Musings de la Mer
24 August, 2010
By Michael Dessner
I had originally intended to discuss transits but this one kind of took on a life of its own, so…it is what it is
The image that probably comes to the minds of most people when they think about an ocean journey is probably something very close to what the film Titanic portrayed as the level of service delivered to the upper crust characters. Crystal chandeliers hanging in grand staircases, teak decks littered with lounge chairs where liveried staff ply passengers with big boat drinks complete with umbrellas and fresh slices of fruit. To be certain there are hundreds of thousands of people alive today who have probably enjoyed something relatively close to that level of service on cruise ships and luxury yachts of which there seem to be more and more each passing year. That impression is entertaining and if you are lucky enough to actually have enjoyed it more power to you, but it has nothing at all to do with the reality that the vast majority of those who work on the ocean generally experience. The thousands of ships that haul goods, fish and do ocean research present a much different experience to those of us who do this kind of thing for a living. These vessels are not luxurious in any sense; they are, in a word, workboats.
A workboat is a thing of steel, engineering and marine architecture that is designed for one thing, to accomplish a job. Whether it be an oil rig, container ship, tanker, fishing boat or naval vessel, they all have a job to do, a primary task over which all other considerations are taken into account. They can be comfortable but they are almost never luxurious. They can have lots of space but seldom is that space dedicated to your personal use. They can be equipped with the most modern equipment and electronics but those are often housed in a hull that is running a bit of rust down the side and many are often coated with layer upon layer of paint to combat the oxidation that can eventually destroy even the most solid steels. They have a job to do and most certainly that job is not to tuck you into bed at night with a hug after milk and cookies. Often they are cold, smelly, dirty, tight spaces in which too much gets done in too little space and where even the mildest of poor attitudes can build and steamroll morale into the ground (so to speak). Workboat, the name says it all
Now don’t get me wrong, the Jean Charcot is no slave galley and it is not the kind of ship that would have you wishing you were safely back in your bed on the beach, but it is most definitely a workboat. She is 46 years old and everywhere you go on deck you can see the remnants of equipment that had been welded down then cut off when the next set of gear came aboard. She’s French constructed, flagged out of the UK and, as I mentioned yesterday, crewed by an international team of seasoned sea going personnel. She is built to ply the world’s oceans and deliver people to places off beaten paths, just as she will do for us during our visit to Titanic. As workboats go she is well appointed, the galley is spacious, she has a workout room and a nice lounge with gaming console and TV for movie watching. There are plenty of berths aboard, laundry facilities, and each deck has lavatories that serve the surrounding rooms. While the quarters can be a bit cramped they are not unusually or unduly so. I am one of the lucky few to have my own stateroom; it consists of a bunk with a reading light overhead and a shelf above the lower portion, a small desk with cupboard, a closet, one chair and a sink (also lit) with a small bench seat running from the sink to the bunk. The floor space inside all of that is exactly 24 square feet. I haven’t done much looking around the other rooms so I cannot speak for the conditions the rest of my team is living with but I would be highly surprised if they have much more in the way of personal space. The corridors would seem tight to someone not used to traveling on workboats and a trip up the central stairs would not be mistaken for a glide down the staircase featured in Jim Cameron’s Titanic; ours also acts as a central trunk for wiring and so one wall is basically bundled with cables running through the center of the ship. She seems to have a kindly ride through the water (at least so far, as our weather has been pleasant) and the aft work deck is sufficiently high enough from the waterline so as to be dry, a nice thing if you have to spend much time out there. Nothing can suck the fun out of your day as a couple of hours in wet boots because you weren’t looking when a wave washed over the top of your boots.
But no matter what kind of ship you happen to go to sea aboard there are some commonalities of experience that all seagoers share once away from shore. I won’t go into the motion of the ocean, I assume that everybody understands that ships move around quite a bit which can have a most uncomfortable side effect of initiating seasickness; rather I’d like to look at some of the positives.
