The tide is my constant friend after 60 years of sea life – The Irish Times

Once, many years ago, I was rowing across Wexford Harbor when I was caught in a tidal break that nearly swept my boat into the Irish Sea and away from rescue. Luckily I had learned to row with the current rather than against it and after a long and tiring pull the tide turned and I finally made it to safety. Since then I’ve had a healthy respect for the tides and love watching the tides ebb and flow.

The turning of the tide is one of those unchanging things in life. As night follows day, summer fades to fall, middle ages after youth, I know it will always come. I can’t stop his steady progress. It never lets me down. Ebb and flow, rise and fall, twice a day, unfailing, reliable, predictable. It carries my boat or stops it in its tracks. It pushes up the beach and slowly erases my footprints. He leaves rich offerings. A spiny spider crab that once crawled across the deep ocean floor, a pile of oyster shells dredged from the sandbars offshore, or the bleached skull of a seabird that didn’t survive the winter.

Those who follow the tides closely know that they are linked to the monthly cycles of the moon. A full moon and a new moon coincide with the highest (spring) tides, while the lowest (neaps) tides are in the periods of the waning (waning) and waxing (waxing) moons. These are old terms, dating back to the earliest days of sailing boats and still used by modern seafarers. Writer Adam Nicolson said in his book The Sea Is Not Water: “No wonder people could think of the tides as in some way lifeless, motivated not only by some mechanical action but by some hidden, purposeful being, which eludes our understanding.”

The tide is my constant friend, not a menacing adversary

The tides are so important to seafarers that annual charts are drawn up showing the times of high and low tide for each day, the maximum level of sea water and the variations for different ports. The spring tides occur twice a month and, when accompanied by low pressure and strong onshore winds, can cause significant coastal erosion and flooding. As well as moving up and down, tides flow most strongly along the coast around promontories and through narrow gaps such as the Sound between islands and the mainland. Tide atlases give the numbers for different parts of the coast, allowing calculation of the effect on a boat’s speed.

The tides are also important for wild creatures, especially those who spend most of their lives on the coast. In rock pools, the crabs, shrimp, and mussels have to get used to regular wetting and drying each day, and limit their feeding times to when the sea is carrying plankton in their path. Shorebirds can only feed at low tide, when the shellfish and worms buried in the sand with their long beaks are accessible. As the estuary fills with seawater, they must retreat to settle in large flocks in safe places such as islands, piers, and offshore rocks.

As the tide turns against the wind direction, it pushes the sea surface into crests that change the movement of a sailboat, like going off the road onto a gravel track. Just as the wind moves the air, the tides pull and push seawater up and down the shore, in and out of rock pools, the beach. But unlike the wind, which is invisible, unpredictable, sometimes gentle, often angry, I can see the tide as it rolls by, watch its steady progress, and consider its effects.

The turning of the tide is a wondrous thing. The constant movement of the oceans pauses for a moment, takes a deep breath, reaches its limit and begins to go back the way it came. Curtains of seaweed are swept in the opposite direction, grains of sand roll down the beach and crabs scamper into deeper water. I feel a different pull on the boat as it begs me to follow rather than resist. The tide is my constant friend, not a menacing adversary. But I have reached this accommodation after 60 years of experience by the sea. After that close shave in Wexford Harbour, it seemed as if the tide had given me reprieve and taught me a lesson for the future.

Richard Nairn is an ecologist and writer. His latest book Wild Shores is published by Gil Books The tide is my constant friend after 60 years of sea life – The Irish Times

Dais Johnston

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