The Power of the Tides

JOHN J. HOWLANDSlives at the irater’s edge in Cohasset. on the south shore of Massachusetts Hay. a perfect vantage point from which to observe the ways of birds and boatmen and the constant, yet ever-changing power of the tides. The following essay is taken from his new book,SPINDRIFT,which is being published by Norton this month.

ALMOST everything in life by the sea is decided in one way or another by the tides that rise and fall twice a day. But there is not a harbor, inlet, or river along the coast in which the sea comes and goes in the same way or at the same time. Not only must you know what to expect at every stage of the tides in various localities, but you should know the power and the pattern of the currents, which are often swift and sometimes treacherous. I remember taking a boat through a narrow rocky stretch of a tidal river in Maine when suddenly I discovered that the engine was not powerful enough to drive the boat against the outgoing tide and the natural current of the river. I was standing still with no hope of going ahead and no room to turn. The only thing to do was to throttle down the engine until the current began to carry the boat backward just fast enough to maintain rudder control, yet slow enough to avoid sluing. In such a predicament you can be sure of one thing: the tide will show no mercy.

In the spring, when the boatyards come to life and small craft, calked and freshly painted, are ready for another season, it is the tide that gives the nod. And the great new liner resting on the ways in a nearby shipyard must wait for the highest tide of the month before the first wedge is knocked out and it glides into the water. And when at last it is ready for sea trials, it must again wait for high water before it can safely move down the channel to the open sea. The tides that hurry for no man teach an eternal lesson in patience.

The big tankers from Aruba and Venezuela sometimes anchor in Massachusetts Bay to wait for high water before proceeding to the upper reaches of the harbor to unload. If you watch closely and check the tide tables, you will note that they lift their anchors and start in on a schedule calculated to take them to their docks when the tide is at its highest. Relieved of their cargoes and riding light, they may in some parts of the harbor head to sea again without considering tidal conditions.

No one knows better than the people who live on the islands along our coast that the tides control their lives. Many of these islands rise straight out of the sea with only a steep cove here and there from wl ch to launch a boat. The problems, and sometimes perils, of living on an island are greatest during the winter, when storms and high tides may keep the inhabitants prisoners for a week or more at a time. True islanders stock their pantry shelves in the autumn with enough provisions to carry them through long stormy periods.

Those who live on islands seldom want to leave them. They are a self-sufficient, close-knit breed of a special kind, who value their isolation and independence, despite the crises that often arise when all means of communication with the mainland are cut off. That’s a risk they are willing to take. Newcomers are viewed with suspicion, but once accepted, the ties are loyal and lasting. Lighthouse keepers on the lonely coastal stations face the same problems, and they, too, may wait for weeks for a comparatively quiet day when the lighthouse tender can come close enough to replenish their supplies. Only men who are islanders at heart can stand the isolation and loneliness of the lighthouse service.

I know several islands that can be reached by roads which are under six to ten feet of water at high tide. Travel to such places moves on a schedule that allows vehicles to cross for about half an hour before and after low tide, and it is not uncommon to see latecomers driving through water a foot deep.

Back from the coast, where the sea runs through narrow channels and up twisting creeks to flood inner harbors and the great salt marshes, the time of high tide may vary from half an hour to two hours later than on the coast.

Little Harbor, which lies sheltered in the heart of our town, lies less than a quarter of a mile from the coast, from which the sea enters through a narrow cut in the rocks. Here, although it pours in with frothing violence, the sea cannot fill the harbor until an hour after high tide on the coast. And so, in turn, the tide is not low until after it has already started to rise in the bay. Woe betide the boatman who is not familiar with local tidal conditions such as these.

In shallow sections of the coast, the tides can change the appearance of the shore line in astonishing ways. In our section of the rocky shore, where the ledges drop sharply into deep water, there is little to indicate the rise and fall of the tide except the appearance of a reef, or perhaps the rounded top of a boulder. We can launch a boat in our cove at any stage of the tide.

In areas of shallow water, a boat afloat at its mooring at high tide may, when the tide is low, be high and dry and half a mile from the nearest water with dry sand or mud flats in between. In such places, a boatman caught at sea on an ebbing tide runs the risk of being stranded far from his mooring until the next tide, a danger that becomes serious in the case of a storm.

TWICE in the lunar month, once when the moon is new, and again in its last quarter, our tides run very low. These extremely low tides, which we call “minus tides” because they drop below the mean low-water mark, expose wide stretches of beach that are ordinarily several feet underwater.

Here, at the time of the minus tides, we see men and women, young and old, solemnly walking backward close to the water’s edge, stamping their feet and jabbing a pitchfork into the sand at every backward step. If you saw their performance on a beach in Africa, you would undoubtedly think it was a mysterious tribal dance, or even a religious rite. Actually, these are deep-sea clam diggers in search of the huge clams found only in sandy areas ordinarily covered by the sea.

Once you become a sea-clam addict, neither sleet nor snow, the bitter chill of the sea in December nor the high winds and biting rain of March will keep you away from the lonely beaches when the tides are on the minus side, be it by day or in the hours beyond midnight.

