raban

In 1990 I moved from England, where I kept a boat on the Blackwater estuary, to Seattle, from where I sail a 35-foot ketch. The move took me from shallow to deep water; from sandbars and swatchways, where the echosounder dickers around the ten-foot mark, even in the middle of a buoyed channel, to the abyssal inland sea that stretches from Puget Sound to Glacier Bay in southeast Alaska. Here the echo-sounder searches in vain for an answering rebound from the dark sea floor, where the giant bedroom-eyed Octopus dofleini reclines on its soft bed of silt.

"Sounded with 100-fathom line. Found no bottom," wrote Peter Puget, a fellow Londoner, as he tried to get the measure of these waters in 1792, when as George Vancouver's lieutenant he was on the Discovery expedition, mounted by the British navy to survey the Pacific Northwest. It's a refrain that runs through Puget's journal: "Sounded with 80 fathoms. No ground"; "Tryed for Soundings but could not reach Bottom." I know how Puget felt — almost within touching distance of land, but vertiginously suspended above a fathomless deep. The lie of the land was homely, to him as to me; the low wooded hills of Puget Sound would remind any Englishman of Devon — the approaches to Dartmouth, or Salcombe. Nothing in Puget's seagoing experience could have prepared him for the eerie behavior of the lead, on its thick hemp line, as it sank, and sank, and went on sinking, the line bellying-out and thrumming in the current as if a big fish had swallowed the 14-pound lead.

I'm a thin-water man, and after seven years I still find something sinister and alienating about such profound and unexpected depths. They remind me that I'm a novice here, an awkward stranger, sailing over these drowned rift-valleys, with the troubled water forming itself into whirlpools, rips, and overfalls. Crossing the Strait of Georgia is like a homecoming: Its short, sharp chop and estuarine shallows make it a close cousin to the North Sea. Squint, and the brown water off Sand Heads could easily be the sandbank maze between Harwich and the Kentish Knock, where the Thames and its fellow East Coast rivers spread themselves out in a wicked, dun-colored, brackish sea. But the Strait of Georgia is an exception. It's in the deep sounds and passes that the sea here shows itself in its true colors — as it boils, at 15 knots, through Seymour Narrows; breaks short, waves hoisting themselves on each others' backs, in the long reach of Johnstone Strait; explodes white against the insolent obstacle of Egg Island; or eddies, with viscous smoothness, like poured molasses, through the deeps of Puget Sound and Stephens Passage.

It is as intricate and devious a sea as any in the world, and it defeats the best efforts of hydrographers to draw its portrait according to the usual rules. The tidal atlases, Canadian and American, come nowhere near to catching its real likeness with their little arrows, flying in parallel, like so many volleys from the bowmen of Agincourt. This sea simply doesn't move like that. It goes in swirls and gyres. For every current there's a countercurrent. It is chronically turbulent. Its most typical facial expression is the whirlpool, water rubbing against water to make turmoil.

Far better than the hydrographers, the GPS does capture something of the sea's riddling and disturbed character. You're on passage, say, from Sooke on Vancouver Island to Dungeness, on the Washington shore, riding a supposedly favorable flood tide down Juan de Fuca. The wind is steady. You're making an easy five and a half knots through the water. Race Rocks lighthouse is a couple of miles off on your port beam. The Garmin reports that you're making nine knots over the ground (Wheee!)...9.5...9.6... 10.1! For five minutes you're in double figures; then, with the boat nicely heeled and the water sizzling under the counter, you look to the GPS and see the number 0.8 bewilderingly displayed. Suddenly the sea is heaped and growling, the standing breakers dribbling foam down their fronts. You can watch the current, moving fast and smoothly through the waves, like the glissade of a river over boulders. Snatching at the wheel, white-knuckled, you hear the sound of crockery smashing down in the saloon. The boat is trying to turn itself into a corkscrew. Its front end rears up and slams into the trough as if it had been dropped on concrete from a crane. 1.2 knots. 0.9. 0.0. There's sea in the cockpit, swilling round your ankles. You are a secular rationalist, a committed skeptic. But on this sunny morning, in a modest westerly breeze, you check out the unusual movements of your own lips and find that they are saying prayers.

