Category Archives: The Sea

Gravity

You might reasonably expect a satellite to orbit the earth in a trajectory smooth as a ball bearing in its race. Reasonable but wrong. It’s more like an Old Ford on a country road, bouncing and rattling over gravitational potholes.

The gravitational topography of the planet is less like a cue ball, more like a golf ball with all its bumps and dimples. You’ll remember your high school physics lessons on gravitation. Large objects exert gravitational force at a distance. The more dense the object, the greater the force. Massive mountain chains like the Rockies, Himalaya, and Andes create positive gravitational anomalies—areas of increased gravitational force. Negative anomalies are associated with declivities like the Mariana Trench, a rift in the sea floor of the Pacific Ocean 6.8 miles deep.

As a satellite approaches the Andes it’s pulled subtly closer to the earth. When it approaches the Mariana Islands and the adjacent sea floor trench, it bobs slightly higher. The effect is local and canceled when the satellite reenters the normal gravitational field. It’s rather like bouncing down the washboard surface of a dirt road.

The gravitational force exerted by the Andes isn’t limited to circling satellites. The roots of the Andes Mountains are washed by the Pacific Ocean. The Pacific itself is pulled toward the mountains like a massive standing wave.

It’s not only massive piles of rock that creates gravitational anomalies. The Greenland ice sheet is almost 1,500 miles long and 680 miles wide. It covers roughly 80% of the surface of Greenland—660,235 square miles. It’s typically over a mile thick and almost 2 miles at its deepest—683,751 cubic miles of ice.  And it’s the second largest body of ice on the planet.

That much ice warps the surrounding ocean, pulling it like taffy. The impact of melting Greenland ice on sea level has been recognized for some time but the effect of its reduced gravitational field has only recently been acknowledged. It further complicates a complex picture.

If all the Greenland ice sheet were to melt it’s estimated the global sea level might rise as much 23 feet but it would have little impact on sea level in the Arctic ocean. That’s counter-intuitive. The reason? Rise in sea level expected from melting ice would be countered by the fall in seal level resulting from reduced gravity. Northern Europe might be spared. New York would not.

The gravitational influence of the Greenland ice is limited to the Arctic Ocean. Melting of the northern ice would contribute to the volume of the oceans globally, increasing sea level worldwide, but that rise in the Arctic would be offset by the declining sea level resulting from reduced gravity. Areas beyond the northern ice’s gravitational influence such as the Eastern Seaboard of the US would suffer the unmitigated rise in sea level.

Western Europe isn’t without risk. If the Antarctic ice sheet melts, the sea level will likely fall in the Southern Ocean but rise dramatically in the North Atlantic.

And, of course, the change in the gravitational field would affect the Earth’s rotational momentum…

Abyss

A ground swell rolled from the horizon, an old swell that had sorted itself across hundreds of miles into rows as regular as corduroy. It rolled across an ocean patterned by sunlight and cloud shadow, an ocean empty except for a single boat surrounded  by a thousand miles of solitude.

We were steering north by east, two weeks underway, circumventing the doldrums of the Pacific High on a passage from Oahu to San Francisco. I was alone on deck, the crew asleep below. Professional delivery crews are necessarily small to remain profitable. There were only three of us to sail 3,000 miles, each standing our watch alone, watch on watch, daylight and dark, week after week.

My skin was the color of Honduran mahogany from weeks of exposure to the sun. Salt streaked my cheeks like tears, my lips were cracked and bleeding, and the skin peeled from my fingertips. Salt crusted the winches, the hand rails, the running rigging. Salt crystals glinted in the sun. Fresh water was too scarce to waste on washing. Thirst is an especially hard way to die.

It was a quartering sea that passed beneath the boat obliquely, stern to bow, in a complex dance of forces, a sailor’s jig of pitch, yaw and scend—fore and aft, side to side, up and down. Despite the regularity of the swell it was not an entirely predictable motion. A subtle cross-swell from the northwest created an irregularity that would tumble you ass over teakettle if you were unwise enough to trust the rhythm without a secure handhold or bracing against a bulkhead.

