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.