By Edwin Schiele
October 27, 1998. The dredging and wax coring continues. Last night, we dragged the dredge up the side of a cone and part way down into the crater. Then, just as a motorcycle stuntman vaults over a swimming pool filled with ravenous great white sharks, the dredge flew over the fiery cauldron and made a perfect landing on the far rim. Im exaggerating of course. The cauldron has not been fiery for quite some time.
Our watch time alternates between physical exertion (hoisting the dredge and wax core, lugging giant rocks into the lab), concentration (logging the navigation information, sorting rocks, picking glass chips from wax), and idleness (waiting as we transit to the next wax core or dredge site, waiting for the wax core or dredge to come up).
The part of the action we dont see while we are on watch takes place up on the bridge. While the dredge is in the water, Kevin Johnson or Jennifer Reynolds talk over the phone or over the squawk box to the officer and winch operator on the bridge about the speed and heading of the ship and the position of the dredge. This afternoon, I decided to climb up there to see the dredging from the officers perspective.
I climbed the last ladder just as the ship reached the starting point of the next dredge. Tim Hill stood at the winch control. Second Officer Jake Sowers sprang back and forth between the telephone, squawk box, and control board. Captain Glenn Gomes wandered in and out to check on things and offer the occasional wry remark. The mood was jovial as always.
The ship has no giant steering wheel to turn or levers to pull. There are only buttons on a computer keyboard to press. Still Jake, who owns a horse ranch in the mountains of Washington state, readied himself in front of the control panel, knees slightly bent, feet spread apart, as if he was about to tackle one of his foals. He checked the ship's bearing with respect to the wind direction and current (see daily flash #5), punched 0.5 knots onto the computer, pressed another key, and the ship started to pull the dredge. Jake flashed a big smile.
As a boy, Jake frequently ran away from home, hoping to go to sea and explore foreign lands. He joined the navy as soon as he could and became a quarter master on the navigation team. He next joined the merchant marine. Back then, there was a large American merchant group, so there was plenty of work. It used to take weeks to load and unload each ship, giving Jake plenty of opportunity to explore harbor cities all over the world. Today, the merchant marine has dwindled away. Most cargo ships sail under foreign flags. It now takes several hours to unload and load a ship, so there is only time to explore a few blocks of each port city.
Jake says that today, the oceanographic ships are the only game in town. He became an officer on the R/V Thomas G. Thompson over seven years ago. The pay may be less, but he says that the work is far more interesting than hauling grain. "Its a better feeling. I feel like Im contributing more." Jake spends six months of each year on the ship six months on his ranch. After many years at sea, the romance of going to sea that tugged at him as a kid has faded. He looks forward to when he can spend more time with his wife and horses. Still, he is happy with his career choice.
"I can go on shore and never have regrets. I have seen what I want to see, I know whats on the other side of the hill. And Im glad I did all those things."