PORT TOWNSEND — On foot and in their boats, with tears in their eyes, the people gathered quietly on the dock at Point Hudson early Wednesday morning to remember a man who loved to go aloft.
Brion Toss, who died of cancer June 6, 2020, was a world-renowned master rigger, teacher and author whose home port was Port Townsend.
Scores of his friends, family and colleagues came to remember him: to play and hear music from the Northwest Maritime Center decks, to lay flowers on the shore and watch a procession of rowboats and sailboats on the bay.
Around 8 a.m., Toss’ fellow mariners, from their boat the Salish Star, released a one-fifth scale model of a catboat called the Katy. In it are Toss’ ashes.
“He’s everywhere,” his friend Heidi Herendeen said while standing on the beach.
“Brion’s final journey will be in the Katy replica visiting anchorages, moorages, bays, coves, channels and straits in this beautiful corner of the world,” read the back page of the morning’s printed program.
Toss was 69 when he died. He’d coauthored many books, including “The Complete Rigger’s Apprentice,” “The Rigger’s Locker” and most recently “Falling,” about what he learned from doing so.
Philippe Petit, famous for walking a high wire between the World Trade Center towers in 1974, heaped praise on Toss’ story: “Brion Toss is a rigging master, a fine writer, and a perfectionist. In this book he is also a courageous man, who dares to focus on failures … read and learn (and be frightened), so that you do not fall prey to inattention and amateurism — so that you do not fall, period. Thus join me at shouting to the guy aloft: ‘Bravo Brion!’”
Mark Hoffman, a friend and fellow author who came down to the beach Wednesday morning, recalled two interactions with Toss: One when he bought a copy of “The Rigger’s Apprentice” and asked Toss to sign it.
“He was already ill,” Hoffman said.
He told Toss that the material in the book was “so difficult, so technical; I don’t know if I can do it.”
When Hoffman later looked at the inscription, he found Toss’ message: “Yes, you can, Mark.”
Toss “was one of the pillars of the boating community,” Hoffman added. “He really lived life to the full.”
One of the first times he saw Toss was in Seattle’s University District, where he was wearing a red bandanna, doing rope tricks and juggling. It was about 1974.
Toss established Brion Toss Yacht Riggers at Point Hudson in 1978. His love for the art and mathematics of rigging led him to work and teach on boats great and small, across the globe and back.
In 2019, at the Wooden Boat Festival in Port Townsend, he was inducted into the Maritime Hall of Fame.
Toss was known for how skilled he was — and how funny. His friend Gordon Sims, a former captain of the schooner Adventuress, heard one thing as he watched the Katy sail among the other boats: the sound of Toss’ laugh, ringing out.
“Beyond words, that laugh had power,” Sims said.
Toss’ widow, Christian Gruye, along with business partner Ian Weedman, hosted Wednesday’s waterside gathering.
Emiliano Sea Raven played the native flute; Herendeen offered “The Owl Calls My Name,” Dianne Boeger raised her arms to the four directions, and violinist Kristin Smith and harpist Paula Lalish played “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring.”
Yesango, the Port Townsend marimba band, played Toss and Gruye’s wedding song as the boat procession returned to the dock.
“And Brion often acknowledged God and all her sisters. You might find them barefoot on the beach today,” reads the last line of the printed program.
For closing words, Barbara Jackson recited a poem, “Morning.”
We never leave our loved ones behind
From that first recognition
We are one …
Of the language of sail, the language of wind and tide
That draws each of us to here and now
An inheritance more precious than the pirate’s gold
Each touch, each fading note, each image in the mind’s eye
Carries the song
In the morning fog you hear the bell as the oars and paddles dip softly into the ocean body
Mourning becomes morning
Standing beside a circle of flowers on the beach, Boeger handed long-stemmed blooms to the people in attendance.
As sage smoke brought a sweet scent to the air, they laid their flowers on the surface of the water, then walked back to Toss and Gruye’s shop at Point Hudson, where coffee, ginger snaps and “Brion stories” awaited.
Jefferson County senior reporter Diane Urbani de la Paz can be reached at 360-417-3509 or [email protected]