Islander Biffle French’s kayak book

Sports book review

Parking signs in the Puget Sound area differ from those on the East coast, where I grew up.

Here you need to know where the four — north, east, south, west — are, no matter if you’re familiar with the area or not.

“No parking south of here” says a sign on Vashon Highway, and since that road bisects the north-south length of the Island, it’s not so hard to know what that means.

In Seattle, though, surrounded by large buildings, it’s not necessarily quite so obvious, at least to me.

But in New Jersey, where I lived my first 18 years, the sign would say, “No parking from here to corner.”

I assume what’s at work here is a difference between East coast and West coast, with the west still retaining vestiges of its much more recent frontier history, when there were no roads and the compass and the sun were travel aids in the days before signs.

I’m bringing this up because I’ve just finished reading Islander Biffle French’s new book, “Paddling the Waters of Vashon Island.”

Near the end, he talks about launching a kayak (the book’s about kayaking) at Tahlequah, not necessarily the easiest of kayak launch sites on Vashon.

French says, “Once you have unloaded, park east of the ferry on the north side of the street or up the ramp in the parking lot across from the terminal. If you don’t know east from north, you are not ready for this location. Go to Jensen Point, where it doesn’t matter.”

That tone, a bit prickly, shows up elsewhere in the book, perhaps no surprise from a writer who says of himself, speaking about a crowded Point Defiance Park July 4 celebration, “I never go there then, since I am the sort of person who enjoys calm, solitary pleasures like kayaking alone and abhors a crowd. But you should, if you like that sort of thing.”

But there are several other Biffle Frenches in this book.

There’s the one who’s in love with physics and numbers and enjoys calculating the hull speed of his kayak:”My boat is 17 feet in the water, and the square root of 17 is roughly 4.1. Multiply that by 1.3 and you get about 5.3. So my hull speed is 5.3 knots, or about 6.1 miles per hour.”

And there’s the one who prints graphs of both the rate of change of daylight hours over a year and the day-length.

There is no doubt a complex math to water travel, just as there is to air travel, something French has also done, so his interest in it is no surprise.

Whatever he’s calculating with numbers, he always reveals that no matter how accurate the numbers can be, they’re always liable to inaccuracy. Measuring how long a trip around Vashon’s perimeter is depends on so many factors, including tide, wind, size of hull, and so on, that several “accurate” but different readings are possible under different conditions.

And so there’s also the Biffle French who’s constantly aware of the danger of kayaking, who says he won’t launch from a particular place at Tramp Harbor because of the easy danger of falling in.

He’s rightly concerned with warning kayakers about dangers, from rip tides to high winds to rocks to large boats that can’t see kayaks, and he has a humorously deadpan approach to danger.

Speaking of approaching the Narrows Bridge at flood tide with a southern flow, he says, “A careless kayaker could find himself or herself looking up at the bottom of the Narrows Bridge and wondering how to avoid big whirlpools and the bridge supports. Caveat kayaker.”

But he’s also admiring of heroism on the water, as when he describes early Coast Guardsmen at Point Robinson who tried to save lives with no more than rowboats and oars: “These heroes fought the frigid surf, saved the living and claimed the dead. They were mighty, but they suffered miserably and sometimes they died. They knew a true life, face to face with nature.”

French seems to be searching for that face to face confrontation, but he also starts the book with a disclaimer about the charts and the calculations: the book is not intended, he says, for trip planning or as an adventure guidebook.

In fact, the book’s subtitle, “A Circumnavigation and some Adventures,” suggests that the book is a miscellany, a collection of essays with Vashon as its whirling center.

And in the midst of that whirl, two of my greatest pleasures were in discovering that it was Luther Burbank who brought the invasive Himalayan blackberry to the West coast, and that by French’s calculations, a bridge to Vashon would present such engineering difficulties as to make it impossible to build.

While he’s ruefully accepting of change coming to the rural Vashon he loves, French is also pleased at how unlikely it is to become Mercerized, and so am I.

— Eric Horsting is sports editor of The Beachcomber and a long-time book reviewer.