My Dizzying Depths
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Outside magazine, November 1997
My Dizzying Depths
In the turbulent waters of the Pacific Northwest, a seaman confronts old demons
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
“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
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,
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
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
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
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
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,
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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 Amazon.com is “fractal,” used in editorial meetings to denote a draft page design, as in, “This is the basic fractal we’ll be working
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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