One needs the vocabulary of chaos theory — strange attractors, Mandelbrot sets, fractals, quarks — to begin to describe the sheer aberrant swirliness of this corner of the North Pacific. Its extraordinary depth gives it such volume that whenever it feels encumbered by the land, a little too squashed for comfort, it behaves as if it were as volatile and shallow as a whitewater mountain stream. The tide is always trying to shift more water than the land will allow. The bottom is uneven, with raised sills that create unseen submarine cascades. These deep waters don't run still.

Their turbulence is kind to life in general. I've brought home a bucket of Puget Sound water and gazed at samples of it through a yard-sale microscope. It was a wriggly soup of plankton: copepods, rotifers, flagellates, their whips pulsing feebly on the glass. Through the 97x lens, a teaspoonful of this water yields a Spielberglike world of scaly-tailed, bug-eyed, diaphanous monsters — true creatures of chaos. For it's in the churning-up of cold, lightless, saline water from the deep with the warm, sunlit, aerated water from the surface that living things get on the hop. The more turbulent the sea, the richer it's likely to be in tiny forms of life and, consequently, in big ones too. This dusty and opaque sea, always reluctant to mirror even the bluest sky, looks dull and pre-owned, like dishwater, but its dustiness is the dustiness of life itself.

Zooplankton feed on phytoplankton, fish feed on zooplankton... It takes only a handful of links in the food chain to arrive at the black-and-white Dall's porpoise, torpedoing under the bow of the boat, or the faint plume in the air, like a twist of smoke from a dying campfire, where an orca is blowing. It's almost impossible to put out to sea here without meeting large mammals, all of which ultimately owe their existence to the roiling water of the rip and the eddy. Marine life thrives on flux and commotion.

But what is good for plankton has always inspired deep-rooted fear in humankind, and in more unexpected ways than one might casually assume. The maritime art and oral literature of the Northwest coastal Indians is full of images and interpretations of turbulent water. The day-to-day experience of navigating tide-races and whirlpools in easily swamped cedar dugouts supplied the Indians with an inexhaustible metaphor for the conduct of life at large.

They saw the whirlpool as a malign trickster. There's a Tsimshian story about Nagun'aks, a vicious and resentful creature who took the form of a whirlpool near Prince Rupert, British Columbia. He would reach up from the sea bottom, snatch a canoeful of fishermen, and toy with them in his underwater lair. Or there's Getemnax, a violent whirlpool who manifests the head and shoulders of a young woman but has an elephantine penis. Getemnax's hobby is to seduce young men and drown them. In Salish mythology, there's the cunning whirlpool at Deception Pass, where the tide bowls through the narrow gap between Whidbey Island and the Washington mainland. This creature appeared as a lithe and attractive suitor to a young woman, Kokwalalwoot, who was gathering clams on the beach. Sucked into the water by her whirlpool-lover, she began to lose her human attributes and turn into a grotesque sea-being: Kelp sprouted from her nostrils and eye sockets; barnacles grew on her skin. When she tried to go back to her village, she was reviled as an outcast. Yet Indian navigators, negotiating the tricky water of Deception Pass, looked to her for help in getting through safely. In one version of the story, the scrolls and curlicues of current in the pass are seen as tresses of Kokwalalwoot's hair, waving to and fro in the stream.

There are dozens of such whirlpool stories — all of them versions of the same essential story, in which turbulent water is seen to correspond with some kind of dangerous turbulence in the social order. Sexual ambiguity, treachery, incest, murder...these versions of tumult in society, which threaten to overturn the fragile canoe of the family or the village, are embodied and given names as famously destructive whirlpools. One can read the stories as parables of poor judgment in the navigation of life and as dreadful warnings of the likely consequence of tangling with turbulence.

Much more than their inland cousins, the Indians of the Northwest coast developed a rigidly stratified society, with strict rules governing every aspect of behavior and a fantastic panoply of fine distinctions of class and status. Their daily seagoing gave them an intense firsthand experience of chaos — of just how easily things can spin out of control. The smooth sea suddenly steepens; the current reverses on itself and overpowers the paddler; the whirlpool sucks you in. It's only to be expected that a people who spent their days literally skirting the lip of the maelstrom would run their society as a very tight ship indeed.

Turbulence speaks to us in private ways, too.

