Passage to Juneau

I am afraid of the sea. I fear the brushfire crackle of the breaking wave as it topples into foam; the inward suck of the tidal whirlpool; the loom of a big ocean swell, sinister and dark, in windless calm; the rip, the eddy, the race; the sheer abyssal depth of the water, as one floats, like a trustful beetle planting its feet on the surface tension. Rationalism deserts me at sea. I’ve seen the scowl of enmity and contempt on the face of a wave that broke from the pack and swerved to strike at my boat. I have twice promised God that I would never again put out to sea, if only He would, just this once, let me reach harbor. I’m not a natural sailor but a timid, weedy, cerebral type, never more out of my element than when I’m at sea.

Yet for the last fifteen years, every spare day that I could tease from the calendar has been spent afloat, in a state of undiminished fascination with the sea, its movements and meanings. When other people count sheep, or reach for the Halcion bottle, I make imaginary voyages—where the sea is always lightly brushed by a wind of no more than fifteen knots, the visibility always good, and my boat never more than an hour from the nearest safe anchorage.

When I moved from London to Seattle in 1990, the sea was part of the reason. The Inside Passage from Seattle to Alaska, with its outer fringes and entailments, is an extraordinarily complicated sea route, in more ways than one. In continuous use for several thousand years, it is now a buoyed and lighted marine freeway, a thousand miles long, and in places choked with traffic, as fishing boats, tows, barges, yachts, and cruise ships follow its serpentine course between Puget Sound and the Alaskan Panhandle. Parts of it are open ocean, parts no wider than a modest river. Some bits, like the Strait of Georgia, are small, shallow, muddy seas in their own right; others are sunken chasms, 1,200 feet deep. Where the tide is squeezed between rocks and islands, it boils and tumbles through these passes in a firehose stream. Water wasn’t meant to travel at sixteen knots: it turns into a liquid chaos of violent overfalls, breaking white; whirlpool-strings; grotesque mushroom-boils. It seethes and growls. On an island in midstream, you can feel the rock underfoot shuddering, as if at any minute the sea might dislodge it and bowl the island, end over end, down the chute.

Its aboriginal past—still tantalizingly close to hand—puts the Inside Passage on terms of close kinship with the ancient sea of the Phoenicians and the Greeks. A nineteenth-century Kwakiutl or Tsimshian Indian would find it easy to adapt to Homer’s sea, with its reigning winds and creaturely powers. He simply used other names for them. For homicidal tricksters like Zeus and Poseidon he had such counterparts as …

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