Decoy Post!

Your sleepless nights are over.  Your days longingly spent clicking the “refresh” button at are through.  I’m here to quell your fears that I’ve disappeared into the Antarctic wilderness, or – worse – that I’ve given up on blogging.  THIS, KIDS, IS A BLOG POST.  Booyah!  And now, to distract you from the fact that I haven’t written anything worthwhile in about a month: here is a video that Luke made of a recent polar plunge.

Jumping into the sub-freezing water is our special way of bidding farewell to friends leaving on the northbound ship.  I’m the one in the black bikini.  I really thought the bumper was going to be much bouncier than it actually turned out to be…


Do you see any big chunks of ice on that water?  Nope!  Not even one tiny, tiny chunk of ice.  Well how about any waves?  No way, no waves.  Inlet’s smooth as glass.  Know what that means?  We’re goin’ boating today.  Aw yeah.

new video: oceanography in Antarctica

edit:  I deleted this video when the audio stopped working.  I’ll upload it again as soon as I can!
-May 2009

Here’s another short video I put together in the Antarctic.  The footage is mostly of the scientific equipment we used.   It’s less exciting than the last video I posted, but I hope it gives you an idea of what it was like on board the ARSV Gould, constantly deploying and retrieving scientific equipment.  The first couple of scenes show some rough seas while crossing the Drake Passage; the last few scenes show us taking the Zodiacs out on the water, which was always incredible.  Those orange coats you’ll see everyone wearing are nicknamed “float coats” (sort-of a cross between a life vest and a parka… really toasty, but unfortunately not entirely waterproof).

You can click the “HQ” button in the bottom right corner of the player to see the video in higher quality.

Chilly in Chile

…as if that pun has never been made before. Apologies.

Anyway, here I am! After nearly 30 hours of flights and layovers, I have made it to Punta Arenas, Chile.  At the Santiago airport, representatives from Raytheon (the company that oversees many US polar deployments) met our group and breezed us through customs.  I totally felt like a VIP celebrity … if celebrities ever arrive at airports wearing enormous backpacks and hiking boots.

Punta Arenas is, incidentally, home to the southernmost beer brewery and southernmost grapevines in the world.

Time for me to go to bed. Early tomorrow morning I will head to a giant warehouse overlooking the Strait of Magellan, where I will be issued my cold weather gear, and then move onto the LM Gould.

The Helm

When things are going well on the helm, it’s incredible.  It’s powerful.    You can feel the force of the water pressing against the helm in your hands.  You are in a position of ultimate control.  You know where you’re going and how to get there.  The boat does as you say.

This rarely happened.

You might think that steering would be less difficult than, say, hoisting up several hundred pounds of sail.  Or finding your location in the world from just the declination of a star.  Or calculating at exactly what time the sun will be at its zenith.  But you would be wrong on all accounts.

Unlike a bicycle or car, a ship does not respond immediately to turning the wheel, which means you must sense when to stop turning the wheel before you get on the desired course.  Assuming you don’t over-correct (I usually did), you must then hold this desired course for any number of hours.  This means paying attention to the true direction of the wind (which is tricky when there is an apparent wind due to the motion of the boat).  This means paying attention to changes in weather.  This means paying attention to how full the sails are.  This means paying attention to how much right rudder or left rudder you might need to use.  This means … I sucked at steering.


I notice one night, around 4:00am, that I am having more and more difficulty maintaining the course ordered, and have to constantly change my steering.  Eventually, all actions become useless. I decide to inform the chief mate, attempting to mask all terror in my voice.

Hey … Chief Mate? I squeak.  Something’s wrong with the helm.

Wrong with the helm? says Chief Mate.  I don’t think so.

Yes, there is! I say, a little indignant.

Well … what’s the ship doing? asks Chief Mate.

Absolutely nothing I tell it to do.  The helm is useless. By now, I am panicking, because the boat seems to be doing exactly the opposite of what I am steering.

Be more specific, says Chief Mate.  What is the ship doing?

Well … [painfully long pause] … It goes left when I steer right, and right when I steer left!  Something is terribly, horribly wrong! I say, imagining that some gear has gotten itself reversed and–horror–I have broken the helm.

Chief Mate looks up at the sails.  Chief Mate goes over to the railing and looks at the water.  Chief Mate begins to laugh at me.  Chief Mate informs me: the ship is going backwards.

