Monthly Archives: October 2016

A very full October

Written Oct 20 2016

Dear October,

This is crazy. You’ve only just arrived and now you mean to tell me that you’re leaving so soon?

Honestly, it’ll be hard to say goodbye. You’ve been a month of many firsts. First humpback whale sightings. First sperm whale sightings (a whole pod of them! (if that’s what you call a group of whales?)). A white tip shark sighting. And an evening spent in the shadow of a baby volcanic island that only just rose above sea level in January of 2015. The chance to venture into limestone caves in Tonga and swim in the freshwater found there. Too many beautiful beaches to count, each time walking into the water feels like another cleanse, another chance to brush the grease and grit of daily trials off and to start anew. The first “bit of breeze” us new sailors have experienced—a low pressure system that moved into our cruise track, leaving us with high winds and seas for a full day and a bit. Bus tours around islands in Tonga with breathtaking cliff views of the sea. Food that sustains—like incredible fish tacos made from freshly caught mahimahi and green tea sesame wahoo also caught by the Seamans crew. And music that connects across cultures, especially when an impromptu square dance is called with a bunch of American and Tongan students learning the steps together amidst laughter.

October, you’ve introduced to me to a world I’ve never seen before. The ocean surface possesses so many characteristics. It’s cold and metallic and deep, deep blue at times. But it can also be cobalt and crystalline and flashing, like the gems whose colours try to copy it. It can be still while also quivering with movement. It can be ferocious, frightening, smashing loudly against the hull of the ship. Sometimes I’ve found that I’d forgotten what it was like to view the ocean from land. Even though, until you came around, October, I’d never really viewed the ocean from the middle of it.

October, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about water (this won’t be the least bit surprising to anyone whose seen that sort of stuff I’ve been writing about for the last few years). But on this trip, I’ve realized that you can only ever enter a space of water from the edge. Be it walking, wading, diving, jumping in, the mode of entry is always from the outside inwards. Us humans? We cannot live in the ocean. In a similar way, we are always only ever visitors to water and to places of water, just as we live only temporarily here on earth.

Despite that, October, just as you contain so much despite your brevity, our brief sojourns to the water can be powerful. At the freshwater caves on Tongatapu, there was a beach just a stones throw away. At first, I’d been too scared to join most everyone in cliff jumping in the freshwater caves. Feeling embarrassed about my fear of heights, I sought out solace in the washing of the salt stained waves. It worked. I was calmer. I was braver for the strength of the waves. Eventually I went back to the caves and jumped into the water.

Dispatches from the Deck: October 2nd

Morning watch. I am on deck, completing boat checks, engine checks, and taking weather recordings. The chief mate asks me to relieve another member of my watch at the helm.

“I’m here to relieve you at the helm,” I say, “What are you steering?”

Noah responds, “I’m steering 175°. It’s taking about 3° right rudder to keep her on course.”

I take the helm.

Guiding Seamans is not like driving a car. She’s slower to respond and gets tossed about by waves. Sometimes, the ship swings 10° off course to the right before swinging just as far to the left. Other times I mix up the direction in need to turn the wheel to correct it, sending us way off course before I can fix my mistake.

Eventually we settle into a sort of agreement. I can keep her on course, mostly, sometimes getting knocked off. It is daytime and sunny, and the seas and skies are blue, and the world is round, and we are scudding across the surface of it.

Later I am the lookout.

We are hove to for science. After gybing twice and arranging our sails inefficiently, we are not moving any more than the currents can push us. The bubbles along the boat float slowly. No longer rushing and hissing like a newly opened can of ginger ale like they do when we move at 5 knots. The motion of the ship has changed, making me feel sicker. I am sent to the lookout to stand at the bow of the ship, looking for other vessels and oncoming weather. I am holding onto a metal line on my right. My harness has me clipped into a bar at my feet. My left hand grips  the deck rail, steadying me in a half crouch as the bow pitches upwards and comes crashing down. Sometimes it is enough to pray my face with salt water. It feels like a dramatic cleansing.

Fly fish appear, skim the water, and disappear again. They look like amphibious air planes, their fin wings hard to see in the sun. Their tails are reminiscent of airplane tails, or maybe it’s the other way around. From the bow hangs a line with three fish tails, dried and roughed up from the water. They will hang there until the line breaks and they fall into the sea. It’s a way of honoring the fish we’ve caught, and it’s a good luck thing.

Today I feel lucky. Nearly sun burnt, yes. A little sick, yes. But everything is alive and by light and salt sprayed. I am one spec in a huge ocean.

Dispatches from the Deck: Dawn Watch

October 3rd.

Dawn watch. In my fog of sleep, someone stuck their head into my bunk. “Paige. Paige. It’s Olivia. It’s 0040. You have twenty minutes till watch.” This was my wakeup. These are normal on the ship. You sleep at odd hours. Or your watch starts at painfully early hours. Someone’s job is to make sure you make it to watch on time.

I was groggy. Despite going to sleep just after dinner about six hours previously, it felt like I’d only just shut my eyes. Eventually a pulled myself out of bed, a combination of ducking, crouching and jumping to extricate myself from my oddly shaped bunk. Tonight, I was going to be in the lab, helping to process samples gathered form a deployment earlier in the night.

Unfortunately, lab is a tough place to be in a starless night with rougher seas than I’d yet experienced. Especially when I was still feeling the vestiges of seasickness. Before the end of our six hour shift, nearly all of A watch clung to the side of the boat, sea sick. Me included.

The next day (or more accurately, later than same day, just after several hours of sleep), during our evening watch, our chief scientist asked me if I remembered how to process certain samples, which he had showed us during that cursed dawn watch. I didn’t. Actually, I barely remembered most of the night; all of it swirled up in a fog of pitch black motion.

When we first left the calm of Pago Harbour, I spent several days stumbling around. Without sea legs, most of the students moved with the grace of someone several hours into a Friday night party.

As we hoisted our mains’l, someone called out that there was a pod of dolphins behind the ship. We all turned to look, only to see a grey whale break the surface of the water. American Samoa a green vision behind us.