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The Open Ocean
The Open Ocean
My life and profession has taken me to extraordinary places pursuing extraordinary things.
Most of my life I have pursued knowledge. Knowledge and awareness are, of course linked but don't necessarily follow from each other. I have met many intelligent people who have little awareness of the world around them...
Knowledge, an interesting concept by itself, is acquired through an incredible diversity of mechanisms and means.
As I position myself for the next step in my professional life I have had to summarize and communicate well my knowledge, experience, skills and dispositions.
Many of the life experiences I have had have left me with strong sensory images, visual ... tactile ... tastes ... smells ...
Some, perhaps most, of the most potent memories reside in the remote high mountain deserts of the southwest U.S.
In the late ninety's I had the opportunity to visit another, entirely different domain ... the open ocean.
Four or five hundred miles off the coast of Washington State, at some 2000 meters depth lies a complex of active sea-floor volcanoes. Several years ago researchers put into place an elaborate system of sensors to monitor the activity of those sea-floor volcanoes. Geophysicists use seismic geophones to monitor the rumblings and swelling of the ocean basement. Geologists sample the rock types, map out the volcanic terrain. Oceanographers monitor critical parameters in the ambient sea around the volcanoes: conductivity, pH, density, temperature as so forth. As a marine microbiologist I was interested in the microbial life that thrived in and around the volcanic vents.
Colleagues from another university were actively monitoring the condition of the sea floor volcanoes, one in particular called Axial. The plan was to mount a "rapid-response" expedition to put a research vessel and crew in place during an active eruption. One day in February 1998 an eruption started, and 3 days later I was boarding a research vessel docked in the Port of Newport, Oregon.
Crates, boxes, tanks of compressed gases, chemical reagents, sensitive instruments ... all the scientific apparatus as well as the stores for the ship were on-loaded incredibly quickly. The captain and his officers were ruthless ... everything had to be lashed extra securely before leaving dock ... the weather didn't look very good and rough seas were expected. An understatement at best!
At noon on an overcast day we made our way out of port, following the protective rock barriers of the South Jetty. The instant the ship left those protective barriers it began to pitch and rock aggressively ... it would only get worse.
For nearly 5 days we drove northwest into the open Pacific in typhoon-strength seas and winds. The waves varied between 40 and 50 feet in height, the winds steady at 50 mph and gusting to 80. The ship was thrown around violently. Gear would break free and fly around dangerously ... tanks of compressed air slid across the deck ... a aft-ship crane was bent by the stress.
For the first three days walking and moving around below decks was impossible. The deck pitched, rolled, jumped, shifted, jolted, shook so violently that we made our way around on our hands and knees. It would take minutes to move inches. Most of the non-ship crew went to bed to ride out the violence of the storm and to quell the incredible seasickness.
If you have ever been REALLY seasick you know that your very will to live is in question...
What I remember from those first days at sea, jammed into my below-decks bunk with my back tightly pressed against the hull, bracing myself with knees, feet, hands ... whatever ... just to stay in the damn bunk ... was the noise and the smell.
The noise was horrific. The propeller shaft ran just below my cabin. Whenver the ship pitched downward, the propeller would come free of the water and the shaft would scream like it was coming apart. The wind ripping through the superstructure was deafening. The pounding of the hull in the waves jarred the air from your lungs and ... imagine being in a metal trash can with some deranged nut whacking on it with a sledge hammer. The noise never, ever stopped. It stretched nerves to breaking.
The smells were awful. Below decks the smell of the bilge tanks, freshly coated deck paint, machine oil and diesel exhaust filled the air. One deck up, in the science lab, aldehydes slopped around in their bottles (remember what formaldehyde smells like?) and the air was full of dust and debris ... musty and unhealthy. Just forward, the grease traps of the galley sloshed around, obviously not having been cleaned out for some time. The ship's water was putrid, metallic tasting. No hot food.
The shaking, rolling, pitching of the ship came with little pattern ... the deck would just move randomly, violently in one direction or another without predictability. And this 24/7 without stop. No let up.
After about 3 days we remarkably were able to get our "sea-legs" and navigate the ship a bit better. We learned patience in the things we take for granted every day ... such as remaining upright without effort when we walk.
On the 5th day we arrived on station, and a window in the weather opened ... a marginal window just enough to enable us to get some sampling equipment over the side, to be lowered more than a mile to the sea floor. For nearly 60 hours we worked in rain, cold, sleeting wind on the aft deck. At nearly a quarter million dollars a day to fund the cruise, we worked to make the money count and to get the samples and data of a lifetime.
I still remember being on the aft deck of that ship deep into the night, the black waves of the ocean rolling over the deck, lifelines holding us safe. Serious business here. A different reality.
And all the while, through the suffering and discomfort, the danger, hunger, cold and nausea ... was the feeling that at that moment you are in a place doing a thing that most of the people of the planet will never experience and each and every one of us I am sure was deep in the committment that we wouldn't have missed it for anything in the world. Priorities become more immediate. A single life is easily understood as so minsicule a thing ... so tiny and irrelevant to the world.
To intellectually understand that the sea is a powerful thing in one thing. To stand on those frigid decks with the wind howling and the sea crashing down everywhere around you was to feel it ... to know unreservedly that your life is on a fine thread ... it could go any way, at any moment.
Several days later we arrived back in Newport, having had little let up in the strength of the seas or wind. It is still referred to as "the storm cruise" and I find myself oddly proud that my name is on that roster. Given that for the most part all I did was sleep and puke I wonder exactly what I might be proud of, but ... take it wherever you can get it I suppose.
For a week after the cruise, back on dry land I stumbled around like I was drunk. The damn building would lean one way and another, sidewalks would cavort like slinkies, I was always leaning into an imaginary wind. I ate voraciously ... three and four big meals a day heavy on the carbs thank you. I drank cold beer by the gallon. Actually, the beer didn't have so much to do with the trip ... I pretty much did that anyway ...
And at meetings and conventions I still catch the eye of cruise mates from that trip. We still talk, having shared an experience that simply can't be adequately told ... our peculiar experience in the world.
And I probably haven't told it very well here, either, but I wanted to share it with whoever tunes in. I did it, and I'm glad it's done. Now I'm glad I can say that I did it.
And by God I'll never do it again. Back to the mountains and deserts for this one.
Live life like you mean it. Best wishes.
8/20/2005 8:37 am
Yea. The mountains, forests, deserts are where it's at for me too. I'm a natural hiker/walker. I like to walk a least 3-5 miles a day, and room runs out fast on a small ship. Very confining. |
Still, glad I did the ocean thing. There really is something powerful about being on a stormy sea in a small ship. The memories are enough for me now.