The ocean is a part of our lives here in Maine, a state with a rugged coastline measuring more than 3,500 miles. In fact, many Mainers can’t fathom living in a landlocked state, where they couldn’t simply drive to a rocky beach and breathe in the cool, salty air.
But what do we really know about the ocean, that vast body of water to which we’re inextricably tied?
Sailor, conservationist, surfer and writer Jonathan White asked himself that very question. For more than a decade, he traveled the world seeking answers, and he’s sharing that adventure and the knowledge he gathered along the way in his new book, “Tides: The Science and Spirit of the Ocean,” which was released earlier this month.
The 335-page book published by Trinity University Press this month is a fascinating work of literary nonfiction, rich with characters, stories and scenes from around the globe. White considers the book to be “a life’s work,” one that took him more than 10 years to complete. He doesn’t simply examine the mysteries of the tides, he brings readers on his adventure — one filled with wonder and surprises and fed by White’s relentless curiosity.
White lives across the country, on a small island off the coast of Washington state, but he selected Maine as the second state — right after his home state — for his national book tour. Maine, he said, plays a key role in the book, located at the mouth of the Bay of Fundy, which is home to the world’s largest tide, with a tidal range — the vertical measurement between consecutive high and low waters — of 54.6 feet.
Later this month, he will visit Maine to speak and sign books at nine locations.
“It’s mostly rural there [in Maine], just like it is where I am,” White said in a recent phone interview, “and consequently, I think people are just more aware of the natural world around them and, hence, more aware of the coming and going of the tide and its influences.”
The book and the tour couldn’t be more timely. Global warming and rising tides are a chief concern nationally, but particularly for the Gulf of Maine, which has warmed in the last decade faster than in 99 percent of the global ocean.
Maine is featured in the book as one of the leading players in tidal power engineering. White interviewed Christopher Sauer, president and CEO of Maine’s Ocean Renewable Power Company, which built and operated the first revenue-generating, grid-connected tidal energy project in North America in 2012 off the coast of Maine.
“I talk about the challenges, not just the physical aspect of the tides and water but also the cultural and emotional and spiritual,” White said.
White starts the book with a near shipwreck off the coast of Alaska, when a dramatic tide dragged aground his wooden schooner, the Crusader. That frantic episode, which involved hours of pumping water out of the 65-foot ship, was the start of an obsession.
“After Kalinin Bay, I vowed to learn more about the tides,” White wrote.
He didn’t know what he was getting himself into.
“I thought I’d read a book or article or something like that and I’d learn everything there was to learn about it,” White said. “But I started in on it and realized, oh my gosh, this is way more complex and way more fascinating and poetic than I ever could imagine.”
White grew up on the beaches of southern California and has built and sailed many boats, logging more than a hundred thousand miles sailing on the Pacific and Atlantic oceans. He’s also an avid surfer.
“Like a lot of people who grow up around the ocean, it seems like I always had a tide chart in my back pocket,” he said. “I always consulted it when I sailed or surfed, but I never really knew what was going on. I was vaguely interested, but I never took the time to understand it. I knew the moon had to do with it, but I didn’t know what.”
In the end, White read more than 300 books and at least as many articles about tides and related subjects in his quest to understand this complex topic. And he traveled the world, interviewing and adventuring in places including Chile, tiny islands off Panama, Scotland, the Canadian Maritimes and the Arctic. To decide what place to visit next, White said he simply “followed the tide” to its extremes, for example, to China, where he raced the Silver Dragon, a 25-foot tidal bore that rushes 80 miles up the Qiantang River.
These travels were funded in part by grants and a book advance, but mostly out of his own pocket, from income he earns from constructing custom homes.
“Before working on this, I would look at somebody like myself who dove into this subject and got lost for 10 years as being somewhat crazy,” White said. “I never thought I’d drop into this thing and disappear, but here I am, doing that, and as passionate as ever about it.”
The resulting book — as well as the talks he plans to give on his book tour — is just the surface of the knowledge he gained, his key findings woven into a narrative of his greatest adventures.
For instance, did you know that the tide is really a wave — “a large, low wave that travels around the world at 450 miles an hour” — or that the tides create friction that is actually slowing down the Earth’s rotation, making our days longer?
“Part of the reason I wrote the book was because I didn’t see anything that was treating the subject the way I really felt like it should be treated,” White said.
Written in first person, “Tides” is a personal journey as much as it’s a book of scientific inquiry, filled with maps, line drawings and scientific figures.
“For me it was a spiritual journey in that the more I saw the connections between the science, the culture, the spirit, my own life and the tides and the processes of the world, the richer it was for me, the more fulfilling, the more gratifying,” he said. “I just came out of this with yet another level of love for the planet and for people.”
“The more we understand our connectedness, all the different levels of that, the more fulfilled I think we are, the more rich I think our lives are, the more strong,” he added.
White ends the book in rubber boots, sloshing around the flooded streets of Venice, where tide gates are being constructed in an effort to preserve the ancient city.
“The Venetians have been living with this forever,” he said. “When there’s a high tide, they plan their routes through the cities to avoid the lowest levels — like we would avoid heavy traffic issues at rush hour.”
Now that the book is published, White is excited for the next phase of the publishing process: sharing the book with others.
“It’s all about being able to tell the story to other people,” he said. “That’s the purpose of it and yet the paradox is that for years and years, it’s just you and your computer. It’s immensely gratifying to hear people talk about the book and that they’re enjoying it. There’s nothing better than that.”
White will appear at the following locations in Maine for his book tour:
— Feb. 27: Maine Maritime Academy, Castine
— Feb. 28: Unity College Fishbowl Speakers Series, Unity
— March 1: Darling Marine Center Brown Bag Lunch Series, University of Maine, Walpole
— March 2: Bates College, Lewiston
— March 2: University of Southern Maine, Gorham
— March 2: Gulf of Maine Research Institute, SeaState Lecture, Portland
— March 3: L.L. Bean Friday Night Lecture Series, Freeport
— June 21: Wells/Laudholm Reserve, Wells
— June 22: Camden Public Library, Camden