From Ventura to the East Coast, Our Vain Battle Against the Sea

They are once again dredging our harbor. From where I sit here on the beach, I can see the dredge at the harbor mouth. It is actually pretty in the last light of day. Turned to shadow by the setting sun it looks like some head-scratching avant garde sculpture: its lights giving off a cozy glow. I can hear the work it is doing, an incessant machine rumble, sand sucked up off the bottom and pumped through the pipe which runs up and along the beach. From where I sit I can also hear the gravel click of sediment coursing through the pipe, the sound like the scurrying of rats in an attic.

Over the years, I've sat on identical pipes watching similar dredgings of Ventura's harbor mouth. It is a never ending process. Man pumps. When man finishes, Nature begins to silt the harbor in again. Once we built the harbor here, it's the way it has to be.

If they don't dredge our Ventura harbor mouth, things can get quite exciting. The sand fills in. The bottom shallows. Waves begin to break in the mouth of the harbor. Sometimes very big waves. I once watched a sailboat make for the mouth of the harbor during a large swell. This sailboat and a tremendous breaking wave arrived at the harbor mouth at the same time with breathtaking result. The wave reared skyward. The sailboat rode up, up, up the face of the wave, but not up enough. The wave heaved over, burying the boat in a foamy mass. There was a brief moment of impasse and then the sailboat punched through. It was heart-stopping for me. I cannot imagine the buzz experienced by the figure at the helm. I have always wanted to ask this Lilliputian captain what possessed him to sail forth on that day. I have no doubt the response would be interesting.

Recently a series of powerful storms again saw our local waters come alive, tremendous waves gouging away beaches and pounding sea walls. Perhaps the daring sailor again sallied forth. I don't know. But again the ocean's power to change our shoreline was highly visible.

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On this sunset evening the storms have passed and the ocean is calm, but it is never still. I am an admirer of Henry David Thoreau, who spent his share of time beside the sea, but Mr. Thoreau and I don't always agree. "The seashore is a sort of neutral ground," Thoreau wrote. In my humble opinion it is more a battleground, and the victor is never in doubt. In two words, Hurricane Sandy. And, of course, Sandy was not the first (or last) ill-tempered lady to swat the Eastern shoreline, although her fury was nastier than most. Every barrier island beach town that Sandy bludgeoned already had a long history of being rebuilt (some say arrogantly and unwisely), again and again, before Sandy roared through.

I grew up visiting and living on some of these fragile wisps of sand, and the storms, and stories, are many. One of my favorites involves the ferocity, and delicacy, of Hurricane Fran. On September 5, 1996, Fran sent a twelve-foot storm surge across the northern end of North Carolina's Topsail Island, wiping away homes and roads. Fran also laid out a silver tea set with an English butler's attention to detail. I'm not saying this was consciously undertaken, but I will say there are times when the sea seems to be toying with, if not outright mocking, us.

Even on this calm and lovely Southern California sunset evening, the tide's edge, with apologies to Mr. Thoreau, is an active place. Though it is often depicted as such, nature in any form is rarely still. Stillness equates with death and nature is death's antithesis, always fiddling and twitching, moving, changing, adapting, ensuring that life, not death, wins the day. Stand quietly on any beach and you will hear the fidgeting of a living thing.

And so along our coast -- in Carpinteria, Ventura, Oxnard and Port Hueneme -- we wage a constant battle against the sea.

I watch the sun set, the placid ocean lovely in the fading light. The dredge clanks and hums.

This dredging project will finish. The dredge will leave the mouth of our harbor. But it will be back, the engineers again moving the sand out of the harbor mouth and depositing it on the beach like children patting a sand castle into place at the tide's edge.

About the Author

Ken McAlpine’s latest book “Together We Jump” was praised by Sunset Magazine as “lyrical, evocative and deeply moving…a luminous American novel.” He is based in Ventura, California.
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