By Edwin Schiele
October 26, 1998. The cruise will end in less than a week, and we are thinking more and more about life back on land. Things that we normally take for granted now seem fresh and exciting. I cant wait to see a plant (living plants, not the ones I ate at the salad bar). The other day, a weary fly, the first insect I had seen in a month, buzzed onto the deck. The geologists around me did not share my enthusiasm.
Life aboard a research ship is not normal. Its not just about how the rocking of the ship sloshes the water in the shower back and forth and floods the bathroom floor, or how the inescapable drone of the engines, winches, and air circulation system forces us to raise our voices every time we talk. Its about the perception of time.
We simultaneously operate along two timelines. The first timeline is the normal one. The days on the calendar change. The sun rises and sets. We eat meals at the regular times. I do my laundry on Saturdays. Football scores appear on the message board on Sundays. And each day I write a daily flash. Then there is the work timeline, which is not defined by the changing of the days, but by the changing of our watches and the time it takes to map a swath or transit between dredge sites. The boundaries between the days become meaningless.
These two timelines do not mesh. Consider the watch schedule. Most people are now working two four-hour watches per day, so, for example, the people on the 12:00 to 4:00 watch work both in the afternoon and the early morning with eight hours in between. Imagine what that would do to your sleep cycle and your perception of time.
Combine strange hours with little sleep, work that ranges between stress and tedium, and no days off, and you end up with a lot of tired people. But consider the alternative50 bored people confined to a ship for five weeks. Save for occasional glimpses of the volcanoes on the Big Island, the scenery never changes. There are other diversions. The ship has a small library, a lounge filled with videos, a small exercise room with a couple of stationary bicycles, and a ping pong table, but that is not nearly enough to sustain 50 idle people for five weeks. The deck at the bow (steel beach) is the trendy sunbathing locale, but it lacks even the simplest chairs. The rooms (off-white walls, pea-green cabinets, large tables with boxes stowed underneath, and fluorescent lights) wont remind anybody of the Titanic. The ship is large enough that I can find privacy if I need it. I can go out on the deck or retreat to my room to read. But there are few opportunities to seek privacy. Modern conveniences such as e-mail and an internet service that provides news briefs stave off the feeling of being isolated from the rest of the world. Often we have been close enough to shore to listen to the World Series and Monday Night Football.
So far, I have portrayed a grim picture of life on board a research ship. While its true that most of us will be delighted to get back on land, most of us would do it again. The work we do may be tedious at times, but it is fascinating. Nothing can beat watching video of a place that nobody has seen before, or holding a piece of lava that erupted from a volcano 3,000 meters beneath the ocean surface. Everybody on board is united by a common purpose. It is that common purpose that keeps us working, enables us to survive the discomforts, helps us get along with each other. It has also contributed to one of the best learning experiences of my life.