The ebbing tide leaves Seal Trap, On Isle au Haut, as snug an anchorage as you could imagine. Photo by David Buckman

The ebbing tide leaves Seal Trap, On Isle au Haut, as snug an anchorage as you could imagine.With leaden clouds scudding low, rain blustering and soundings declining to seven feet, it was a relief to gain the quiet waters of Seal Trap on Isle au Haut and wait out a run of foul weather. The ebbing tide had been close to shutting the door to this eel rut of a private paradise. But, with the anchor down at last, the mate and I were finally able to surrender to the extravagance of the spot’s perfect protection. With the lantern flickering and wine at hand, we couldn’t have imagined a more dramatic setting. Keeping watch on the glacial unfolding of an entirely new prospect – the muddy shore uncovered as a blue heron in priestly garb worked the saltings, and hazards to navigation revealed – our conversation gravitated toward memorable tides we’ve known.

The ebb and flow weigh heavily on our plans, moods, the sea and weather. In our land life we’re not used to having our ability to wander much compromised on a daily basis, but coasting we become something of the tides and resigned to their primacy.

The tides make light of our plans, slow us to a crawl, give us a boost and require a certain submission that doesn’t come naturally. The flow informs every course we set, demands patience in an impatient world, and working them to your advantage is the price of admission to some of the most spectacular secret treasures on the coast.

With wind in opposition to the flow, the tides churn up chaotic seas, toss our boats about and leave us high and dry if we’re not careful. Far Downeast and in the Bay of Fundy, the highest tides in the world write their script with a particular energy, and navigation requires a heightened awareness that fully involves the physical, mental and planetary. Yet, even as such tides are possessed of a particular intensity, they yield to patience and prudence, can be cheated with care, and knowing their natures adds depth and breadth to a cruise.

Observing the anchorage shrink away to a mere tide pool, we remembered the day off Canada’s Campobello Island when a force-5 [16-20 kts] southeasterly collided with the 53-foot head of steam that is an ebbing Fundy tide and produced a never-to-be-forgotten spectacle. Churning seas leapt about in unimaginable chaos, and fog descended as the Leight dipped and corkscrewed her way westward under a reefed main at eight knots, the seas actually roaring in great mounding swells that the mere thought of still thrills.

Playing the tides is improved by local knowledge. High slack at Lubec Narrows in Passamaquoddy Bay occurs an hour earlier than at Eastport, three miles to the east. In the heat of the ebb the waters are pandemonium on a grand scale, the tide running to nine knots, but arriving at the bridge in Lubec, in good order the passage is as gentle as you’ll know.

The tides are our wild cards and beasts of burden. Fair or foul, they rip, rage and demand their due. Various landforms add complexity to their nature, planetary orbits shape them, the breezes respond to them. They are both predictable and volatile. We are creatures of various tides in life’s affairs, and the way we play them makes all the difference.

David Buckman, who sails his Folkboat, Leight, out of Round Pond, Maine, has forgotten more eel ruts than most of us will ever know.

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