Even in a calm the sea is an infinitely complex interference pattern of wave trains that may have traveled halfway around the world without obstruction and without losing much energy. The patterns are complex but consistent enough that Polynesian navigators could feel their way across vast distances. They were taught young to lay in the bilge with their eyes closed and recognize the patterns from pitch, yaw and scend. They learned to map the patterns to their body—kinetic navigation. A capable navigator could stand with legs braced, eyes closed, and plumb his location by the swinging of his testicles.

It’s a skill now mostly in disuse. Global positioning requires less mindfulness. Even those first men who crossed unimaginable distances in open boats were not native to the sea. There were no tribes, no people who lived far from shore. At best they traveled quickly and with trepidation between landfalls, praying for safe passage.

The sea is an alien and inhospitable place for human beings despite the fact that our blood tastes of seawater. It is utterly regardless of humanity. There are no rutted roads or even footpaths to mark our passage, no cairns piled high upon hillsides to mark our dead, no smoke rising from chimneys to mark our living. Even the wake of a boat is soon lost among the wavefield, unremembered. It is a world without root or branch, without hearth or home, the native place of nomadic species who build no tools and have no possessions. It is a place old beyond knowing and violent beyond comprehension.

Joseph Conrad, a man who spent much of his life at sea, wrote that if you would know the age of the earth, look upon the sea in a storm. It is the first face of the world, the oldest face.

The violence of a storm at sea is greater than anything imaginable ashore. The wind is unobstructed by mountains or forests or the obstinate earth. It can rage without restraint. Goaded by the wind, waves achieve their own mountainous topography with peaks and transverse ridges and ravines where white water roars like a rock slide. A breaking wave can exert as much as one ton of pressure per square foot, enough force to shatter a boat. There are storms no boat can survive, no matter how well-found or competently crewed.

Storms are most dramatic but solitude is most unnerving. There is perhaps no place on Earth more alone than the deck of a small boat making a long ocean passage. The sea offers no place for a thought to stick, nothing for the mind to take hold of, nothing but the endless repetition of waves. The horizon is a perfect circle that encompasses three square miles. The trade wind clouds form at a uniform distance above sea level, sailing downwind like a fleet of Velella. In the silence and the distance thoughts become deafening. Many people, maybe most, have never heard themselves think. They’ve lived lives of distraction in a sea of noise. The real sea strips away the distractions and the noise. It enforces a monk’s solitude. It’s an unraveling of the everyday in the presence of vastness. For some it’s deeply disquieting. In Nietzche’s phrase, if you look long enough into the abyss, the abyss also looks into you.

The tropic sun polishes the sea to the brilliance of a mirror. In that mirror I saw myself reflected for the first time, the self concealed slyly beneath the noise and distraction and misdirection of my conscious life. In the silence and solitude I heard the constant criticisms echoing from my childhood still bouncing off the walls of my skull, the brutal and belittling comments of an abusive father, the physical violence thinly disguised as discipline, the inherited rage. I heard my father’s abuse endlessly repeated in my own voice. His words had become my own.

I felt the successive betrayals of parents who were still angry children themselves and a religion more intent on power and politics than a candid exploration of spirituality and a government that sent a generation to war against a rural country halfway around the world for no good reason they could admit without revealing their callous abuse of public trust.

I heard the continual monologue that occurs inside my head, the bilious, accusing, belittling vomit of words that had first belonged to others but had become my own, endlessly whispered in the darkness, a poisoned stream of words at the root of consciousness.

It was a staggering experience, the realization of how I had internalized the harm done to me as a child helpless to defend myself against the very people who should have been my defense.

Perhaps that is the gift of wilderness, the solitude necessary to see ourselves clearly, the silence necessary to hear the voices inside our heads. It’s arguable that the unexamined life is not worth living but it’s certain that the unexamined life has brought us where we are today, willfully participating in our own destruction. It’s a hard truth confronting your shadow self, the reason we readily flee into distractions and entertainments that waste our time but occupy our attention. Until we know ourselves we remain adult children—the terrifying power to ignite the sun on earth in the hands of petulant children. Ironically, the place that is least human may be the path back to our own humanity.

This is a second draft of an exercise that began with Mirrors for the MIT open course Writing and the Environment. The purpose was to write a detailed account of a particular natural (outdoor) setting that would enable the reader to envision a place they have never seen and to understand my reaction to that place.

