First Chapter

IN DEEP: an introduction

The sea has many voices, Many gods and many voices.
– T.S. Eliot

My interest in tides springs from a fascination with the ocean. I grew up on the southern California coast, surfing, diving, sailing, fishing. I built a 26- foot sloop after college and sailed it for a couple years in the Atlantic and Caribbean, making several offshore passages. In the early 1980s, at twenty- five, I bought a leaky old 65-foot wooden schooner, Crusader, and founded a nonprofit educational organization, Resource Institute. For eleven years we sailed Crusader off the Northwest Coast, from Seattle to Alaska, around Vancouver Island and Haida Gwaii. We conducted weeklong seminars afloat on topics ranging from natural history, photography, and whale research to psychology, music, poetry, and Northwest Coast Native art, culture, and mythology. Among the seminar presenters were Peter Matthiessen, Lynn Margulis, Gary Snyder, Paul Winter, Robert Bly, Art Wolfe, Gretel Ehrlich, and Roger Payne. Six or eight participants from across the country — sometimes from around the world — would join us at a coastal town, and we’d sail off, often not seeing another human settlement until the seminar’s end.

It was a wonderfully adventurous eleven years, but one of the not-so- wonderful adventures was going aground on a large tide in Alaska’s Kalinin Bay.

I’d been aground before. In fact, I’ve been aground more often than I care to admit, because I misjudged the tide or misread a tide table. Over the years, I frequently bounced on and off rocks and sandbars, sometimes getting stuck and having to wait for a rising tide to lift me off. Most groundings were innocuous — sometimes agonizing and almost always embarrassing, but not damaging to the boat. I always looked at these experiences as a reminder of who’s really in charge. Clearly, it wasn’t me.

Where I live, on the Northwest Coast of North America, sailors need to watch the tides as actively as they trim sails. Although we think of ourselves as sailing across the ocean’s surface, we are also sailing down the low tide’s valleys and up the high tide’s mountains. Hanging on as a tidal passenger isn’t always as easy as it might seem. Kalinin Bay taught me that.

It was August 1990, and twelve of us, including three crew, had been sailing for a week on the isolated coasts of Kruzoff and Chichagof islands with anthropologist and writer Richard Nelson for a seminar called “Nature, Culture, and World View.” We had anchored for the night in the tiny bight of Kalinin Bay on the north tip of Kruzoff Island. The next day we planned to hike the island before heading into Sitka to finish the trip.

The night was star-filled and quiet when we went to bed, but in the early morning hours I was awakened by a howling gale. I pulled on my rubber boots and climbed on deck to make sure everything was okay.

It wasn’t. We had dragged our anchor across the bay and were aground in the mud. With a lump in my throat, I grabbed the tide chart from the pilothouse. If the tide was low and about to turn, we would be in luck. Crusader would refloat easily with the flood, just as she had done before. If the tide was high and on its way down, however, it’d be disastrous. With a 14-foot tide, the water would literally disappear from under Crusader, leaving us stuck in the mud.

Flipping to the pages for Sunday, August 19, I read “high tide 05:00, low tide 09:50.” I read it several times. Really? If this was right, we had gone aground at peak high tide–the worst possible time. There wouldn’t be enough water in Kalinin Bay to refloat Crusader for another nine or ten hours, and the whole time we’d be settling more deeply into the mud. In the worst case, we’d be sunk too deeply to get out at all.

The crew and I woke everyone and shuttled them in small boatloads to a tarped shelter onshore. Richard stood by with a rifle in case of bears. The wind was gusting at more than 40 knots, pouring off the mountains and whipping the bay into frothy streams. It ripped one of our kayaks from Crusader’s deck and flipped it like a toothpick across the bay. Driving rain stung my eyes. The nearest help, in Sitka, was at least four hours away by boat. As a general rule, a captain doesn’t call for assistance unless it’s direly needed. But I wouldn’t know if we needed help until the tide was rising, and by then it might be too late for any help to make a difference.

Over the hours, I watched Crusader drop like a fatally wounded animal, first to her knees, then all fours, and finally onto her side. She filled chest-high with water. When the tide reversed, all 70 tons of her were stuck in the mud and didn’t want to come back up.

