The existence of rogue waves has been common knowledge among sailors for centuries but the staggering size of the waves reported by mariners didn’t fit the statistical models endorsed by oceanographers. Scientists scoffed at sea stories of mountainous waves until satellites began sweeping the open ocean with radar. Now it seems waves of uncommon size are more common than the statistical models anticipated. According to several Brazilian scientists, they may not even be rare at all. And they are sinking ships at an alarming rate.
“To see! to see!—this is the craving of the sailor, as of the rest of blind humanity.”
Joseph Conrad, Mirror of the Sea
The Pacific Northwest is painted in seemingly infinite variations of a single color—the gray shadow of land rising in rough peaks above gray water beneath a sky of broken gray clouds. Like a Chinese landscape, distance becomes intimate. Far and near alike are softened and obscured and the familiar becomes inexplicably mysterious. A few spare strokes capture entire landscapes and histories.
Twenty-five years ago I started my first job as a sailor, working the docks as operations manager for Club Nautique, a sailing school and charter company on the Oakland Estuary, San Francisco Bay. We had several stout little sloops—Pearson 26’s—which club members sailed without charge, sometimes sailing after the office closed and returning the boat to the slip before we opened again next morning. One undistinguished Thursday morning a Pearson was missing.
Early morning and a peregrine falcon perches high on a sea cliff on the outer coast. Surf beats against the foot of the cliff, spindrift hangs like mist and the rising wind tastes of salt. The peregrine watches intensely. Far below, a rhinoceros auklet returns to its rookery from feeding at sea, skimming the ocean’s surface. The falcon slips from its perch, folds its wings, and plunges headlong toward the sea.
Painted on the side of a brick building overlooking Pioneer Square in downtown Seattle is a faded advertisement for the Washington State ferries. Beneath an illustration of an antique ferry is the caption "Have lunch over seas" in an equally antique font. It’s a clever pun despite the fact that Puget Sound never qualified as a sea and the state ferries have discontinued food service onboard. There is probably a name for such things, or should be—the ghosts of commerce lingering like the faint impression on the Shroud of Turin. This particular case is even more convoluted—a false ghost—since the Washington State ferries didn’t exist prior to 1951.
Great Blue Herons nesting in the towers that support high power transmission lines are intermittently shorting the power grid and plunging Puget Sound neighborhoods into darkness. It seems the herons are pooping when they take flight. In itself, not unusual for a bird. Their logic is impeccable. Why carry superfluous weight into the air when the heavy lifting is your own? The peculiar thing about heron poop is its length—almost three feet. Streamers of guano are spanning transmission lines and providing an unexpected path for electricity to propagate. Electric poop.
I work in Pioneer Square, Seattle, on Occidental Avenue South—a street with no cars. Around the corner is Elliott Bay Books. Elliott Bay is an intellectual landmark in Seattle’s history, a place that anchors the city in a sea of change. It’s a book store with worn plank floors that groan beneath your feet like a wooden boat working in a seaway. There are as many levels to the store as the Robinson family’s
tree house—the floor suddenly pierced by a staircase that descends to a rough cafe or rises to receding levels of books like a trick of perspective in an Escher print. It reminds me most of the chandleries that still existed on the waterfront of Los Angeles harbor when I was young—the smell of Stockholm tar and Manila hemp and kerosene, the dark and crooked places crowded with ground tackle, hurricane lights, and oilskins, and the old men with scarred faces who stood behind high counters, dour and frightening. Those were places where a child, or an old man, could dream as deeply as a mollusk encompassed by a shell.
Ken Cooper, Cultural Consultant for Fish, Timber and Wildlife of the Lummi Tribe of Washington state, listens to the "trees as they talk to one another, the songs in the wind, the stories of the pathway that started a long time ago…When I come back I play the song that I hear floating on the wind and play the feeling that I hear coming out of those trees that are pained, that know they’re going to be cut down. They do talk. They have a lot to teach us. Anybody who goes in the mountains and sees beauty has a form of healing."
A few days respite from work before beginning the commute from Kingston to the Seattle waterfront onboard one of the new Mosquito fleet. This morning I sat on a park bench overlooking the Kingston marina drinking a damnably expensive cup of coffee beneath a sky obscured by high cloud. The water of Appletree Cove was so still that concentric ripples left by a gull taking flight could be seen half way to the far shore. I listened to the high, distant drone of a float plane, the twitter of swallows returned from the south, the irritated cackle of crows (crows seem always irritated), and the sound of gulls squabbling over some scrap of food or place to stand.
Since before the birth of Christ, perhaps before even
the birth of the Roman empire that crucified Christ, the Makah have been
hunting gray whales off the pitch of Cape Flattery. They hunted in open boats
carved from cedar trees, with floats made from seal guts and lines made from kelp and harpoons tipped with muscle shells. They hunted whales weighing 40
tons with flukes that spanned 10 feet on a coast that even now invites
shipwreck. The hunting of whales defined the Makah as a people, as a culture,
and as the finest small boat seaman on this continent.