Mirrors*

I rubbed my eyes to force them to focus. They were burned from weeks of sunlight reflected from the polished surface of the sea. Salt streaked my cheeks, my lips were cracked and bleeding, and the skin was peeling from my fingertips. The lights of a ship were visible, rising above the Eastern horizon. It seemed on a collision course. In all the vast Pacific, seven million square miles of ocean, what was the likelihood of two vessels occupying the same coordinates at the same time a thousand miles from shore?

In the darkness of the moonless night the stars were common as dust in the sky, shoals of stars so thick it seemed we might run aground. The only other light was from the binnacle illuminating the compass card. We were steering north by west to circumvent the doldrums in the heart of the Pacific High, the route followed by ships in centuries past before the wind no longer mattered, only the machinery.

I was exhausted. We had been standing watch-on-watch since the Hawaiian Islands. With a small crew we stood watches alone, three hours on, six hours off. The watch below was called on deck whenever the wind became boisterous and the sail needed to be reefed or the reef needed to be shaken out. Sleep deprivation was cumulative. Sometimes I found myself sitting at the helm having been asleep for minutes with my eyes open wide, snapped awake when the boat rounded into the wind and the sails began luffing, shaking the rigging like a dog with a bone.

Hardest were the night watches when even the sameness of the sea wasn’t visible, only the stars if not obscured by cloud and the binnacle casting a puddle of light in the cockpit. There was nothing to see but the compass card, nothing to distract the mind’s attention from itself, nothing beyond the boat that had any substance…until the lights rising on the Eastern horizon.

Same bearing, decreasing range—the definition for risk of collision used by centuries of Admiralty Law. The red and green running lights carried by every vessel underway help determine its heading and ultimately its bearing in relation to other vessels. All I could see were bright white lights everywhere. Nothing at sea is so extravagantly lit as a cruise ship. They carry generators the size of locomotive engines and squander tons of fuel to enable passengers’ illusions that they are still in the known world.

We were half way through a 3,000 mile passage, a professional crew paid to deliver a 40-foot sloop from Hawaii to San Francisco, half way through three weeks of singular isolation—no communications, no radio, no electronic navigation, eventually not even batteries for our music. We sailed in the center of a circle less than 3 square miles, the visible horizon from the deck of a small boat, immensity viewed through a vanishingly small lens. We sailed across fields of waves regular as rows of corn, each wave separate but common as dirt, beneath clouds all formed at the same height above sea level, evenly spaced like tufts of cotton drifting on the Trade Winds.

Joseph Conrad aptly named his biography The Mirror of the Sea. He served on sailing ships most of his career, square-rigged ships manned by full crews. Even more so alone on the deck of a small boat, the sea offers no place for a thought to stick, nothing for the mind to take hold of, nothing but the endless repetition of patterns. It is a burnished mirror that faithfully reflects. Most are unprepared for that reflection.

In fact, most people living in modern society have never experienced solitude or silence. They’ve lived lives of distraction in a sea of noise. A long ocean passage strips away the distractions and the noise, enforcing solitude. It’s an unraveling. For the first time they hear the background chatter that occupies their thoughts. For some it’s a disconcerting experience. In Nietzche’s phrase, if you look long enough into the abyss, the abyss also looks into you.

We were making four or five knots on an easy breeze. It’s a speed typical of a sailboat or a brisk walk. Five knots wasn’t enough to make much difference trying to avoid another vessel driving ahead at 20 unless I could accurately determine her course and turn early to steer clear. All I could see were white lights getting brighter—decreasing range—but still no colored lights to determine her bearing.

They might not see us on radar, lost among the sea clutter, if the officer on watch bothered to look. It was an empty ocean far from shipping lanes and expectations of traffic. They might not even feel the impact. A brief tremor, a momentary change in the deck’s vibration, not enough to cause a misstep of the passengers dancing in the ballroom or register on the bank of engine instruments, and we’d be splintered wreckage left in their wake. Every year small boats go missing, presumed lost. It happens even to ships, 29 on average each year, tankers to passenger ships. The ocean is an unforgiving place.