One of the first things you notice is the Deep Blue and there is really nothing like seeing this for the first time in your life. When you’re well away from land and get into some real water the hue of the ocean takes on a deep majestic blue; it’s striking and unforgettable. I’m sure there are many who think the color of life is green but do not count me among them; the color of the ocean, that deep blue, to me that is the true color of life. People forget that we live on a water planet, a vagary of perception I suppose, the egocentrism of the land dweller. Nothing wrong with it, we know what we learn and the smallest minority of humanity spends time at sea, but a water planet she is and this all encompassing medium affects us all more than we know or can truly even understand. The oceans are the most important part of our biosphere and we know so little about them it should be shameful to us as a species. We know more about the dead rock that orbits our planet that we do that which covers well over half of its surface. And perhaps that is why this deep azure hue speaks so to me. Perhaps it is a genetic memory, some byproduct of evolution and the millions of years since we first crawled from it to gasp in the atmosphere and begin our domination of the other 3/10ths of the planets surface. I wax romantic but I dare you to deny the power of it once you’ve seen it. It can, and will, change the way you perceive everything else you know.
Another aspect of being at deep sea that is powerful to me is how it consolidates your day to day life, forces you to live in the moment, to “live deliberately” as Thoreau put it. Certainly the technology exists now for us to be in even the deepest reaches of the oceans and still access satellites, watch TV, tap away on our I-phones and Tweet to our hearts content, but few people can afford such services and I, for one, am glad for it. Yes, aboard the Jean Charcot we have a satellite connection but there is no TV coming aboard and 40 some people sharing the same internet connection tends to slow things down to the performance of a dial up modem; only the most ardent Facebookers have the patience for that these days. So you unplug, read a book, actually pay attention to what you are doing, where you are and who you are with. When I come to sea I turn off my blackberry, empty the money from my pockets, put my billfold in a drawer and don’t think of them until I can see the beach. I carry a flashlight, notepad, pen, Leatherman and a knife. I have no keys, don’t think about the meter in front of my car, I won’t be checking my mail for a few weeks, if I forget to shave or put on mismatching socks no one is going to care. Somebody else cooks for me, I don’t shop, worry about traffic or think too much about the news. My universe becomes the ship and the ocean, wind, wave and sky. You don’t bump into old girlfriends or wonder if that was a movie star you saw out of the corner of your eye. You see the clouds, watch the waves, look for whales and dolphins and actually interact with those people who are seeing it with you. Conversations slow down, patience comes to the fore and deliberateness is a virtue, indeed an asset to your survival. There’s no speed, everything is going past at around 10 miles an hour. Actually YOU are the one going past at ten miles an hour, and accompanying you is everything you are going to have at your disposal until you get back home. There’s no running to the store to pick up anything at all. If you don’t have it then you either don’t need it or you better damn well figure out a workaround; and at sea you do, your inventiveness needs to adapt to the fact that if you can’t cobble together a solution then you better give it up. Sure you can watch a movie or read a book but only if you brought them or can borrow them from your neighbor. Our reality changes, it is now a couple hundred feet of steel and everything in it surrounded by nothing but nature as far as the eye can see. Like a desert, only, you know, a lot more wet with even fewer plants. Maybe it sounds restrictive, limited, but I find it incredibly liberating. I love it.
Everybody deals with the ocean there own way I guess. Some people seem to become more energized and others seem subdued by it but there is one thing we all share, a sense of purpose. By definition a workboat is dedicated to a task or sets of tasks and that becomes your raison d’être, at least for the duration of the cruise. We, on this ship, are all in essence risking our lives to go somewhere and investigate a site where many, many others lost theirs, and we are doing it because we want to participate in a new understanding of something, because we want to share that understanding with you. It’s valid and deep (no pun intended), what we will do out here, it’s meaningful in a way that few things can be. Often when people talk about a shared sense of meaning they are referring to a negative, an adversity, of overcoming hardships together. This is often referred to when discussing war, which in a way saddens me. If only more people could participate in something that brings a sense of comradeship and brotherhood through increasing their knowledge, by bettering their sense of understanding of themselves and their subject, improving themselves by increasing their comprehension about something by overcoming obstacles that are not martial in nature but scientific. I’m not sure how I got here but I guess it does lend itself to my point. Time I spend at sea helps me focus, it seems to clear away the dross of everyday life and shine the light of introspection on the truly important. It brings me something I think we all could use more of in the day and age: clarity.
OK, I think that’s a good place to wrap this up. I’m going to take a walk around and try and grab some candid shots of folks attending to their tasks and some of the areas on the ship, give you an idea of life aboard.