Apparently, with my supreme lack of talent on the helm, I had steered the bow of the ship directly into the wind.  Nice work, dumbass.  I wish I could say that this were the only time I put a 135-foot brigantine into reverse, but, as it turns out, it happened to me again… three more times.

The Geographies of a Ship, Part III: On Deck

Continuing our tour of the SSV Seamans…

Climb out the ladder from the doghouse and you will find yourself on the quarterdeck of the Robert C. Seamans.  The quarterdeck is a raised deck in the back of the ship, and–between the helm, compasses, and proximity to the doghouse–is essentially the center of the ship’s command.


Pictured above is the quarterdeck, as seen from aloft.  The giant white triangle is the mainstays’l (main-stay-sail).  Below that white rectangle on the deck is the doghouse.  Just aft of the entrance to the doghouse is the helm:  the bane of my sailing existence.  More on that later.


Facing forward on the quarterdeck, you get a view like this:

Moving forward up the port side of the ship is the science deck, where most scientific equipment is deployed.  That big white thing controls a monster coil of wire, which sends equipment down as deep as 3,000 meters.


Continuing to walk forward, you will pass under the topyard and courseyard, where the square sails are set.  Pictured here is Pete, perched on the topyard, while I lay aloft on the port shrouds:


All the way forward is the foredeck:

Those red and white cone things–called “tubas” because of their shape–are for ventilation.  Every hour they get turned so that they face into the wind, bringing much-needed cool breezes down to the living quarters below decks.

The bow was one of my favorite places on the ship. At the risk of calling to mind Titanic: standing at the bow of a ship, you really do feel like you’re flying.   It’s even better out on the bowsprit.  On the bowsprit, there is no deck beneath you.  You’re floating about twenty feet above the water.  During the daytime, you can catch dolphins racing the ship.  At night, if you don’t mind the terrifying feeling of flying through pitch black, you can sometimes see glowing green bioluminescence being churned up as the ship slices through the water.

From the bowsprit, you get another good view of the ship, and all its rigging.  There are 93 pieces of running rigging (we counted once, during a slow dawn watch).  Learning every single line was one of our first–and most important–tasks on the ship.  It was also one of the most difficult.  Take a look at all these lines coiled and hung around the foremast:

…now imagine  me, never having set foot on a sailing vessel before, staring at these coils in utter confusion.  Seriously?  You guys think I need to know what all of those ropes do?  Seriously??

Terrifying.  But eventually we learned every line.  Eventually we learned how to set every sail using those lines.  And voila:


The Geographies of a Ship, Part I: Down Below

Thanks to a few principles of physics, ships are taller than they are wide.  The world on board a ship is a vertically-stacked world, like a layer cake of labyrinths.  Allow me to take you on a tour of the brigantine I called home.  This will be a multi-part post.  We will begin our tour at the very bottom of the ship.

“What is an engine doing on a sailboat?” you ask.  Well, kids, sometimes there’s no wind.  And moreover, there are plenty of things besides a propellor on board that are in need of power.  And so, behold: the engine room.  Farthest aft (back) in the bottom of the ship is the realm of engineers, a three-compartment space.  Largest, hottest, and loudest is the main engine room, which houses an enormous diesel beast, about as tall as I am.  The main engine room is, incidentally, the ideal place to hang laundry on the ship, since it’s about the only place where they’ll dry.  Pictured above is the passageway leading to the machinery space.  Even I have to duck to get through that door.  Visible through that door is the machinery space.  The rectangular thing with multi-colored buttons is the Marine Sanitation Device, fondly called The Poop … you can probably guess what it does.  Of note:  you must turn off The Poop before making any scientific deployments, lest you catch a school of turds in your plankton net.

Farther forward is the friendly village of Dry Stores.  There, you will find more rice, canned goods, pasta, and other sundry edibles than you have probably seen in one place.  Pictured above is the main salon during “provisioning,” a multi-day process during which the ship is packed with enough food to feed 40 people for six months.  I can’t even begin to describe the collection of hot sauces we have on board.

Moving even farther forward is the science hold, the storage space for all things oceanography-related, from buoys to petri dishes.  It smells terrible in the science hold.  There are two more main storage spaces on the ship:  the forepeak and the laz.  The forepeak is at the very front of the ship.  The laz (short for lazarette) is aft, and holds extra sails and enormous ropes, among other things.

Coming soon: The fo’c’sle, Shellback Alley, Sixteenth Street, galley, head, and other exciting locations on the SSV Seamans.