Tide time

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painting of ships on the Mersey

'Waiting the tide' by Harry Taylor Hoodless, from the Merseyside Maritime Museum's collection

I like the old saying ‘Tide and time wait for no man’ because it has a sense of finality and closure.

I’ve lived near the sea most of my life and the tides have always played a part in our lives. In Liverpool, if the sky clouds over or the wind rises, we say the tide has changed – even if it hasn’t.

High tides generally mark the busiest times in ports as ships come and go from their berths with deep water enabling easier access to docks and quaysides.

Today there is an increasing focus on higher and higher tides linked to global warming but since man first went to sea tides have always been of great importance to ships and seafarers.

Tides have been observed and discussed since ancient times with increasing sophistication and accuracy. People first noticed how the sea rose and fell every day. Later they connected this phenomenon with the sun and the moon.

Greek navigator Pytheas sailed from Marseille around Britain around 325 BC, possibly reaching the Shetland Isles. He was probably the first person to relate high spring tides to phases of the moon.

About 150 BC Babylonian astronomer Seleucus of Seleucia (now Iraq) correctly described tides in order to support his theory that the sun was the centre of the universe.  

He was the first to state that tides were due to the attraction of the Moon and that their height depended on the Moon’s position relative to the Sun.

Roman scientist and historian Pliny the Elder (circa 23 – 79) collated much information about tides, noting that spring tides were a few days before and after new and full moons.

William Thomson (later Lord Kelvin) led the first systematic analysis of tidal records starting in 1867. He built a tide-predicting machine using a system of pulleys – similar devices were used until the 1960s.

At Merseyside Maritime Museum there is a painting called 'Waiting the tide' by Harry Taylor Hoodless (pictured).

The composition is typical of the artist’s work with dock furniture and various ropes and equipment. A Blue Funnel liner is tied up against the quay in the Alfred Dock, Birkenhead, waiting for the tide prior to departure.

The bow of the vessel (possibly the Philoctes) is seen to the left while a Rea Company tug is in starboard profile at the centre. The Liverpool waterfront, with its famous Pier Head buildings and the Mersey Tunnel ventilation tower, is in the background.

A new Maritime Tale by Stephen Guy appears every Saturday in the Liverpool Echo. A paperback – Mersey Maritime Tales (£3.99) – is available from the museum, newsagents, bookshops or from the Mersey Shop website (£1 p&p UK).