The more he explored the serpentine waters of the Inside Passage, with their baffling tides and immense depths, the lower sank George Vancouver's spirits. In April 1792, when Discovery entered the Juan de Fuca Strait, Vancouver was high on the prospect of the "expansive mediterranean ocean" that lay ahead. For a while, everything pleased and excited him. Anchored in Discovery Bay, at the southeast end of the strait, he exulted in the prettiness of the landscape that encircled the ship: "The surface of the sea was perfectly smooth, and the country before us exhibited everything that bounteous nature could be expected to draw into one point of view. As we had no reason to imagine that this country had ever been indebted for any of its decorations to the hand of man, I could not possibly believe that any uncultivated country had ever been discovered exhibiting so rich a picture." He was put in mind of "certain delightful and beloved situations in Old England." Vancouver's commonplace taste in the picturesque was amply satisfied in the long sound that he named after Peter Puget: Every bird, every bush, every clearing in the forest, every steep fall of timber made him think, approvingly, of some "ingenious designer of pleasure grounds" — presumably Capability Brown, the great landscape architect, creator of walks and vistas for the English aristocracy, who had died nine years before.

By June, Vancouver was entombed in depression. Much of his time was spent locked inside his cabin, taking potions prescribed for him by Archibald Menzies, the ship's naturalist and stand-in surgeon. He took it out on his crew, sentencing men to grim public floggings. "Punished Willm. Wooderson Seaman with 24 lashes for Insolence." On June 25, heading northwest along the mainland coast of British Columbia, he left behind the broad Strait of Georgia and entered "a very unpleasant navigation." "Soundings could not be gained though close to the shore." "By the influence of the tides we were driven about as it were blindfolded in this labyrinth." He looked out at the surrounding country with frank loathing: "very inhospitable" — "stupendous rocky mountains" — "dreary and unpleasant" — "dreary rocks and precipices that compose these desolate shores" — "our residence here was truly forlorn" — "nor was the sea more favourable to our wants...not a fish at the bottom could be tempted to take the hook."

He had found his heart of darkness. He called the place Desolation Sound.

There was a deep and troubled abyss in Vancouver's own character. Short, fat, with protuberant thyroidal eyes, his body racked by a violent hacking cough, Captain Van (as he was called behind his back) was given to fits of malevolent rage. Menzies described him as "passionate and illiberal in his abuse." Another lieutenant, Thomas Manby, wrote of him that he was "Haughty Proud Mean and Insolent...his Language to his Officers is too bad." Like many people who feel like they are standing on the edge of a terrible internal precipice, Captain Van clung desperately to rank, order, convention. The structure of his often clumsy sentences — yet another officer aboard the Discovery, Robert Barrie, called Vancouver's Voyage "one of the most tedious books I ever read" — betrays a homesick yearning for early eighteenth-century notions of correctness and subordination. The undereducated Vancouver ached to write like Dr. Johnson but could never master the Latinate syntax he so admired. In the dark labyrinth of islands, swept round and round by the unruly tide, unable to reach bottom with the lead, Vancouver, I think, found himself confronting something intolerably commensurate with his own inner chaos.

George Vancouver was a great measurer, a brilliant surveyor, a genius with the sextant, the compass, and the clock. One could sail now with his charts, using his Voyage as a pilot book, and find one's way safely from Seattle to the Alaskan panhandle. But in the mad scribble of islands and inlets at the northwest end of the Strait of Georgia, he came up against the classic chaos-theorist's problem: How do you measure a coastline? Round every rock? Every pebble? Every grain of sand? The more you measure, the longer it gets — until the whole concept of measurable distance becomes arbitrary and absurd. The sea was too deep to chart. Worse still, the tide, whose predictable rhythms plot the seaman's normal day, appeared to have gone haywire.

