September 30, 1998. Imagine running down the sidewalk dragging a cart that is attached to a ten-foot rope. You make a sudden turn, but the cart does not. Instead it smashes into a tree. You run down a hill, but the cart catches up to you and the rope trips you up.
Now imagine that you are the captain of a ship that is pulling a submersible at the end of a 5,000-meter (three-mile) cable. To maneuver the fish, the officers also must guide the ship with the same care that you would guide a cart filled with priceless chinago slowly, anticipate every change of direction, and make wide, sweeping turns.
Just turning the ship takes incredible patience. At mid-morning, half-way through my watch, we finished mapping the first line. It was time to turn around and work our way back up the ridge. It took two hours to make the turn and position the fish at the start of the next line. For those of us on watch in the cold, dark van, there was nothing to do but sit for two hours until the watch was over.
After lunch I decided to go to where I thought the real action was taking place. So I climbed to the bridge to learn what tricks the officers used to turn the ship and keep it and the fish headed in the right direction. I climbed the last ladder and found the most relaxed spots on the ship. There was plenty of sunlight, sweeping views of the ocean, and plenty of time to chat.
Still, the stakes are high. Second Officer Jake Sowers was on watch. He explained that because the ship must move so slowly, the winds and the currents could push the ship off course. Worse yet, they could push the cable into the propellers at the back of the boat. It would be like jamming a stick in a blender. Everything would break.
After discussing the desired course and speed with the navigator in the control van, the officers on the bridge must determine the safest, most efficient route to take. First they decide which direction to point the ship. This is called the heading. But the ship does not necessarily move in the direction it is pointing. Depending on the direction and strength of the wind in the current, the officers may decide to guide the ship at an angle or even sideways. This maneuver is called "crabbing." By choosing the right heading, the officers reduce the amount of work the engines must exert.
The officer on the bridge then enters the heading, destination, and desired speed into the computer. From then on, the computer, not the officer, keeps the ship on course.
By the time I reached the bridge, the ship had completed its turn and was inching its way down the second line at a blistering one knot. Because the computer was guiding the ship, Jake had plenty of time to relax. He made sure computers and engines were running smoothly, checked the weather forecast, and scanned the radar and the horizon for other ships.
There is even time for a friendly game of "Name that TV Western Theme Song." Jake only guessed four of them correctly, so he will have to relieve the captain when the captain does his laundry.