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The JCR in Reykjavik Harbor

Dispatch 1: It Begins

28th July 2012

It’s 1500 on Friday the 27th of July, a beautiful, cool, and cloudless afternoon in Reykjavik, Iceland.  The ship’s crew and officers, the scientists, technicians and their specialized equipment—all are aboard now, and the James Clark Ross is ready for sea. The harbor pilot has joined the Captain and Second Mate on the bridge. 

“Take in the spring lines,” Captain Chapman orders by radio, “And single up the stern line.”  We’re backing dead slow as the last line comes aboard, and, clear of the wharf, the Captain eases her stern to starboard—tourists are waving goodbye from the wharf—then forward between the inner harbor jetties.  “Secure the starboard anchor,” says the Captain.

“Starboard anchor secure,” comes the reply a few minutes later from the bow.

“Secure the port anchor.”

“Port anchor, aye.” 

At eleven knots on a heading of 294 degrees, we pass the mid-channel buoy away to starboard.  Now we feel the gentle open-water swell beneath our feet.  

It’s not coincidental that some of the earliest and greatest stories, from The Odyssey onward, are sea stories.  Voyages have structure, natural beginnings, middles and ends.  So let this, that first sense of the ocean’s roll, signal the beginning of our voyage.

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Dispatch 2: Imagine

30th July 2012

Looking Aft

It’s thick o’ fog this morning.  With its perpetually cold water and warmer air, the Arctic is famous for profuse fog.  Sheets of it, like soft rain, are wafting across the decks in the light breeze.  Peer into the murk for a time and you begin to see things, a whale languidly rolling, that black steel bow on a collision course, the Flying Dutchman.  Fog anxiety must have stripped years from the lives of Arctic mariners in the centuries before radar.  But in a way the relationship between mariners and fog is quite like that between oceanographers and oceans.  Geologists, botanists and biologists, even astronomers can, if with magnification, see their subjects, but not oceanographers.  They can see the surface, but that’s as nothing.  The average depth of the North Atlantic is 12,000 feet, and there’s a lot going on down there essential to the science.  No, oceanography requires imagination to see that which cannot be seen.

To the landsman, the beach-goer, those Melville named “water gazers,” the ocean seems an undifferentiated pool of water sloshing between continents.  A tiny portion of the ocean’s motion—waves and tides—is visible from land, but to apprehend ocean motion from the oceanographer’s perspective, we need to cast our imagination out across vast distances in three dimensions.  But we need to grasp two principles fundamental to oceanography in order to understand the purpose and trajectory of this or any other oceanographic cruise, indeed to understand the ocean itself.

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Dispatch 3: Life Aboard

31st July 2012

The pioneering British oceanographer John Swallow remarked that a research cruise should be no less than a month in duration.  Only then, he said, does one shed the routines and concerns of shoreside life and fully adjust to life at sea.  He of course was speaking of the science staff, who come and go, not the professional seamen who remain aboard much longer and on whom, a priori, the science depends; they might see shipboard life in a different context.  This crew, the entire complement, has not only been immensely helpful, but warmly welcoming.

Mirjam Glessmer and Carolina Nobre enjoy the lounge

I love life aboard research vessels, particularly in the Arctic.  I enjoy every aspect, the rational division of responsibility, the esoteric language of the science and the sea, the practiced professional competence of the scientists, technicians, and mariners, the creative self-sufficiency to make things work and to fix them when they don’t.  It’s a pleasure to watch.  And then there is the social component, the sprawling conversations after dinner in the lounge, for heaven’s sake.  The quarters are close, and everyone’s on their best congenial behavior, as they must be.  Those who can’t be have probably been asked to find another line of work, though I’ve never met anyone at sea I wasn’t proud to call shipmate.  Plus, this is a truly international group, Icelandic, Dutch, Norwegian, German, and American, wide-ranging in age and life experiences.  And then there are the British officers and crew, who, if accents were the criteria, would be from about six different countries.  Only now, three days into the cruise, can I understand (most of) them.

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Dispatch 4: Overturning

2nd August 2012

I like to visit the bridge a couple of times a day to watch the pros expertly con the ship and to exchange sea stories with Piers, the Second Mate, but it’s an unequal exchange; he’s been at sea professionally since he was fifteen.  This afternoon he gestured me to the portside bridge wing.  “Have you ever seen this?”

It was a fogbow, like a rainbow but of different origin.  I had seen them in the Arctic before, but this one was unusual in my experience.  It arced horizontally, instead of vertically, perhaps because the fog bank was low, patchy blue sky visible above it.  To witness strange atmospheric phenomena is one of the abiding pleasures of Arctic sailing.  Farther north we may be treated to the Northern Lights, but this is not the optimum time of year for Aurora watching.

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