The Collision Regulations required I turn to starboard. Always right, never left, unless turning right would cause collision. It was an elegant Catch 22.

I began to panic as the ship’s lights filled the Eastern sky. It seemed enormous. It was on top of us. I thought of calling the mate on deck but I was the captain. If I couldn’t make a decision about the proper course, how could the crew trust me? I felt like a goat tethered as bait in tiger country. Where the hell were they heading?

And then in a moment, like one of those figure-ground diagrams popular with Gestalt geeks, the background reversed and I recognized what threatened us. I recognized the ship for what it was. We were on a collision course with the moon.

*Written as the first assignment for MIT open course: Taft, Cynthia. 21W.730-3 Writing and the Environment, Spring 2005. (Massachusetts Institute of Technology: MIT OpenCourseWare), http://ocw.mit.edu

The Sea Shall Give Up Its Dead

There are pathways deep in the sea, boundary layers between thermoclines and haloclines where bodies of water differ in temperature or salinity and sound propagates effortlessly, echoing between layers, traveling around the world again and again with little loss of energy. Supposedly sounds have been captured by deep water probes lowered into these channels and by SOSUS buoys, the network of microphones deployed in major oceans to capture the passage of ballistic subs, the boomers that stay hidden in deep water with their payload of ICBMs intended to deter a nuclear war, or start one. Some of these sounds are old.

The sonar technicians peering into their oscilloscopes, intent upon their headphones, may actually be listening to the sound of battles fought at sea during the Second World War.

We’ve gotten used to the concept that the night sky is full of ghosts, the light from stars that have been dead for a thousands years, but the thought of ghost sound is still disturbing.  It is unsettling to listen to the sound of ships breaking up under extreme pressure, bulk heads collapsing, hulls ripped by secondary explosions as the wreckage falls through miles of dark water, entombing the bodies of those who fought and died onboard, listening to the sound of their death as if they were occurring in the present and not a lifetime earlier. Uncanny.

The sea shall give up its dead
and the sound of their dying.

It may be only an urban legend. I’ve been able to find only one reference and that in Lyall Watson’s book The Nature of Things: The Secret Life of Inanimate Objects (perhaps not the most reputable source) but if it isn’t true, it should be. The world would be a more interesting place where such unsettling things still happen.

Master of Controlled Collisions

 Steering Ships Through a Treacherous Waterway | Science & Nature | Smithsonian Magazine

The Smithsonian has a four-page article online about the pilots of the Columbia River bar, a place that has honestly earned a reputation as the graveyard of the Pacific. I have never seen a piece of water that more closely approximates hell than the Columbia River bar in a gale.

Columbia_Bar_Pilot

As deep water storm swells begin to feel the bar shoal beneath them and the strong outwash of the Columbia River confronts them, monstrous seas are formed. But even in moderate weather the strength of the river’s current can create waves of exceptional height.

The bar pilots are responsible for millions of dollars of equipment and cargo, not to mention the lives of all onboard, but the skippers of the pilot boats have a more intimate challenge. They need to pin their vessel against a wall of steel long enough for the pilot to transit safely while each vessel describes its own eccentric orbit in the seaway. I once heard the captain of a San Francisco bar pilot boat describe himself as a master of controlled collisions.

Above, footage of the pilot boat Chinook on the Columbia River bar. And below, a view from a pilot boat in relatively calm weather.

 

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Scent of a Whale

Tucker, a black Lab trained in tracking animal scat, has been deployed two of the past three summers to track down orca scat between the San Juan Islands and Vancouver Island in Haro Strait, sniffing his quarry from the bow of a research boat for a University of Washington research team.

Local News | With dog’s help, clues to orcas’ decline found in whale scat | Seattle Times Newspaper

WhaleScent

It seems slightly incongruous when a Labrador Retriever spends its summers tracking whales. Specifically, whale scat. Like traditional Chinese doctors, marine biologists can learn a lot from poop. Like the fact that there’s not enough of it.

Orcas in the Salish Sea are suffering from malnutrition. They’re starving to death. As a byproduct, they’re not pooping as much. That makes Tucker’s job a lot harder. The fact that Seattle Times reporters can’t use the word poop in print makes their job a lot less fun.

