Jonathan White explains the ceaseless rhythm of the tides in his latest book



One summer day in 2004, Jonathan White stood waiting for the tide to come in, on the dry bottom of a 25-foot-deep channel on the Qiantang River, south of Shanghai.

Now, Mr. White knows more about tides than nearly anybody, so he was prepared, though nervous, because he knew the ocean-fed Qiantang River bore tide was about to arrive as a 25- to 30-foot-high wall moving at 25 miles an hour.

Essentially, what that means for novices is that if you are in that riverbed and you can see the tide coming, it’s too late.

Mr. White had reconnoitered the riverbank and its 25-foot-high embankments, and had taken a position on a riverbend upstream of the incoming tide.

The math told Mr. White that when he saw the tide round the bend, he would have about eight seconds to climb the riverbank to the jetty above. And when the tide did come around that bend, he scrambled over the top with only one damp sneaker for his trouble.

Had Mr. White’s math been off, or had he been a little slower, you wouldn’t be reading this story or have the opportunity to ask Mr. White about that adventure on Thursday, June 29, at 7 pm at the Katharine Cornell Theater in Vineyard Haven.

He will talk about his tide-filled life and his book, “Tides: The Science and Spirit of the Ocean,” a remarkable account of the hows and whys of tides, how people around the world use them, and why we are drawn to their ceaseless rhythms.

Mr. White is not a scientist, although he understands the science behind tides, where they come from, and why they behave as they do. He has a passion for the subject, and writes in lyrical detail about a phenomenon that most of us feel rather than understand. His narratives about dark nights on still waters — the calm before the storm — evoke authors Bruce Chatwin’s and Paul Theroux’s musings on the metaphysical aspect of our relationship with nature.

Mr. White will discuss those aspects, along with the science and behavior of tide-driven water, and adventure stories similar to his Qiantang River experience.

“Tides” is a thought-provoking book. I knew that tides have a relationship to the moon, some sort of pull that creates two full and two low tides a day: scant knowledge, it turns out.

In a phone interview with The Times from his West Coast home this week, Mr. White said that’s about par for the course, and he wants to add to the understanding and appreciation of the effect of tides on our lives and souls.

“I spent a lot of time on the book, and I feel good about it. I didn’t leave any crumbs on the table. My hope is that [“Tides”] moves people to open their minds and hearts and eyes. There is so much mystery and poetry to [the story of tides]. People comment most on the mix of culture, spirit, and science in the book,” he said.

There’s some scientific content here that is mildly daunting if you are not a Bill Nye kind of person, but Mr. White uses down-to-earth metaphors and similes that make the science understandable.

Most of us understand the tide in terms of cause and effect: a nor’easter plus a full moon means Five Corners will be unnavigable, and if we tarry too long on an incoming tide at the Gut on Chappaquiddick, we’ll be there awhile.

Most of us don’t understand how other cultures have used the tides for thousands of years. Inuit natives in Canada and Alaska chop ice holes in tidal rivers at winter low tides, dropping 10 feet into the riverbed to harvest mollusks to eat in those lean months. Mr. White’s account of dropping into the icy, tomb-like space is riveting, enlightening stuff.

What we don’t know about tides is the effect of physical properties, like resonance, on tides: Resonance allows waves to travel intercontinentally at 450 miles an hour beneath a calm sea. We may not know that the pull of the sun affects tides as well, particularly on the West Coast of our country.

Mr. White has traveled the world and measured the power of tidal flow and its potential as one of our more bountiful natural energy sources. His work provides Island residents with welcome understanding and a greater connection with a natural phenomenon that literally surrounds us.


“Tides: The Science and Spirit of the Ocean,” by Jonathan White, 335 pages, Trinity University Press, $28. Available at Bunch of Grapes bookstore in Vineyard Haven and online.

In Jack Shea’s June 22 story about Jonathan White’s book “Tides: The Science and Spirit of the Ocean,” the incorrect date for his book talk at the Katharine Cornell Theater was listed. Mr. White will speak on Thursday, June 29, at 7 pm at the theater.