Crew member Lela Hilton and I stayed on the boat, trying to rescue valuables, swimming in the flooded cabins. I worried about the engine, a tractor-sized Detroit diesel. Maneuvering in tight anchorages or marinas would be impossible without it. I watched the rising water lick at the oil pan, then swallow it. The batteries were next, then the fuel injectors. By midmorning the engine’s whole iron mass had vanished under the turbid water.

Food, shoes, and fruit seemed to delight in their newfound buoyancy. Packages of raisins and mint cookies bobbed here and there. Herring balls of rice swirled above the quarter berths. And the books. The books! Two hundred or more, swelled with ocean, took up dancing partners with the apples and pears and tennis shoes. I’ll never forget the titles that floated by: Ed Rickett’sBetween Pacific Tides, Robert Bly’s When Sleepers Awake, Ram Dass’s How Can I Help? Lela managed a smile as she held up a soaked copy of Maxine Kumin’s In Deep.

Finally I realized the boat was at risk of becoming a total loss, and I called for help. The Coast Guard sent a helicopter with three large pumps.

The 65’ schooner Crusader aground at low tide in Kalinin Bay, Alaska. Photo by Sheila Kelly

The pilot radioed that they’d like to stay and help, but two other boats were in trouble up the coast. They left gas for the pumps, which we started immediately, placing one in the forward cabin and two in the engine room.

Even with the pumps gushing 350 gallons a minute, the effort seemed futile. There was no sign of gain. Sometime in the late morning, I paused on the top rung of the engine room ladder, feeling the terrific cold for the first time. I was exhausted. We all were. The group on land was rescued midmorning by a local fisherman who had heard my radio call for help. I was glad to know they were safe on their way back to Sitka. Lela and I stayed behind, just the two of us, having gotten all the help we could expect.

It was time to let Crusader go. I wondered what the insurance company would need. What should I take with me as I left her for the last time?

Then something shifted. Lela and I watched, transfixed, as the cap rail and bulwarks reappeared. Long blades of eelgrass disentangled from the deck and slipped back into Kalinin Bay. Released from the muddy bottom, Crusaderwas floating upright in ninety seconds.

Lela kept the pumps working while I drained seven gallons of seawater from the engine’s main oil chamber and three more from the gearbox. Lela helped me pull the valve covers and injectors, exposing the engine’s soaked interior. After we jerry-rigged the fuel and electrical systems, we were able to crank the engine. The first revolutions spat out a few more quarts of seawater, but with each revolution there was less and less water, until the engine room was finally filled with a fine mist of pure diesel. At 2:00 a.m., almost twenty-four hours after we had gone aground, I eased the six injectors back in their sleeves, tightened them in, said a prayer, and pushed the starter button. u

I stood on the aft deck minutes later, watching the light blue exhaust float over the bay. The wind had died and the bay was once again cradling that giant Alaskan silence. We slept for a couple hours and then motored into Sitka the next morning. With a crew working around the clock to clean and repair the cabins, three days later Crusader sailed off on the next seminar.


After Kalinin Bay, I vowed to learn more about the tides. I couldn’t have prevented the grounding simply by knowing how the tide worked, but nevertheless I figured it was time to learn more.

I knew the moon had something to do with it, but what? I thought I’d find my answer in a book or two, but the more I read, the more complex and mysterious and poetic the subject became. I learned, for example, that planetary motion, which governs the tides, is not at all simple or regular. It’s full of eccentricities. The sun, moon, and earth don’t orbit in perfect circles. At times they’re closer to one another and at times farther away. They speed up and slow down. They wobble and yaw and dip and veer, and each time they do, it translates into a tidal event on earth.

There are hundreds of these eccentricities, each calling out to the oceans–some loudly, some faintly, some repeating every four hours and others every 20,000 years.

How the oceans hear these heavenly calls is another story. Some oceans hear only a single voice; others hear a chorus. The calls are heard differently in Boston than San Francisco, London, or Shanghai. They’re even heard differently in two bays several miles apart. The Atlantic is strongly tuned to the moon; the Pacific is tuned more to the sun.

