Rip Tide

Tales of Vashon

Sean and I were headed out to the marina dock to give a yearly bottom haul and cleaning to our little skiff we called “the Crabber.”  We optimistically still called it “the Crabber” in spite of cancelled seasons and poor yields when there was a season.  Every year we hauled it out, turned it over and scraped and painted the bottom. The yearly accumulation of bottom sea life was prodigious in spite of applications of bottom paint.  Sometimes marine biologists stopped by, amazed and ventured comments, such as; “I thought that species was extinct!”, or “Those sure are the biggest mussels I’ve ever seen!”

The Crabber was a late fifties fiberglass skiff we had obtained from Danny Cadman, maybe fifteen years ago. It was very stable and very heavy, and as we looked down the marina ramp, it was solidly in the mud and the ramp led down at a 100 percent slope.

“Darn!  We forgot about the tide!” I said.  As we set about bailing out some rainwater so we could lift the boat up onto the float our conversation turned to tides.

“It would sure be easier if we had a few more feet of water to help lift it out so we don’t have to sink in the mud!” Seán said.  I responded…”Where is the tide when we need it?”
Fortunately a friend came by and helped us lift it out and over, thus we avoided sinking in the mud.

We then recounted tide stories and how we came to understand tides as very young persons and later how we encountered the perverse danger and thrill as we grew older and sailed.
Both Sean and I grew up with the tide, but at a very young age we had no idea of the sun..the moon.. orbits and all that complex reasoning that came later. All we knew was that the  water was ‘there’ and we didn’t have to walk through mud to get to a skiff or the water wasn’t ‘there’ and there were all sorts if neat things to be found  along with the pleasant   feeling of squeezing mud  between one’s toes.

I related a story that perhaps captured the way we saw tides as very young children. I actually only vaguely remember this but my mother recounted the story years later at some family gathering on the beach. So the story is my remembrance of my Mother’s retelling;
It must  have been a day-long summer birthday party. I could have been three or four, but was just the right age to ask incessant questions, such as ‘why is the sky blue? What happened to the other half of the moon? where did my sister come from? …the kind of ‘are we there yet?’ questions that drive adults batty.

Anyway , I had been chasing the tide line in the morning , moving my toes in that little ropelike swirl of creamy bubbles and moving with the tide.  In Rolling Bay on Bainbridge, the tide could come in pretty fast and made quite a hissing noise as it swirled over deposits of coarser gravel or sand. Later that day the tide reversed and I followed it with intense curiousness. I guess I pestered my Mother with questions all day. “Where did the water go?”
Later that evening my mother became aware that the upstairs toilet was being flushed time after time. Although our farmhouse was Victorian-old in Bainbridge, it had been updated with two bathrooms and an outhouse. The upstairs bathroom had an old chain pull “WC” and a tank high above the actual toilet.  My Mother came upstairs to investigate and discovered me and my younger sister, one pulling the flush chain, and the other peering down the toilet.
As she entered I turned around and proudly announced “water go down the hole!”
Thus to young minds, solving the mystery of tides for awhile!

As Seán and I grew older and took up sailing and other more extensive boat experiences, we learned tides to be much more complicated and even dangerous at times, if not treated with considerable respect.

Sean related one such story that happened years later.

Maggie and I were bound for our second home in the Gulf Islands and crossing the Straits of Juan de Fuca with a fair wind and a following sea.  Ideal sailing conditions for a 40 year old gaff-rigged ketch, called the “Maggie M” after the “light of my life,” my wife.

Maggie was at the tiller when I peered over the stern to see a school of twenty dogfish following us.  Being Irish, I took it as an omen or sign of bad luck. But didn’t say anything, because Maggie would probably laugh at me and my superstitions.  The dogfish were right under the stern and continued to follow the boat as we were over half-way across the straits and nearing the south end of Lopez Island when the wind began to rise as we entered the “tide rips.”

I’m not comfortable being in open water when the tide changes and the waves start getting bigger and coming from different directions.  The boom started whipping, when I asked Maggie to start the old Grey-marine four cylinder, which normally only started on three cylinders until I held the spark wire away from the plug to increase the voltage to the fourth cylinder to make the engine fire–not an ideal situation when the waves were reaching four feet and the 28 foot fir planked boat started to pitch and roll.  I scrambled to get the mainsail down and ducked as the gaff crashed to the deck along with the boom.  It had been drizzling for some time and I had rain gear on, as I prepared to crawl forward to lower the jib.  As I reached for the hand rail on the top of the cabin, I glanced over my shoulder to see the dogfish school higher than the stern of the boat as she prepared to climb another wave and the prop spun uselessly in the air and the old engine raced.  I released the jib-winch dog and watched as most of the sail fell overboard.  I crawled forward and wrapped myself around the lead-tipped bowsprit as the boat dived into another wave that washed over the top of me.  As the bow rose on the next wave, I reached up to unsnap a clip or two that held the jib to the front stay.  Holding my breath as she dived into another wave, I held on for dear life to keep from being swept overboard, thinking of the school of dogfish and praying for the bow to come up as I grabbed for another clip and Maggie fought to keep the boat headed into the wind.  With careful timing, I removed the last clip, gathered the soaking wet sail and carefully worked my way to the stern.  The ugly omen of the school of dogfish had disappeared.

Disheveled and soaked, we crawled into Fisherman’s Bay and anchored, where I went below to start the charcoal heater and start to dry out.

After swapping tales of tides back and forth, we went back to the ordinary job of gently tipping the newly clean crabber over into the rising tide and mutually wishing for a real crab season for once!