Who’s to Blame?

Besides the incongruity of a dog trained to hunt whales (and the image of the biologists collecting it, and the fact that whale poop floats), what most intrigued me about the Times article were the comments.

The first comment was by a former commercial fisherman who laid the blame squarely on the Indians. According to the comment, the Indians’ treaty rights enabled them to deplete the salmon fishery. As a result, the orca are starving.

Sadly, some things never change. The comments, and the prejudice, remain the same.

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The Strangest Fishery

In his book Sea Rogues’ Gallery Gordon Newell wrote about bootleggers on the Sound and what he referred to as “the strangest sport fishery in Puget Sound history.”

“By 1925 the Coast Guard had 22 patrol boats working Puget Sound. There were frequent thrilling chases, with shoreside dwellers awakened in the dead of night by roaring motors and machine gun fire. If the rum-runner was unable to outrun the cutter, the liquor, like the Chinese coolies of an earlier day, could be dumped overboard. This led to the strangest sport fishery in Puget Sound history. Local fishermen abandoned their salmon gear and went fishing for jettisoned whiskey cargoes with glass-bottomed viewing boxes and long-handled grapnels.”

When I was working a salvage boat in South Florida, bales of marijuana once washed ashore, the jettisoned cargo of some nervous smuggler in the Florida Strait. Each bale was valued in excess of $100,000.

News of the discovery was broadcast locally. The civic response was comparable to the evacuation of the British Expeditionary Force from Dunkirk. Every boat that could float—and some that proved they couldn’t—was launched in a campaign to scour the ocean of a potential hazard to navigation, especially hazardous if the navigator smoked the stuff. Launch ramps were queued a half mile deep. It seemed you could walk dry shod gunnel to gunnel from Fort Lauderdale to Miami. The Coast Guard’s preoccupation shifted from drug interdiction to emergency response. Boats lost power, ran out of gas, began taking on water. Two people died trying to land a heavy bale through four foot surf in a small boat. Fortunes were made, lives were lost.

Rogue Troughs

Recently I received an intriguing letter from Adrian Das, Lieutenant Commander, USNR (Retired). LCDR Das has gracefully permitted me to quote his correspondence.

"In January/February 1973, I was in the U.S. Navy on board the USS Saratoga (CV-60) enroute from Singapore to Mayport, FL.

"We were on a northwest heading in the South Atlantic, having entered the Atlantic from the Indian Ocean. I had the mid-to-four Officer-of-the-Deck (OOD) watch, and had just assumed the deck, when the Junior Officer-of-the-Watch (JOOW) noted a strange series of three lines in the sea return. The first line was very pronounced; the second line somewhat less pronounced; and the third, still less pronounced. We were on a heading which had the lines approaching from about thirty degrees off the starboard bow.

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Closing the Bar

We were approaching the Coos Bay bar after having spent much of the previous 24 hours hove-to off the Columbia River weathering a gale that had detonated like a meteorological bomb. There was still a heavy swell running. The mate standing beside me at the lower helm looked exhausted; the owner just looked bilious.

We had taken delivery of Blitzen at the LeClerq boatyard on Lake Union, Seattle, and were taking her south to San Francisco. She was a stout hull originally built by Delta, a hull often used for fishing boats in the Pacific Northwest where strength was always admired and often required. Blitzen had been refitted as a yacht at the LeClerq yard. She was rakish looking—black hull and topsides painted with gleaming linear polyurethane (LPU) and gold pin striping. She looked fast still secured at the dock.

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Reassuring Illusions

It was my first time sailing the Atlantic Coast; her first time sailing any coast at all. Through the afternoon watch I kept a weather eye on thunderheads churning over Cape Hatteras 30 miles to the west.

We were motoring north with the mains’l set and sheeted home. It was Spring and the weather could turn abruptly. I had no wish to be caught with all standing by a sudden squall. Thunder cells can generate down drafts of hurricane strength that strike the surface of the sea and rush outward in a concentric blast that can knock a boat on its beam ends with little warning. This was a coast foreign to me. Even the weather was alien. It wouldn’t serve to lose the first boat I ever owned, or the first wife, either.

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