In the region around Desolation Sound, the tide is so irregular that the compilers of modern tidal atlases leave the area blank, except for asterisks warning the mariner to expect capricious currents here. On Tuesday, the ebb-tide will run south to the Pacific by way of the Strait of Georgia; on Wednesday, it may elect to run north, finding the open sea via the Sechelt Rapids and Charlotte Strait. Vancouver commented: "In the course of some days there would not be the least perceptible stream; and in others a very rapid one, that generally continued in the same direction 24 hours, and sometimes longer. The time of high water was equally vague and undefinable." All Vancouver's knowledge of the sea, his faith in tables, predictions, measurements, was affronted by the weird conditions he met in Desolation Sound. It was an encounter with chaos for which he was profoundly unequipped. His experience there colored the rest of the voyage for the worse. His published book tries to put a good face on his intense depression, but as one reads between the lines, one keeps catching glimpses of the black dog on Vancouver's shoulder. It's in a private letter to a friend, written from Friendly Cove in Nootka Sound, shortly before Discovery set sail for England, that one hears Vancouver's voice at its most miserably candid: "I am once more entrap'd in this infernal Ocean."

It would dumbfound Vancouver to learn that Desolation Sound is now a favorite tourist destination for the boating families of the Northwest — though it wouldn't greatly surprise Puget. Seven years younger than his captain, Puget came from a Huguenot banking family based in central London, and his journal reveals him as hip to the new romantic ideas of the sublime and the wild that were stirring in the intellectual circles of his time. Where Vancouver was repelled by "dreary precipices," Puget was capable of seeing them with cultivated romantic awe.

The Victorian rage for wilderness, for untrammeled nature, from Wordsworth's Lake District to John Muir's Alaska, went hand in hand with taking a connoisseur's aesthetic pleasure in the turbulent motion of fluids. The thunderously breaking wave, the Niagara Falls, the boiling cataract of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone became standard set-pieces in the romantic artist's repertoire. The painters of the West, such as Bierstadt, Church, and Moran, reveled in the swirl and tumble of things — in tumultuous clouds, volcanic eruptions, and rock that appears to be still molten, with its dizzy upwellings and twisted crags. Even as Captain Van found his spiritual nadir in the random tidal currents of Desolation Sound, chaos was becoming picturesque.

In our present phase of postromantic, postmodern cool, we've so fallen out of touch with the visceral dread of chaos that we'll never meet Getemnax face to face or feel Vancouver's desolation on our own pulses. I'm told that the buzzword now at is "fractal," used in editorial meetings to denote a draft page design, as in, "This is the basic fractal we'll be working with." It's not quite what Mandelbrot had in mind when he coined the word to describe his new geometry of chaos, but the Amazon usage is a measure of how airily we take on the state of nature that used to inspire horror in our ancestors.

Yet sometimes, in a small boat, fearing for your skin, you can get at least an inkling of how they felt. If I were a (far) less timid sailor than I am, I might go out in a kayak and let myself get caught in the great tidal gyre, six to eight miles in diameter, on the Canada-U.S. border at the south end of Haro Strait. On a spring tide, in a moderate to strong wind, you'd soon lose your cool in that maze of whirlpools and overfalls. It is catastrophic water, serious and turbulent enough to frighten one back into prehistory.

Even my safe-as-houses ketch, with its 50-horse diesel and electronic navigation aids — a sedentary, bookish, middle-aged sort of boat — can unexpectedly turn into a vehicle for time-travel, jolting me into the mindset of a heartfelt animist.

I'm just back from a 12-day sailing trip to Nootka Sound, on the west coast of Vancouver Island. I wanted to walk on the beach where Captain Cook landed in 1778 and that served as Vancouver's HQ on his surveying expedition of 1791- 1795. Nootka is about 250 miles northwest of Seattle — five comfortable day-sails away. A friend was with me, as she put it, for the sake of the suntan.

On the morning of our third day out, we left the Makah Indian settlement of Neah Bay at 5:25. In the east, the sky was promisingly streaked with rose and lemon. I had feared fog, but the visibility was magnificent, with the razor-slash peaks of the Cascade range showing clearly against the predawn luminescence. Gruff-voiced, short of sleep, we motored round the black shadow of hogbacked Waadah Island into the western entrance of Juan de Fuca Strait, bound for Cape Beale, 27 miles away on the Vancouver Island shore.

The ebb was running, and much faster than its official schedule had announced. The tide tables gave two knots max at Juan de Fuca West, but as the boat shed the coast, it began to hurtle over the ground. The GPS was giving ten knots plus — six from the engine, four from the tide. It's not good for water to move at that speed. The current was colliding with the usual low westerly swell from the ocean, shortening the intervals between the crests to no more than four or five seconds, and turning normally smooth hillocks into steep, greasy walls of water, nine feet high and climbing. The offshore breeze, from the southeast, came in mild, flatulent gusts, just enough to keep the headsail filled and steady the boat as it rolled in the swell.

