18:42, January 12th

In honor of Inauguration Day, we decided to name an upcoming sampling site OBAMA (Ocean Biology and Antarctic Marine Analysis, or something cheesy like that).

Turns out, one of the scientists on board is friends with Obama’s new science advisor, and sent him an email about OBAMA.  The response was as follows: the President will love this.  Send us more info.

We are all completely dorking out, fretting over what to say in our must-be-perfect one-page memo to the Obama Administration.  Suggestions?

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 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.