When Jonathan White and a group of passengers were stranded by a 16-foot tide on a mud flat near Sitka, Alaska, White was able to get the tide out of the boat, but not out of his head. He wanted to know why and how this happened. To find the answers, White needed to understand the dynamics of tides so he set out on a near 20-year journey.
“I thought I would find my answers in a couple of books, but tides are really complicated,” White said. Ten years and 300 publications later, White admitted, “the more I read the more complex, mysterious, fascinating and poetic tides became.”
White spoke in front of an attentive audience on July 13 at Beach Books to discuss his journey on tide study: how tides travel, their influences, their effect on rising sea levels and what they portend for the future.
His new book, “Tides: The Science and Spirit of the Ocean” is a mix of science, history and ocean lore. White’s journey took him from the canals of Venice, Italy and France to Canada’s Bay of Fundy and Ungava Bay near the Arctic Circle. It also includes stories about the human side of tides.
In his readings, White noticed the lack of any human stories. “There’s a relationship people have with the tides over many thousands of years. I wanted to bring those two stories together: the deep spiritual, human story and the science story.”
“Most of human history before 1700 believed the Earth was the center of the universe, that it didn’t move,” White said.
It wasn’t until Newton’s planetary motion discovery that humans became aware of tides.
Because people didn’t understand the reasons behind the ebb and flow of tides, they speculated, creating a rich mythological history. Some believed when the tide went out, it disappeared into a web of vents below the ocean and came out through another vent. Leonardo da Vinci believed it was the six-hour inhale and six-hour exhale breathing of a large animal, and some astrologers thought it was divine power citing women’s menstrual cycles.
“There are a lot of different ideas about this, but the science didn’t even begin until about 300 years ago,” he said.
He explained how a crest takes 12 hours to form from high tide to high tide and low tide to low tide. “The tide is a long, low wave that travels around the globe at 450 miles. It has no beginning and no end.”
Then there is tide friction. “Any dimple of tension, any thread of stress you see on the ocean’s surface is evidence of friction,” he said. “The tides rub against the ocean floor and create heat and some of that is dissipated into the water, but most of it is transferred into energy that acts as a break on the ocean’s surface.”
Known as a global phenomenon, this friction also slows down the rotation of the Earth, acts as a torque on the moon’s rotation and throws it away from the Earth, and functions as an accelerator for longer days.
White’s journey began after he graduated from Lewis and Clark College. He built a 600-foot sloop and sailed it through the Caribbean, Pacific and Atlantic oceans. In the early 1980s, he wanted to start a graduate program and saw a picture of an old wooden schooner. He said he “felt a crush coming on” and got into his Volkswagen bug and drove to Tillamook.
It was a cold rainy day and the boat was in the mud. “We went down below and I could smell rotting wood. It was painted orange, it leaked about 150 gallons a day and it was perfect,” White said.
He started a nonprofit organization on the boat named Crusade, and for the next 11 years offered floating seminars on the 65-foot halibut schooner built in 1923.
His first seminar seemed to capture the essence, setting the tone for the next few years. “I invited a theater group from Chicago to perform a play.” He anchored the boat in a bay, set up a do-it-yourself amphitheater for the passengers and the play was performed on board the Crusade.
From 1983 to the mid-1990s, these floating seminars kept White out at sea for about seven months of the year, sailing the Inland Passage from Puget Sound to Alaska. His seminars attracted a mix of disciplines: scientists, environmentalists, conservationists, anthropologists, theologians, ecologists and writers including Ursula K. Le Guin.