I didn't like it. Everything was held in too delicate a balance. If the wind increased by just a notch, or if this puzzling current got any faster, our lolloping ride over the sea could turn into something seriously nasty. I looked over my shoulder to see how my friend was doing. She had been worried about being seasick, and conditions now were perfect for a bout of Technicolor yawning.

Two suns had risen in the sky.

One sun had just cleared the dark ridge of the mountains. The other hung 12 to 15 degrees above it, on the same meridian. One was not a paler image of the other. There were two: equally round, gold, substantial, as sharply defined as a pair of coins.

For a space of time hardly longer than the blink of a camera shutter, I was possessed by a mad piece of intelligence, as I grasped the physics of what was happening. Of course the tide was running like this! Double the magnetic pull of the sun on the liquid skin of the earth, and the oceans might boil in their basins like the Colorado River.

"A sun dog!" my friend said. "I've never seen one. So that's a sun dog!"

But I had seen a derangement in the heavens, and no amount of talk about ice crystals and refraction could quite dispel for me that momentary, foolish apprehension of universal chaos. I felt spooked and queasy.

In ten minutes or so, the higher of the two suns abruptly faded from the sky. The current slacked, the swell subsided. The next four hours were perfectly wonderful. I got up Bowditch — American Practical Navigator — from downstairs and looked up "sun dog": "A parhelion (plural parhelia) is a form of halo consisting of an image of the sun at the same altitude and some distance from it, usually 22 degrees, but occasionally 46 degrees.... A parhelion is popularly called mock sun or sun dog." So it wasn't a sun dog, at least as defined by Bowditch.

Sailing now on a friendly wind that was enough to raise waves that peaked but did not break, more cradled than rolled by the surviving swell, I was still haunted by my nanosecond of stupid shock and by the derailed logic that followed in its wake. I watched the water anxiously for signs and omens and raided my friend's pack of cigarettes at far too frequent intervals.

Later, at anchor in a still lagoon in the Broken Group, in Barkley Sound, I leafed through two fat, glossy books of Kwakiutl and Haida art — more informative that Bowditch on the peculiar celestial events of the morning. In their firelit winter ceremonies, the Indians acted out tumult in nature, wearing masks deigned half to scare and half to entertain. Here were the lords of chaos, hinged and articulated, in grotesque cedar carvings, like the gargoyles of medieval cathedral stonemasons. Earthquake appears as a human face with enormous staring eyes and fat wooden lips that clack up and down to speak. Suspended from hooks on his skull, his eyebrows suddenly descend to form a visor, transforming him into a creature of blind, snapping menace. Thunder is the head of an aquiline bird, with a massive curved beak that opens wide to reveal the face of the moon inside; its companion, Lightning, is a serpentlike fish. The Master of the Tides is the head of a giant, painted blue, with eyes that roll and wink on their controlling strings.

The masks, with all their ingenious moving parts, represent a nature that can transform itself from the benignly familiar to the cataclysmic at the tug of a string. They're masterpieces of the art of shock and surprise. They recognize the chaos that might, at any second, engulf your world: the quake, the lightning-strike, the sudden turmoil of the sea.

We sailed on to Nootka, where we snugly weathered a storm of 50-knot winds from the southeast. Four inches of rain fell during that day, an average deluge in those parts. When Captain Cook sailed into the sound, his ship, Resolution, was met in the roadstead by three canoes, under the command of Maquinna, the local chief. The Indians wore their ceremonial masks to receive the visitors. Cook was puzzled about the masks' meanings: "Whether they use these extravagant masquerade ornaments on any particular religious occasion or diversion, or whether they be put on to intimidate their enemies when they go to battle, by their monstrous appearance, or as decoys when they go to hunt animals, is uncertain."

I'd like to think that the Indians were simply supplying Cook with important navigational information, using their masks to tell him in advance about the deep, treacherous, sudden, inherently chaotic nature of their native sea.

Jonathan Raban's most recent book, Bad Land: An American Romance, is now available in paperback from Vintage.

Illustrations by Jonathon Rosen

More at Outside

Elsewhere on the Web