The more I found out, the more I wanted to know. I wrote a piece on Northwest Coast tides for Orion Magazine. I went to China under contract with Natural History Magazine to write about the Qiantang River’s tidal bore, a wave that roars upriver on every flood tide–sometimes reaching 25 feet in height. I came across so many fascinating stories about the tide during these projects that five years ago I embarked on this book.

Had I known how wet and confused I would become on this journey, perhaps I would have hesitated at its edge, or at least donned a life jacket before wading in. When I wallowed–and I often did–I found consolation in knowing I was in the best of company. Aristotle was befuddled too. He lived 2,300 three hundred years ago on the Mediterranean, where the tidal range is only a few inches. Yet in the Euripus Strait near his home, he was perplexed by a strong reversing current. Aristotle suspected it had something to do with the tide, but he couldn’t figure out how or why. Three different historical accounts suggest that Aristotle’s frustration reached such intensity that he ended his life by throwing himself into the sea, exclaiming, “Comprehend me, since I cannot comprehend thee!”

Two thousand years later, Newton ignited a revolution when he identified the tide’s cause as that ghostly force called gravity. In a world that was desperately trying to shake free of ancient mystical views, accepting the existence of an unseen force was like believing in witchcraft. How could a force push things around–over such great distances, no less–without showing itself? Gravity was spooky, even to Newton. He called it “a most disgraceful thing” but plunked it nonetheless into the center of his revolutionary tide theory. Nothing else worked.

Modern-day tide theory has come a long way since Newton but hasn’t rid itself of mystery. In my research, I met dozens of accomplished oceanographers who flatly admitted that the tides were too complex for any one person to fully understand. When I asked renowned tide modeler David Greenberg to describe an “aha” moment, he sat uncharacteristically quiet for a while. We were in his office at the Bedford Oceanographic Institute in Nova Scotia, not far from the Bay of Fundy, where the tides have been recorded at 54 feet 6 inches–the largest, along with Ungava Bay, in the world.

“I don’t have ‘aha’ moments in this field,” he finally answered, “only ‘oh god’ moments when I find something that makes no sense.”


Before Newton introduced gravity and a unified picture of planetary motion, the ancients put forth tide theories based on myth, astrology, practical observations, and religious beliefs. They used the conceptual tools they had, as we do today, to make sense of their world.

The Maori of New Zealand believed the tides rose and fell at the whim of a woman-god who lived on the moon. The Chinese envisioned the Milky Way as a great waterwheel, filling and emptying the oceans as it churned. In many cultures, there was a perceived “secret harmony” between the tide and human life. Flooding tides were a time of exuberance, prosperity, conception, birth. It was a time to make butter and sow clover. Ebbing tides were a time of melancholy, harvest, death. A woman’s menstrual cycle was the tide’s ebb and flow within her body.

The tide’s long, steady inhale and exhale is suggestive of a living being. Some thought the tides were the breathing of the earth itself, Gaia, and others suspected it was a large beast. Leonardo da Vinci was convinced of the latter and tried to calculate the size of its lung.

Whatever the speculation about the tide’s cause or secret harmony, the earliest coastal people most certainly accumulated vast practical knowledge about daily, weekly, monthly, and yearly tide patterns. They needed this information to survive, to know where and when to pick mussels or gather seaweeds in the intertidal, when to launch a boat and how to take advantage of currents. You only need to paddle against the tide once to be convinced never to try it again. From a practical view, it didn’t matter if the tide was caused by a waterwheel or a beast or a god; it only mattered that daily survival was easier if you observed the tide and worked with it, not against it. The more one knew, the better.

This was true for all coastal peoples, but especially for the canoe cultures that settled in extreme environments like Tierra del Fuego, the Arctic, or the northern coasts of North America. These places, with their large tides, ferocious currents, and frigid water, were bountiful but mercilessly demanding. The wrong move in a canoe loaded with fish or clams could be fatal. The knowledge these people acquired was passed in stories and hands-on teachings from generation to generation, for thousands of years. Much of it is now lost to the written record.

I learned a little about the depth of indigenous knowledge when I went hunting several years ago with Lukasi Nappaaluk, an Inuit elder from the Nunavik region of northern Quebec, Canada. We had hiked across the tundra toward Hudson Strait, where we planned to launch a small boat. As we approached the shore, I guessed that the tide was at midrange.

