RV Wecoma – On the route to becoming a shellback

R/V Wecoma,

Tropic Heat 87

On the route to becoming a shellback

April 14th, 1987 – I’m writing from a small room down below decks of the Research Vessel the Wecoma Room 13, which on the door says, “(2) scientists.” My berth is the upper bunk; the lower bunk belongs to an oceanographer from Australia. He happens to be on watch now, so for the next few hours I have the rare luxury of some private time. There are 27 people aboard this 180 foot ship, and it is crowded: every possible bit of space contains something, and since this is a research vessel and not a tour boat, research equipment has precedence over people, even, “scientists.”

The ship right now is rolling back and forth. I was seasick – without actually throwing up – for the first 2 days, but now I’m perfectly fine. Being seasick is miserable. Torturous. Everything begins to move and shift. Nothing stays solid. The swell – waves out here in the deep ocean – were larger for the first two days than they are now. Now, today, there is only a small, four-foot swell that is rocking the boat and ruining my handwriting.

I have been on the ship for a week now. I work each day twice – from 4 am to 8 am and then again from 4 PM to 8 PM. What I mostly do is simple: I sit for two hours at a computer monitor and control an instrument that is towed behind the ship, then I switch off with my watch partner and go outside, to the stern of the ship and operate the winch that raises and lowers the same instrument. The instrument is a torpedo-shaped probe that has electronic sensors that tell the computer the water temperature, salinity, conductivity, depth, and, most importantly, the direction of the water’s current. This probe is lowered and raised continually, over and over and over.

Everything that everyone on board does – the real work – is simple and mindless, as it should be. The experiments being conducted are so sophisticated (there are about 20 mini computers on board this floating laboratory) that human intervention and thought has been made minimal. All we have to do is eat, sleep, and occasionally push buttons or pull levers or lift heavy objects…. except when things go wrong.

So far, in the past week, our only big troubles have been with sharks. The sensors on the raising and lowering probes are delicate, and the probes – long, silvery tubes with fins – look like fish. These hot waters, the water temperature is in the 90′s, are full of sharks. The sharks keep trying to eat the sensors, and the sensors keep getting bent and ruined. When I sit at the computer monitor for 2 hours at a time, what I do is look at the probe’s signals to make sure that a shark hasn’t been chomping on it.

The sharks also follow the boat, swimming behind in the wake. They are ugly things – white tipped or white finned, that is what someone said their name is – about six feet long with small eyes, a long nose and a nasty set of teeth. Falling overboard here would be bad. I imagine that no matter how fast the boat could stop, the sharks would be faster.

But it is amazing out here. The water is clear but looks blue like myrtle flowers. We are heading due east, exactly on the equator, since most of the experiments being done are to collect information about the mixing currents at the equator. This morning, while I was outside at 7:30, the sun was rising in front of the boat while the full moon was setting behind us and the three – sun, boat and moon – were in a perfect line.

I spent 3 days in Tahiti waiting for the boat to leave, but his is better. At night, especially, there is a feeling of how isolated we are here. Going to the top deck, out of the glare from the ship’s lights, and looking in every direction, there is nothing. Nothing at all except a flat horizon and thousands of stars above.

Where we are is not in, nor even close, to any shipping lanes. In a week, no other boat has come close to us, no other boat has been seen. We are alone here.

So this is it: a kitchen, where the ship’s cook prepares 3 huge, delicious meals for all 27 of us each day. A lounge with bean-bags to flop on and with books – mostly cheap paper-backs and a sprinkling of better ones – and a VCR machine and a lot of junky movies. A main work-room stuffed with computers and terminals and instruments. The outer decks where you can sit and stare out at absolute loneliness. And this little, windowless room, which should not be called a room but a ‘cabin.’ Everything on the ship has a name that is correct and every time I name something it is usually wrong: a wall is a bulkhead, the back of the boat is the stern. The toilet is the head.

Mostly, that is it, but of course there’s lots more: engine room, bridge, wet labs, showers, crane room, etc. etc. but I go back and forth between the lounge, the decks, the workroom and this place, ‘room 13 (2) Scientists.’

This would quickly become claustrophobic unless you pace yourself and enjoy each, separate ship location. I enjoy all of it, this is my sort of place. Everywhere I look there is something odd and curious. Machines and gadgets all over but nothing is junk. Things out here, where there can be sudden and violent movement and salt and wet getting everywhere, are built solid and sealed tight. Things at sea, at least on this good ship, have to work. Everything that can moved is tied down or has good brass latches to be tied down by, and everything fits well. Like this desk I am writing from: a beauty which folds up into the wall when not being used, and is constructed out of some sort of exotic hardwood. Harder than oak, but more mysterious, the grain swirls and looks tropical.

And the people… it is a good mixture. There are 13 scientific people and 14 permanent crew members.

These scientific crew are either Ph.D. types or engineer types (I’m one of the later), but more adventurous than the sorts that I have spent years with in labs and classrooms. These people are here after spending a lot of time preparing their experiments, and now, with data actually being collected at the equator, they are happy and relaxed, something that people in labs rarely are.

The permanent crew members, without exception, are retired Navy men, each with at least 20 years experience at sea. An oceanographic vessel is a coveted ship to work on, and these permanent crew are, I’ve been told, the best of sailors. They are rough and heavy, and they like to poke fun at the scientists. These sailors constantly see what they can get away with, how far they can go. Each crew member has at least one tattoo clearly visible – in the heat outside most don’t wear shirts – and they pride themselves in their offensive self-imaging as world-wandering, beer-drinking, whoring, son-of-a-bitches – but they aren’t really. They jibe us and are insulting only in a game: depending on how each of us takes it makes for defining the scientist-crew relation.

I have been insulted a bit, but seemed to have passed some kind of test. Maybe it was from taking the small, verbal pokes with laughter, and maybe because I took my turn giving insults back, and giving them back with the best sort of interest: giving back stories and anecdotes. A sailor, with a large belly, who said to me, “you must be one of those hippies with that long hair,” I replied to, “I sure am, and you must be the fat man at the circus with that belly.” He paused, trying to decide how to dislike me, but I kept going, saying, “you ever seen those guys? I went to this circus when I was a kid, and they had this guy who acted the part of the fat-man, and then latter came out as the strong-man. He could hold a woman on each hand, even with his arms outstretched. Two trapeze girls, one dressed in red, the other in black.” And before he could say anything else, I asked, “so, those tattoos, does each have a story?” He laughed, and answered, “boy, do they,” and we’ve been friends ever since. Before I started writing these notes I was in the galley eating lunch and swapping stories with three crew members. Stories about where tattoos came from, about lost girl friends, broken down cars and the mountains in Montana. In mid story telling time the cook came over and gave us all extra scoops of ice cream. Ice cream on the equator at sea is acceptance.

It’s 2pm now, 14:00 on the clock. The sun is straight overhead, but down here in this air-conditioned space I don’t feel how hot it is. I’m sipping a glass of ice water, water that is distilled daily from sea water, and wondering what I’ll do to fill the coming two hours before my watch. It’s about 100 degrees outside with a good bit of humidity, so it might be wise to just stay sitting here, in this little room, sipping ice water and writing notes. This is the life.

Copyright 1987 by Steve Saroff