The Geographies of a Ship, Part II: Living Below Decks

Two-and-a-half feet wide.  Questionably six feet long.  Dark and smelly.  Welcome to my bunk.

We continue our tour of the SSV Seamans with an anecdote of claustrophobia.  All of your belongings must sleep with you in your bunk, making for a fun game of Human Tetris any time you’re hoping for a nap.  Most of my time asleep was spent spooning with my large hiking backpack, while also trying desperately to wedge my feet in between a pile of books and a pile of dirty laundry.

Bunks are clustered throughout the ship, arranged in “neighborhoods” with names like Sixteenth Street, Sleepy Hollow, Shellback Alley, and the fo’c’sle.  I lived in Shellback Alley, which was just foreward of midships.  The fo’c’sle, historically, was the shittiest place to live on a ship, as it was usually the most crowded, and packed with the most racial tension.  These days, it’s still a pretty shitty place to sleep, since the effects of seasickness are amplified by the bouncing bow.

In the middle of the ship are the galley and salon, where food is made and eaten, respectively, six times a day.  The rocking motion of a ship makes cooking and eating complicated.  You must be very careful with knives.  You must be just as careful with forks (the chief engineer regaled us with the tale of Captain Jeremy Law, who once had the tines of a mate’s fork accidentally buried in his back when the ship took a roll).

In the salon, all the tables are gimbaled.  A gimbaled table is weighted at the bottom and is free to pivot, so that it stays perfectly horizontal even as the ship rocks back and forth.  The boat is essentially rotating around the tables.  Sometimes, in heavy seas, our plates would be practically at our shoulders as the boat rocked one way, and then in our laps as it rocked the other way.

Depending how much the ship is rocking, you can often see the ocean sloshing up against the glass.  If the ship takes a big roll, you can see underwater, as if through a giant pair of goggles.

Also below deck are the heads, or bathrooms.  Heads got their name from the headrig, a net-like construction underneath the bowsprit (pictured below) at the bow of a ship.  It was through the holes in the headrig that sailors of old did their business.


There is not much else to note about the heads except that our toilets were marine toilets, and were thus prone to clogging by anything from particularly firm turds to the notorious ladies’ “cotton torpedo.”  To our chief engineer and assistant engineer: on behalf of my shipmates, I offer my sincerest, sincerest apologies…

Farthest back below decks is the aft cabin, where the captain and chief scientist sleep.

Bridging the gap between on deck and below decks is the dog house, the ships hub of navigation.  The nautical almanacs, sextants, charts, radar, and radio all live in the dog house.  Pictured below is a view of the dog house at night.  All the lights are red, since red light pollutes your vision the least.  Night vision is crucial, since there are no white lights on deck.