If I were to start a school for deep-sea clamming, I would work out some sort of rhythmic formula, such as: “Left foot back, stamp and jab! Right foot back, stamp and jab! Keep on backing, left foot, right foot, stamp and ram! Keep on until you find a clam!”

It’s all very simple when you understand that the stamping produces vibrations that cause the clams to reveal themselves by a quick downward movement, leaving a tiny dimple in the wet sand. Then you plunge the tines of the pitchfork to the hilt and turn up the clam. But you have to know what you are looking for, because the dimple is so small that only a trained eye detects it.

The hardy veterans of the clam tides go into the icy winter sea, where the largest clams are found. Clad in waders to the chest, they, too, walk backward, probing the bottom with a pitchfork. The sense of touch determines whether an object is a rock or a clam. Wading for clams can be dangerous, for if you are knocked over by a wave in a running sea and your waders fill, you may be unable to get to your feet again.

Sea clams are from four to six inches long and about four inches wide, and anyone who has tasted deep-sea-clam chowder or stew, or minced clams baked on the shell with crumbs, butter, and pepper, fully understands why only the worst winter weather will keep a clammer away from the beach on the minus tides.

Compared with the soft-shell, or steamer, clam and the cherry stone, the flesh of the sea clam is tough and must be minced for cooking. The flavor, however, is superlative. The juice of the sea clam, saved when the clam is opened, makes delightful and nourishing broth when seasoned with butter and pepper.

The delicious steamer clam of the North Atlantic coast is becoming so scarce that restaurants are turning more and more to the deep-sea clams, which are now cut in thin slices and fried, just as soft-shell clams are cooked.

Commerical fishermen, using drags to scoop them from the bottom far out to sea, are finding sea clams a profitable catch. This big clam is so heavy that a water pail containing twenty-five is about all the average man can carry. The shells when cleaned are pure white and make excellent ash trays, and as such they are often seen on the tables of sea-food restaurants along the shore.

On a cold day in winter, with a bitter wind sweeping the beach, deep-sea clamming is not a sport for weaklings, and even the strong and the old-timers, chilled to the bone, often hurry home to counteract the effect of the cold with what is known as a clam highball, which contains no clam juice whatever.

SOON after dawn on a calm summer day, we often sight a string of dories in tow of a boat with an outboard engine. These are the crew of mossers, old fellows and young, who know where the Irish moss grows on the deep, cold ledges. The moss, once valued only as the ingredient of a delicious pudding, is now in great demand for pharmaceutical and industrial purposes. It is raked from the ledges five to ten feet underwater just before and after low tide. After hours of raking, the dark crest of the glistening moss begins to show above the gunwales, and the dories are low in the water. Mossing is best on the minus tides.

Irish moss comes from the sea in hues of rose and jade, as well as smoky pink, pale purple, and dark cherry red. We gather enough on our shore after a storm for a pudding which is similar to blancmange.

No one along our shore is more familiar with its innumerable ledges than the lobstermen. We watch them putting down their pots in the spring, and those who want to fish close to the ledges drop the pots at low water, when many of the reefs show above water. Thus they can be sure of pulling the pots at any stage of the tide. In fact, the lobster buoys serve as navigation markers for their owners.

Many an experienced yachtsman, cautiouslyworking his way through the treacherous ledges off New England harbors, watches the lobster buoys as well as his chart as he moves along. And, making allowance for the difference in draft of a lobster boat and his own craft, he has a rough guide to the depth of water. He knows that the lobster pot will not likely be placed in water less than ten or fifteen feet deep. No one, however, would be so rash as to navigate by lobster buoys alone. The rise and fall of the sea, and the peculiar motion of water near or above ledges, and constant study of charts with reference to buoys are what carry you through in safety.

One fine summer’s day, with a brisk onshore wind from the north, we sighted a large yawl heading directly for our cove. The area is peppered with reefs, and in some apprehension we tried to wave it off. But it came on, running before the wind, and as the helmsman swung a few points to the west and then made a sudden turn to the southeast, we realized he was following the only navigable channel to the cove. He came alarmingly close to shore before swinging into the wind and dropping anchor.

In a few minutes, a white-haired man in his late sixties was rowed ashore by a paid hand, and he called from the beach to ask permission to come to the house. He chuckled when we told him of our anxiety at bringing in a vessel that drew at least seven feet. He explained that when he was a child his family brought him to an old summer hotel on our point and that he had begun his sailing in a dory and had through the years come to know every ledge along the shore. He had chosen to come in at low water because he had been guided by certain exposed ledges through the only safe passage. He felt sure that on a rocky coast it was safe to assume that there would be virtually no changes in the bottom over a period of fifty years. On a sandy coast you cannot be sure that storms may not change the depth of a channel in a week.

Our new-found friend wandered alone over our rocks for more than an hour, reliving boyhood memories of more than fifty years ago. Then, with the assurance of one who knew his boat and the sea, he took the yawl out through the ledges to the deep water of the open bay.

