— Peter Howorth
Deadhead is often confused with deadwood. Some of you have served as directors on boards. You probably think of deadwood as board members who do nothing but waste time and take up space for potential and more valuable board members. Council members and supervisors also sometimes fill that role.
Deadheads are often referred to as fans of the Grateful Dead. But for mariners, deadheads have a completely different meaning. Deadheads are water-soaked logs that are difficult or impossible to spot. They lurk at the surface or just beneath it.
Deadheads can bash a hole in a boat or ship, tear off a rudder, bend a propeller shaft, or ruin a propeller. They can ruin your day ó or your life. Deadheads are extremely dangerous.
Deadheads are a way of life on the Pacific Northwest and in Northern California. Logs enter streams and rivers, especially during heavy rains, gradually becoming waterlogged. Watercraft crash into them routinely.
Sometimes deadwood sinks to the bottom. In some cases, it can be salvaged, dried out and transformed into everything from wooden bowls and furniture to guitars.
“Sinker” redwood and mahogany are now widely used on stringed instruments. Some of the wood has rested on the bottom of creeks for more than a century. The wood absorbs mineral from the water, altering the sound of the wood.
All too often, however, the logs drift down to the sea, where they present a hazard to boats and ships. Eventually, they drift toward shore. After a large rain, the surf can be clogged with debris, as we’ve seen during the Montecito mudslides. This debris can be dangerous to surfers and swimmers.
When the wood drifts ashore, some may be salvaged for firewood or other uses. Larger logs just remain on the beach. Much of the debris ends up on local beaches, but some ends up in faraway places.
The Chumash used salvaged redwood logs that had drifted down from Northern California to build their seagoing tomols. They lashed the planks together, usually with red milkweed fibers. They used the pithy core of tule as caulking, then sealed the seams with a mixture of pine pitch and asphaltum.
Many folks think the canoes were caulked with beach tar. If that had been the case, the planks would have separated when it became hot and the tar melted. Instead, tule core was the actual caulking.It could expand and contract with temperature changes, much like the caulking yarn used in traditional boatbuilding.
Caulking yarn was made from cotton or oakum ó hemp soaked in melted pine pitch. Instead of yarn, the Chumash used tule, but melted pine pitch still figured on the formula. The Chumash ground up asphaltum mined from the bluffs at Goleta and Carpinteria.
Asphaltum is hard tar in a sense and won’t melt until it reaches about 275 degrees. Once it melted, the Chumash added pine pitch, which allowed the mixture to flow more easily as it was applied, soaking into the wood and caulking. The Chumash often embellished their tomols with bits of abalone shells inlaid into the wood with the asphaltum-pine pitch mixture.
The Chumash weren’t the only ones to use California redwood for their canoes. South Pacific islanders on remote atolls that lacked large trees for boatbuilding used redwood, too. Like the Chumash, they lashed the planks together with vegetable fibers.
Had they found a wrecked tomol and figured out how to build a boat from it? The islanders called their canoes tomokos, while the Chumash called theirs tomols or tomolos. Anthropologists are still puzzling over a possible linguistic connection.
Peter Howorth has followed the sea for more than 50 years, first as a competitive free diver, surfer and professional diver. He captured marine mammals for sea life parks in the 1960s and founded the nonprofit Santa Barbara Marine Mammal Center in 1976. He serves as an environmental consultant for offshore projects, helping to prevent impacts to marine life. He has authored books and has been a columnist for the News-Press for more than 25 years. Any opinions are his and not necessarily the newspaper’s.