"Of all national assets, archives are the most precious:
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and the extent of our care of them marks the
extent of our civilization." Arthur Doughty.

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San Juan Islands, Washington State, United States
A society formed in 2009 for the purpose of collecting, preserving, celebrating, and disseminating the maritime history of the San Juan Islands and northern Puget Sound area. Check this log for tales from out-of-print publications as well as from members and friends. There are circa 500, often long entries, on a broad range of maritime topics; there are search aids at the bottom of the log. Please ask for permission to use any photo posted on this site. Thank you.

01 December 2015

❖ FLOTSAM AND JETSAM ❖

Japanese glass fish floats

"People like to throw things off boats. Islanders know this, because the fickle currents that course through the San Juans are always depositing objects of great fascination upon their shores, and they can make good use of them.
      Not necessarily useful, but interesting nevertheless, are the little notes sealed in bottles and cast from the deck of a ferry or the family pleasure craft by hopeful children. Or perhaps even by an adult harboring the romantic notion that someone in a far off place will find it.
      The words, "flotsam" and "jetsam" often occur in tandem but have different meanings. Strictly defined,  "flotsam" is floating wreckage and "jetsam" is material thrown off a boat to lighten it, presumably in an effort to prevent that boat from becoming flotsam. In the context of beach combing, however, both words are used rather more loosely.
      A lot of flotsam arrived on our Shaw shore, mostly detritus from small boats, such as transoms and framing pieces. Once in a while something really exciting would turn up. We found a chair that apparently slid, or perhaps was thrown, off the deck of the PRINCESS MARGUERITE, the beloved Seattle-to-Victoria excursion ship that used to come within waving distance of the San Juans during summer passages. Apparently it had travelled from the Strait of Juan de Fuca up through Middle Channel between Lopez and San Juan, executed a smart maneuver to port, passed Turn Island into San Juan Channel, and finally came to rest on Andy's Island, a short row from our dock. Neatly folded and balanced on a large rock in plain sight as if anticipating rescue, it was in remarkable repair considering its extended journey.
     That chair became quite a conversation piece in our living room. We would point out the initials CPR stamped into the back, and guests would cluck, as if we might have filched it. We hadn't, of course. 
      One year, we found the real treasure of oriental treasures, a glass fishing float, in our own little cove. Most often discovered on ocean shores, these pretty aqua-tinted glass balls rarely made it into the San Juans, and today probably not at all since the practical Japanese went to using plastic floats.
      My favorite beach combing story, though, was related by Tibb Dodd, a remarkable lady who lived on Yellow Island on the San Juan Channel end of Wasp Passage, with her also remarkable husband, Lew. They had bought the little island in 1945 and built an enchanting driftwood house, situated on a natural rock outcropping that served as the fireplace hearth. Among their few amenities was running water piped down to the house from a catchment basin. Otherwise, they existed primarily on the gifts that nature bestowed, and they seemed many.
      It being his habit to beach comb regularly, Lew walked into the house one morning with a carton of eggs and said "Well, here's our breakfast." Tibb calmly accepted the eggs and remarked that it would be nice if some bacon were to wash in, as well. It did. Knowing something of the charmed life they lived on Yellow Island, I was inclined to believe the story, which she told to me with a perfectly straight face.
      The Dodds are long gone, but fortunately their beautiful island now belongs to the Nature Conservancy, a worthy organization that welcomes visitors ashore with the same selective concern that the Dodds did.
      It's a point of honor to a beach comber that no useful find is to be left for the tide to snatch back into the sea. If you can't use it, offer it to a friend. 
McTAVISH launching 
Neck Point, Shaw Island May 1974.
Margaret and Malcolm Cameron 
 with JoAnn Ridley's flotsam.
Original photo from the archives of the S.P.H.S.©
      Our neighbor, the architect-artist Malcolm Cameron, built a handsome little boat in his garage, named it McTAVISH, and trimmed the gunwale with a hunk of two-inch manila rope that washed up on our beach one winter day. We guess it was a tow line from a working tug. McTAVISH was the only boat I've ever met that could not successfully be referred to as "she", and we were honored that the piece of storm-tossed flotsam was considered worthy of his well-shaped sheer.
      Let the tourists collect driftwood. Islanders will do that, too, for fuel or decor, but they look farther, and when necessary will shamelessly hide a good piece of flotsam or jetsam until it can be carried home. If you can't hide it, you put it beyond the tide line in an attitude that signals to the next beach comber that it already has been found and claimed.
      I observed that our more well-to-do islanders seemed to be the most acquisitive and secretive of beach combers, but at least the rest of us had an equal chance. There are some things money can't buy, and flotsam and jetsam are two of them.
One chapter from A San Juan Islands Journal by JoAnn Ridley.

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