The lives of sea and shore birds depend to a large degree on tidal changes, and well they know it. At low water the gulls often join the shore birds, hunting for food on the mud fiats and sand bars, and on the incoming tide the gulls are likely to be on the wing, patrolling the coast. Their knowledge of the tides is clearly indicated when, after high tide, they turn inland to the town dumps and other possible sources of sustenance. The low white clouds we see over fishing ve sels coming into port are actually thousands of gulls hovering wing tip to wing tip over the vessels to pick up fish scraps as the catch is sorted.

At certain times of the year, when schools of small fish are driven ashore by larger enemies, they seek refuge in the shallow water, and the gulls swarm to the feast. The gulls and terns also know that the possibilities of finding food in the open sea are increased during particularly heavy storms and high winds. I have never seen a storm, even when the winds reached full gale force, in which the gulls were not working the shore line.

Their flight during a heavy storm is particularly interesting to watch. Much of the time they ride the wind currents on fixed wings, which move only to overcome the turbulence of a sudden change in wind velocity or direction. Under ordinary conditions, the birds fly with the tail feathers closed, but in heavy storms the tail feathers fan out, and I have noted in many instances that, during the most violent gusts, the birds drop one foot in the vertical position of a rudder to help stabilize themselves.

I have also noticed that, in flying into the wind during storms, the birds often allow themselves to be carried upward for two or three hundred feet and then dive into the wind, thus gaining some forward progress. Now and again, with wings working at full power, they fly just above the waves, where the air appears to be less turbulent.

We know the sea as the helpless slave of the storm winds that drive it across the outlying reefs to break high and white on our shore. And in the thunder of water reeling back again and again, one can imagine a bitter, weary moan of protest over the futility of it all. Sometimes the sea seems very tired.

To KNOW the sea in its most tranquil moments, you must follow the rising tide to the great salt marshes and the quiet hidden meadows that lie far inland, sheltered from the sweep of the winds by the wooded hills. You must know where you are going when you trail the sea to the silent sanctuary of the marshes, while the tide fills the harbors and rivers and slides up the creeks, on and on, rising almost imperceptibly as it trickles into every crevice.

Only the sea remembers the hidden and longforgotten little culverts under old roads that border the marshes, and it finds and follows the straight-lined drainage ditches hidden by the matted grass. With watery fingers it feels its way, creeping into every muskrat run and the burrows of the sea worms. And so at high water the marshes are flooded, and the sea rests for a little before turning back with the ebbing tide.

To say that the sea is completely still at any time is misleading, for even at slack water in the marshes it is moving, although its motion may be as faint to the eye as the rise and fall of the breast of a child in sleep. The moods of the sea change constantly, and its colors are never the same for an hour at a time. From blue or pale green it may fade to a sullen gray. Sometimes, just ahead of a weather front, it takes on a brassy tint.

Far back in the quiet marshes, it may, in turn, be a tapering band of sapphire blue that matches the sky or the dull blue that comes before a squall. Under the frosty light of a moon in autumn, the wandering channel is a silver dragon writhing through the dark salt hay. After a January snowstorm, it snakes its way along a black path through the white meadows, and later, after a long freeze, great slabs of gray ice lie in a shattered pattern on the banks of the creeks when the tide runs out.

It was from the salt marshes that the early settlers gathered hay for their livestock, and because many of them had come from homes with thatched roofs, they found in the marsh hay an excellent covering for their new homes.

August was the haying season, and cutting and piling the grass usually depended upon the coming and going of the tides. Scythes often flashed in the fight of the moon, and the farm women brought food to the rim of the marsh to feed the weary mowers by the light of driftwood fires. At times, harvesting on the salt marshes was perilous, for, working against time, farmers sometimes waited too long to get out of the marshes before the tide covered roads of escape.

The early-colonial haying was done with hand scythes, and the crop was piled on staddles, series of posts driven into the marsh in circular formation to provide a foundation on which to stack the hay out of reach of high water. A haystack on a staddle resembled the grass huts built on stilts by African and Polynesian natives.

Later, horse-drawn mowing machines were used to cut the hay crop, and in some marshes the horses wore large, flat wooden clogs which, like snowshoes, kept them from sinking into the soft tidal muck. This procedure required special schooling, and I well remember the horses on a Maine coastal farm being led around the barnyard wearing oval-shaped clogs to train them not to stumble. Anyone who has learned how to snowshoe will understand the problem of teaching a four-footed animal the art of bog walking.

As the land was cleared and the farms developed their own upland hayfields, marsh hay lost much of its value. It is, however, still harvested for use as a mulch for crops and flower beds, and the hay that one sometimes sees spread on freshly laid concrete highways is almost certain to have come from a marsh. Its value for such purposes lies in its insulating qualities.

Cutting marsh hay provides food for birds, and the salt-marsh hayfields are favorite stopping places for geese and ducks on their southward flight. Hawks soaring on motionless wings above the golden carpet of stubble find field-mouse hunting at its best.

So it is that most of us here by the sea — man and beast, the birds of the sea, the fish, and the little animals that five miles back in the salt marshes — must wait for the tides to say, “Now you may go” and “Now you may come,” and so it will always be.