Those who dare to navigate the world’s second largest whirlpool are members of a fantastical fraternity.
They call themselves “The Few, The Brave, The Swirled.” These roughly two hundred members of the Old Sow Whirlpool Survivors’ Association have boated through the world’s second largest whirlpool, a 250-foot-wide vortex that forms off Eastport at flood tide.
Or, so they claim. When it comes to the Old Sow Survivors, determining where truth meets tongue-in-cheek can be almost as challenging as navigating the converging currents of the Bay of Fundy and Passamaquoddy Bay, which are largely responsible for this rare natural phenomenon. “We don’t want people faking it, but we take their word for it,” says Robert Godfrey, the association’s founder and self-appointed president for life. “I talk to them about it, so I know whether they’ve been there or not. They are required to name the vessel, its operator, and the date of passage.”
For ten dollars, these vetted Survivors receive a certificate acknowledging their “accomplishment.” “It’s suitable for framing,” Godfrey cheerfully boasts. “One of my friends has his on display above his toilet.”
The Old Sow starts whirling about two to three hours before high tide, when the two bays’ incoming currents meet at a sharp right angle in the narrow Western Passage. This salty boil is churned up all the more by Fundy’s famously extreme tides and the rugged undersea terrain — tall submerged mountains, deep trenches, and long ledges that can create other unusual phenomena like standing waves, spouts, and a constellation of smaller whirlpools called “piglets.” Local lore has it that the name Old Sow comes from the sound it makes, but Godfrey, who has ridden through the whirlpool several times, has never heard it grunt (or squeal or oink, for that matter). He prefers the alternate explanation: the word is a corruption of “sough” (correctly pronounced “suff,” but likely mispronounced as rhyming with “plough”). A sough is a drain.
Godfrey, who has been fascinated with the Old Sow since moving to Eastport from Indiana several years ago, collects stories about people’s encounters with the whirlpool, many of which ought to give Old Sow Survivor wannabes pause. “Ten people have died in it before the age of motorized vessels,” he says, adding that contemporary tales tend to be ones of rescues and close calls. Still, he insists, “You’re pretty darned safe if you go with a licensed captain who knows what he or she is doing. And if you’re wearing life gear. And if you have a motor that won’t quit.”
Godfrey says he’d be happy to arrange a voyage for any brave person who wants to be swirled. “But I’m not going with you,” he adds. “I want to be able to issue a lot more of these certificates.” —Virginia M. Wright