10 Nov 2011
After a long flight from Honolulu, Hawaii to Phuket, Thailand with a brief layover in Seoul, Korea, I arrived at midnight in the deep tropics – fully jet lagged. I waited a couple hours at the airport to meet Liz, my fellow radar scientist from Colorado State University, before getting shuttled to the Radisson Blu Panwa. The luxury hotel along the beach (reimbursable, of course) was a great way to spend the last few days on land before braving the elements on the high seas. After a day of training aboard the R/V Roger Revelle that was docked at the port, Liz and I took advantage of our final days of freedom by snorkeling, taking a tour of the beautiful Phi Phi Islands by speedboat, eating the best Indian and Thai food known to man, petting elephants, and going to the “Big Buddha” monastery in Phuket. Oh yeah, and I ordered fresh coconut drink whenever I had the opportunity… only 70 Baht for the green, natural goodness from a tropical tree!
On Sunday morning at 1000, Liz and I were shuttled to the port to board the R/V Revelle, our new home for the next 5 weeks. As I walked up the gangway, lugging my Marine Corps sea bag that was given to me by my friend in the Marines who knew about the intricacies of life at sea, the reality of the epic adventure that I was about to begin slowly sank in. I turned in my passport to the 3rd Mate who met me on deck, and I proceeded to a scavenger hunt to find my room – or “berth” as they call it in ship lingo. I soon found out that life on a ship involves learning a new set of vocabulary: “muster” instead of “meet,” “gangway” instead of “ramp,” “mess hall” instead of “dining room,” “chow” instead of “food,” and “scullery” instead of “kitchen sink.”
At 1500 that Sunday afternoon, the bow and stern lines were released, and one long horn blasts followed by three shorter ones announced our departure as we pulled away from shore. Anchors aweigh!
Life on the high seas has been an adventure! I quickly learned to appreciate the finer things in life, like being able to walk down a hallway without running into the walls… or being able to get into and out of bed without having to crawl through only a few inches of space between the bunk and the ceiling. The constant swaying and rocking of the ship as it rides the ocean swells definitely poses some challenges, and I am currently typing this while attempting now to fall off my chair. The seemingly synchronized drunkenness of all the scientists and crew onboard as they try to stay balanced while going about their duties is rather amusing. Doors have to be latched open or closed and locked, to prevent any fingers from getting smashed. Laptops, chairs, and other furniture items have to be bolted and secured. A ping pong table is set up in the main science lab, which makes for some interesting games when the ball decides to have a life of its own in mid-air! Thankfully, I grew my “sea legs” rather quickly and have not suffered any sea sickness. Others have not been quite so fortunate.
With the exception of the chief scientist and the members of the crew who are higher up on the totem pole, most of us live in shared bunks. There are limited laundry facilities on board, and fresh water comes from the desalinators on the ship. “Navy showers” are required to conserve water, and we have to incinerate any non-biodegradable trash. Internet access is extremely limited, and external websites are blocked to save bandwidth. Only an e-mail client works on my laptop, so my only connection with the outside world is through e-mail on a spotty internet connection. If there are any notable news items about the status of the world at large… e-mail me!! Food, thankfully, is remarkably good. We have an excellent pair of chefs onboard, and how they can whip up some great meals while on the fly is amazing to me. There is plenty of variety, including fresh tropical fruits during breakfast.
Although the team of scientists are responsible for their own data collection tasks, I have made an effort to learn about their instruments and unique backgrounds. Living in close quarters with people from all over the country provides plenty of entertainment! I have also gotten to know some members of the crew, all of whom have awesome personalities! A camaraderie similar to that of soldiers or firefighters battling the elements is characteristic of the crew. It is apparent that they have “roughed it” together, and they each understand their responsibilities for themselves and each other. As Matt, the 3rd Mate, said to me on day 1, “communication is key while at sea!” Every person understands his job and responsibilities, and a failure of one person is a failure for the entire group. The Captain and the Chief Engineer (or “Chief,” for short) act like best friends, and they have their designated spots in the mess hall. They eat together and solve problems together. And you are never… NEVER… allowed to take their favorite seats while eating. They are both very friendly, but also make it known when they need time to themselves to take care of their duties as the leaders of this ship. The Captain has the final say in all matters.
As radar scientist, I am in charge of not only the scientific tasks of collecting data on storm structure within 300 km of the ship, but also alerting the bridge to any approaching storms or significant wind shifts while on station. So far, the ship has been in transit to our undisclosed location in the Indian Ocean, so the science team – particularly the oceanographers – has not started full operations. I’ve spent time on the bridge with the Chief Mate and the 3rd Mate, who explained the intricacies of their job standing watch in command of the ship. They work 4 hours on, 8 hours off, 4 hours on, 8 hours off each day. During their off hours, they have other duties around the ship, such as director of operations (Chief Mate), navigation (2nd Mate), and firefighting/safety equipment maintenance (3rd Mate). Safety is a big concern, since being several days away from medical attention inflates the severity of any incident that may occur. At night, we need to get permission from the bridge in order to turn on any white lights on the deck. All operations at night must use red lights so that the person driving the ship can maintain situational awareness of any ships on the horizon that may be dark. Pirates are a huge concern out here, given certain incidents and close-calls in the past. We performed several drills that involved donning gumby suits and simulating man-overboard and abandon-ship procedures with the life rafts. Pirate drills will be performed next week. In case anything happens, a black box records all conversations in the bridge for up to 24 hours.
I was given the go-ahead from the 2nd Mate to start radar operations about 33 hours into the trip when we entered international waters. Since then, I’ve been assigned to work the midnight shift, serving from 1800 to 0600 local time (1200 UTC to 0000 UTC). I am still physically adjusting to these strange hours, so I have been getting pretty tired halfway through my shifts around midnight! The night shift is of course quieter, but there are a handful of other young scientists working similar hours who drop in to visit and break the monotony of my radar scans. I helped Tim, an NCAR technician, launch weather balloons at 1800 UTC the last two nights… my first-ever weather balloon launches!
Overall, I am really enjoying life at sea! Getting used to it has been an adventure in itself, and although I don’t have much free time outside of working (setting radar scans every 10 minutes for 12 hours straight), sleeping, and eating, I’m looking forward to getting to know more of the other scientists and crew members as we continue underway. The sunsets out here are awesome, and seeing the wide expanse of ocean passing under us from the deck or the bridge is such a surreal experience!
To read my daily shift change summaries, click on any of the time links under “TOGA operations summary” here: