A Race to the Deepest Point on Earth

The media is buzzing today with news of James Cameron’s upcoming solo journey into the Challenger Deep.  At 35,768 ft (more than 6.7 miles!) below the surface of the Pacific Ocean, it’s the deepest spot on Earth.  He broke a solo depth record yesterday during a test dive.

Jacques Piccard and Navy Lieutenant Don Walsh, in the Bathyscaphe Trieste, were the first and last to journey into the trench.  That was in 1960!  Since then only two robotic missions have made it.  We’ve sent humans to the Moon more often and more recently than we have to the Challenger Deep.

Cameron, however, is not the only one with a bid for the Deep.  A handful of private endeavors have built or commissioned submersibles in the last couple years. Among them is Richard Branson, the billionaire papa of Virgin Records (and Virgin Mobile, and Virgin Airways, to name a few), whose goal is to dive into the deepest point in each of Earth’s five oceans this year – including, of course, the Challenger Deep in the Pacific.

We have perhaps arrived at a new age of exploration, in which Private Company 1 and Private Company 2 race each other to distant frontiers.  Whether you think it a noble motive or not… if a movie mogul and Branson want to spur each other towards the first live video feed from the darkest pit of the sea?  I say bring it on, y’all!  Scientific discoveries and incredible technological advancements often go hand in hand with competitive exploration.

Read more from the New York Times here.

Ice in sight

We just crossed over 60 degrees South latitude, and are seeing ice for the first time!  I don’t care how many times I come down here… sea ice never gets boring.  It’s hypnotic, watching it rise and fall with the waves, listening to it scrape and slush against the ship’s hull.  For now it’s just brash ice – the remaining chunks of broken-up pack ice and crumbled icebergs – but by this time tomorrow we’ll be well into berg territory.  The weather right now:  air is just above freezing, the water is just below freezing, and there’s so much fog I can barely see the stern of the ship when I’m standing on deck.

Battling the Boobies


Our ship must appear, to some birds, like the only truck stop along an ocean highway stretching for hundreds of empty miles in any direction.  Throughout our voyage, a strange assortment of birds—from sparrows to owls—found their way to the SSV Seamans.

Most of our avian guests paused to rest for just a few hours before heading on their way.  Others stayed for days at a time.  One such bird was a baby egret we found cowering in the scuppers.  We named him Henry.  Though he was clearly starving, we were forbidden by the ship’s authority to feed him, which of course only made us love him more.  A few of us formed an underground coalition to sneak Henry scraps of fish.

Henry looks longingly through a porthole

Chapter I, in which the enemy arrives

Two weeks after Henry presumably took off for home, a plague of nearly fifty boobies set upon the ship.  While Henry was a loveable bird eliciting much sympathy, the boobies were quite the opposite.  They established their stronghold high in the ship’s rigging.  Singing out with cacophonous gurgles and squawks, the boobies began to launch a barrage of fecal missiles.

Boobies on the courseyard

Chapter II, in which I become a casualty of warfare

We did what we could to stand our ground.  Late one evening, just after midnight, I was on bow watch.  I was alone.  I was harnessed to the bow of the ship, and had nowhere to run. I was thus was acutely aware of the boobies crowing overhead.  Listening to the little splats landing on deck behind me, I was beginning to think that putting on my foul weather gear might not be a bad idea.  All of a sudden, I saw a falling guano-bomb out of the corner of my eye.  With lightning-fast reflexes, I managed to lean to the side just in time to avoid being pooped upon.

This must have been exactly what the boobies wanted me to do.  Yes!  Yes!  She’s leaning this way now … wait for it, wait for it … fire away! And as I leaned, a second booby released a massive shit.  I saw it coming, but was too far off-balance.  There was nothing I could do.  It was…

(should I say it?)

…it was a booby trap.

Chapter III, in which we launch our counteroffensive

Days passed.  We were forced to retreat.  The foredeck was plastered in bird droppings despite our daily deck washes, and the ship reeked.  It was time to do something. Viva la resistance!  Our first method of attack was potato gun, a sizeable air rifle fashioned by the ship’s engineers from an old bilge pipe, capable of shooting chunks of potatoes and small carrots.  High-speed vegetable proved to be difficult ammunition, but finally we hit a booby. Cheers erupted from the onlookers below as brown feathers were sent flying from the topyard, but the example of one unfortunate booby was apparently not enough to ward off its cronies.

Adam fires the potato gun

Chapter IV, featuring a giant slingshot

While one contingent of our crew stayed in the rigging with the potato gun, another team attacked the boobies from on top of the doghouse.  This time the weapon of choice was an enormous slingshot.  Created from surgical tubing and a large plastic cup, the slingshot required three men to operate.  We had a few more successes launching cabbages, apples, and potatoes, but this still was not enough.  The boobies had gained a lamentable sense of impudence and fearlessness.

loading the slingshot

Chapter V, in which we get desperate

The battle raged on like this for several more days.  Finally it was decided that serious weaponry should be employed.  Our solution: fire hose.  Up into the rigging went Dave, the chief engineer.  Up into the rigging went the fire hose.  And up into the rigging spewed a six-million-pounds-per-square-inch torrent of seawater.  Dave valiantly faced many gooey white counterattacks as he sprayed down every last cursed booby.  Soon, they were all confusedly flying around behind the boat.  Back on deck, we commenced our victory celebrations, and considered erecting a small commemorative arch on the quarterdeck.

Dave with the fire hose


The next day, the boobies had returned, no doubt with vengeance in their tiny, evil hearts and excremental ammunition in their tiny, evil intestines.  We were shocked.  We were crushed.  We had been soundly defeated by boobies.

the boobies return

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 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.