It started late last week when my husband and I saw the news about a young graduate student who had solved a decades-old mathematical question about a strange knot discovered 50 years ago, called the Conway knot. “We have to send this to Brion Toss,” Jim said. “He will love it. I mean, you gotta love a guy who invented his own knot and called it the Strait Bend.”
Funny how you start thinking about someone, not concretely but with a sense of presence, more of an awareness that has roots somewhere in the subconscious.
We knew he was ill and it had been a while since we’d seen him because of the pandemic, but last week we couldn’t stop thinking about Brion and his wife Christian. Then came the news from his family: “Last night as Venus departed from its intimate planetary visit, our beloved Brion Toss, surrounded by his loving family, caught a peaceful ride on the glorious tide of a Strawberry Rose Full Moon.”
Sail maker Carol Hasse, who has been his friend for decades, said, “His teachings, books and videos were not just the obvious gifts to anyone who learned from them, or just gifts to the craft of rigging and the self-sufficiency of sailors, they were a shout-out to the world.
“They enhanced all of our collective marine trades’ reputation and brought renown to Port Townsend,” Hasse added. “They put us on the map in a way that showed this place really honors craft and the value of work for the sake of what it can bring to the world instead of what it can bring to us individually.”
A woman who barely knew him wrote that in one of his seminars at Strictly Sail in Oakland, she was in the back of a room full of men whose snarky comments about “little girls with little boats” were shut right down by Brion as he moved her to the front of the room. Years later when she visited him at his shop, he remembered her and gave her a tour and a discount on splicing equipment.
“I’ve never forgotten his kindness to a newbie boat owner at my first boat show,” she said, “He was such a brilliant and kind man.”
Brion was a master rigger with a reverence for the traditions of the craft and its importance to the safety and wellbeing of sailors and others.
But he was also a musician, poet, writer, teacher, voracious reader of literature, and a terrible punster. Called the Godfather of Rigging, Mister Knot, and the John Prine of Rigging, he had a lifelong fascination with good knots, not just for their utility, symmetry, or strength, but also for the sheer joy of their mathematical complexity.
He turned his vast knowledge of working loads and breaking strengths of wire and cordage into poetic meditations, like the stories in his book Falling, and in the often hilarious text in his magnificent book, The Rigger’s Apprentice, now a classic, and required reading on every sailor’s shelf.
He delighted in creating puzzles for his readers, with names like Winch Whinge, Name That Detune, and The Pirate’s Dilemma. With much hilarity he helped Jim and me write our wedding vows, in a piece we called The Book of Getting Spliced.
Brion could come down to your small sailboat and tie a Good Luck Knot for your voyage, or he could completely re-rig a square-rigged ship, and his famously accessible explanations made sure you would know how to rig one too, if you listened.
Hasse added, “Aside from the memories of travel and adventure and collaborating on projects like bending sail on a beautiful Alden schooner, we always shared a passion for the language of sail, a desire to keep it accurate, and to follow in its etymology, like where did the word shroud come from.”
“One of Brion’s great gifts in addition to his overwhelming kindness, generosity, and brilliant humor was his positivity and discipline in the face of challenges,” Hasse added. “He had a black belt in Aikido. Did you know that? Aikido was part of the trajectory and the balance of his life. He knew adversity, but he knew how to deflect it. You could always count on him.”
Brion loved extravagantly. His love for Christian was so deep that you couldn’t help but notice it pouring out of him in his every gesture near her. His laugh was large enough to rake the skies with merriment. All you had to do to find him in the crowds at the Wooden Boat Festival was to wait a few minutes until he laughed. Brion didn’t merely wrestle the muse, he tickled it.
So when we got the news of his passing, it was hard to speak, and we wished we’d been able to say goodbye. But then we realized that the pain of such a loss is the heart’s tribute to a man so beloved.
Brion once signed my copy of The Rigger’s Apprentice with a subtle reference to the Clock of the Long Now, a clock buried deep in a mountain whose chime sounds will not repeat themselves in 10,000 years. I think that’s a perfect analogy for who Brion was, and how he lived his extraordinary life.
It is inconceivable; waaay too early, so much to give, so much joy, love, humor, wisdom, expertise. Have enjoyed him every boat festival, every trip to PT, considered him friend even if only seeing him a few times a year fleetingly. Expertise like no other, humble, fun, handsome, loving, so happy after he met Christian. His anchor she has been, while he flies aloft, his spirit loving it all. I cannot fathom PT and all who loved him, all he contributed, without him. We are so sad; grateful we saw him get his lifetime achievement award; he was ill but doing better, and we held him in our hearts to recover; I am shocked and sad he did not. His suffering is over, he would only want to be 100%. Deep sorrow and thoughts of strength to all his community and family. So glad I ventured to NW Yachting for a weird reason, only to see the article on Brion; what a beautful one written here, thank you,
Pam & Sam Fry
thank you for the kind words you two. it’s comments like that that make it all worthwhile.
My favorite Brion story. I was moored in Vancouver and called Brion to ask if a job he was doing for me was ready. He said it was and I told him I would be there that afternoon. He was surprised and asked how I might be able to make way that soon. I told him I was hauling out and pulling the boat behind my pickup truck. He said ” Aw, nothing goes to weather like a pickup truck”. I have told that story a thousand times. Enjoy your time on the other side of the bar Brion, we all enjoyed your time here.
Thanks, everyone, I appreciate your comments and remembrances. I just learned from Brion’s wife that there will be a tribute to Brion on the NPR quiz program “Says You!” on Father’s Day weekend, June 19-21. Brion was an active contributor to questions and categories on that program.
[…] thoughts of an old friend who left to answer cancer’s summons, […]
I was so sorry to hear of Brion’s passing. I first met Brion in 1996 at our Timber Framer’s Guild western conference in Whitefish, Montana where we recruited him as our keynote speaker. We were not disappointed. Since then I have made it a habit of visiting him every time I got to go to Port Townsend for Wooden Boat festivals or timber framing business. We regret the loss of another traditional craftsman and he will be missed by the tight community of friends and family in Port Townsend.
Thank you for this wonderful portrait of an extraordinary person. I’ve heard his name for the 20 years I’ve lived here, and now regret I never met him. Definitely the kind of human I would have loved, as obviously he also loved life.
Beautiful. Thank you.
Very sad to hear about Brion Toss. I have learned many things from his book on knots and splices. Once, a few years ago I was in West Marine and asked the salesman a question about the rigging on my sailboat. A customer answered with all the details one could ever ask. At the register the cashier welcomed the customer with “Hi Brion”. It was Brion Toss! What a treat. What a helpful and delightful man.
Thanks so much Karen; terrific tribute! Shared chaperone duties with Brion and Christian on an eighth grade field trip to Mt. St. Helen. LONG time ago. Trust that a good time was had! His laugh still echoes around the town.
I can’t think of a comment worthy of Brion’s remembrance other than — he has been, to me, the magic of sailing since I first embraced it. He has been my muse on my journey, and his passage from this life into the next tells me that I will reach there for further inspiration. Much respect, much love, much sorrow.
A wonderful tribute, Karen, thanks
Dang sorry to hear of Brian’s passing. Many moons ago he assesed the rigging on our sailboat. He did a wonderful job and really impressed me and I am sure he will be missed by many.