“It’s flooding,” Lukasi said.

It was a quiet beach, and to my eye there was no indication whether the tide was flooding or ebbing

“How do you know?” I asked.
“Fuzz,” he answered.
He would have left it at that, but I persisted.
“What fuzz?”
“When the tide is flooding, it picks up dust and pollen and insect

larvae from the beach. That sits on top of the water like a blanket. It doesn’t happen when the tide is dropping.”

For Lukasi, the fuzz tells him which way the currents are moving, how fast, and for how long. It tells him when to launch his boat and what course to steer. It tells him whether he should round Point Frontenac looking for seals or head for Cape Neptune to fish for char.

Today, I notice fuzz around the island where I live. I see it from my car as I drive. In the late afternoon sun, it looks like velvet.


The tides rise and fall constantly on all the world’s coastlines–more than 370,000 miles of them. In places the range is small, such as the Mediterranean, the Gulf of Mexico, and the South Pacific Islands; in other places it’s large, as in northwestern Australia, Patagonia, the United Kingdom, and northeastern Canada. Large or small, the tide is always on the move, swelling against one coast while shrinking from another. It never begins and it never ends.

As I write this, I imagine what the tide might be doing around the world right now. Where I live, it’s low, and oyster grower Nick Jones is out on the flats with his crew, repairing beds, planting spat, and harvesting oysters for market. While he hauls burlap bags up the intertidal, a large heron in Surinam lifts its blue-black body from the roost and squawks loudly as it wings toward the coast. Its destination is miles from sight, but an internal clock signals that the tide is low and a meal of mussels, urchins, and crabs awaits. As the bird alights on a seaweed-covered rock, David Plunkett dons a white apron and opens the sluice gates at the Eling Tidemill, south of London. In minutes, the sixteenth-century mill, the oldest operating in the world, moans to life and warm yellow flour spills from the grinding wheels. Later, when the tide is low and the wheels are again still, the wholemeal flour will be delivered to bakeries in Totton and Bitterne to be made into cookies and bread.

When those cookies are in the oven, Lukasi Nappaaluk might be cutting a hole in the Arctic ice and preparing to drop below into the womb- like hollows left behind by an extreme low tide. In that ice-roofed dark cavern, he harvests fresh blue mussels for dinner.

Thousands of miles away, in Venice, Italy, a young couple sits at a small table, their hands entwined. In the fading evening light, they gaze at each other and a full moon rising over Piazza San Marco. There’s nothing unusual about this romantic scene, except that the couple’s chairs are sitting in sixteen inches of seawater. It’s acqua alta in Venice. High tide has jumped the seawall and flooded San Marco Square, something that has happened occasionally for centuries but more frequently in recent years– about a hundred times in 2015 – as global sea levels rise. Though these floodings pose a serious threat, Venetians are accustomed to it. Visitors walk on raised wood planks and shop in rubber boots. The young couple can still order a cappuccino, but the server who brings it out is wearing hip waders.


Acqua alta might not contribute to Venice’s romance, but a full moon certainly does. Who can gaze upon this bright companion and not feel inspired? No wonder our ancestors thought of it as mother, father, god, death, renewal. They understood, long before science revealed the details, that the moon and tides are connected, mirroring each other as they rise and fall, grow and shrink, die and are reborn.

Cultures of the not-too-distant past played music and danced to the moon, celebrating fertility, ripeness, love. That moon is the same one we see today, the one that reminds us of where we came from. A century ago, Yeats wrote:

What is there in thee, Moon! that thou shouldst move
my heart so potently?

The moon may move our hearts today, but her first love was the ocean, stirred millions of years ago. The attraction may have grown stronger or weaker through time, but the affair has never ended. Like any relationship, it has complexities and baggage. The moon calls out to the earth’s oceans in the form of gravity, and the oceans call back, their pulsing energy holding the moon close while also pushing it away. It’s a dance performed celestially, with partners on a floor hundreds of thousands of miles across. It brings new meaning to the concept of a long-distance relationship. And, from the perspective of a human life, the dance never had a beginning or an end.