Antarctic Daze


Somewhere in the darkness of the distant dream there’s a slow bzzzzt bzzzt bzzzt and a hand clamps gently on your wrist. You know what it is, and it’s not a good sign that your first thought is arithmetic: three weeks left. Twenty-one wakeups. Oh god – how did 11 o’clock ever come so early? Last time it didn’t take nearly this long to get swung around to the midnight-to-noon shift.

But the alarm on your watch is still bzzzzt bzzzt bzzzt’ing; it takes a surprising number of tries to remember that slapping at it isn’t going to do a damned thing. You find the button and silence it in the humming, throbbing darkness.

There is sound everywhere, always. Even through the earplugs you feel it: you live in the heart of a great machine, twelve million pounds of steel and hydraulic and diesel and flesh and blood, longer than a football field and constantly breathing, constantly churning, moving, onward and onward. There is no quiet, there is no rest, and even in sleep the taste of metal never leaves your mouth.

Some things have improved: you’re no longer pranging your head on the corner shelf above your bunk when you roll over. But the light at this hour is always the same: a sallow fluorescence that flickers on tentatively, resentfully.

Twenty-one days, and eight hours until the dawn.

Back home you could force yourself to run a couple of miles in the morning, and that always did the trick, even if it was dark out. The exertion, the endorphins fired up something that got you synced, got you psyched, and got you ready to face the day. Here? Yeah, there’s the running machine, but even in the gentle pitch of the Bransfield, it takes more work than you can manage to stay on track at this hour. And your knees are still 53 years old. So you settle for the gentle but stable irony of the rowing machine, pulling the imaginary oars through three kilometers of imaginary water in a windowless room below deck. Outside, the great machine unthinkingly carries you in the opposite direction.

Caffeine has helped a bit these past few days. You’ve never liked the idea of being dependent on anything. Almost made it a watchword, but that’s what gets you through that last kilometer, through the fluorescent flicker of a shower and closed-eye fumble for clothes – there’s a t-shirt (they’re all the same), two socks and a pair of shorts: the promise of caffeine when you clock your final stroke and stumble down to the galley.

The galley’s alive with motion and light and sound. The light is still fluorescent, but the motion is human:  Jen, Jennie, Christian, Mo and the rest of the noon-to-midnight crew winding down from their day while your fellow nightshifters shuffle against the counter for midrats, trying to decide whether meatloaf for breakfast is really a thing. And the sound? It’s a bit unreal. There’s the usual hum, whir, gurgle and churn of the ship’s belly, but also a harsh, grinding scrape, like car tires on gravel, magnified a hundred times. We’re in ice again, and just beyond the hardened steel of the galley wall is where the relentless bow does its work. The din makes normal conversation almost impossible, but somehow it’s okay, comforting even. It reminds you that there’s something out there, something out beyond the sterile confines of this ocean-bound spaceship.

Previous cruises, you’d go up to the 05 Deck sometimes at night, just to stand on the darkened bridge and make small talk with Chris or Rob or whoever was on watch. To look out at the spotlights tearing bright holes in the everlasting night, beams alive with blowing snow as they picked out open leads in the fractured, endless sheets of white that lay hidden in the darkness below. That seemed to remind you why you were here, and somehow you think it would be a good idea to do that again. But 05 is a long way up, and you’re tired. So tired.

Besides, Sean’s waiting. He’s been on shift for 12 hours, busting his butt to fix the broken satcom and fileserver and get the daily processing done so that you have the luxury of tucking into your screen and doing what you do best: coding.

The coding’s been good, and you’re grateful to Sean for covering so completely for you while you do it. You’ve gotten a staggering amount written and, what’s more, you can tell that it’s good code. All those pulled-out-of-your-hat design decisions you made months ago in the comfort of Palo Alto sunshine have served you well, and features you feared would be hard to implement have come together elegantly in just a few lines. Twenty-one days left, and you’re already confident you’ll have at least something up and running in half that.

Six hours until dawn.

Friends back home keep emailing you, asking how you’re doing, and you tell them that honestly, you’re not entirely sure. Fine, probably? But they’re worried that you haven’t been writing. You understand. Last time you were down, you wrote – you wrote damned near every day, posting pictures and stories to the blog, telling tales of whatever new adventure you’d had or some great new wonder of your time at sea. This time? Nothing. You’ve tried, but each time you only get a few sentences in before the words stop coming. It’s like you’re walking into the mud, where each step gets harder until all you can do is back off.

Besides, you’ve already written about all this, haven’t you? The CTDs, the tows, and krill, krill. Same as it ever was, same as it was the last time you wrote about it. Last year, the year before. But you still feel guilty. You open up a new blog window and stare at the empty page until…

Twenty-one days. Four hours until dawn.

Monitor shows you southeast bound, 12 miles from your next station, grid 09-13. The ship’s track looks like a drunkard’s walk, but there’s method to the meander and a survey of some 100-odd grid points to tally down here before you turn tail for port.

And it’s not like you’re doing the real work, sitting there all comfy at your desk like an indoor house pet. Flip the CCTV to channel 73 – yeah, with the remote – and you can watch Joee back in the Baltic Room: she’s leaning out the side, trying to deploy a CTD into 40 knots of Antarctic sleet blowing sideways, right into her face. She’s earning it. You? Another cup of tea doesn’t sound so bad, after all. Then, maybe you’ll have another look at why your socket reader doesn’t seem to be drawing any data in when you’ve got more than one port specified.

But the tea sounds good. Your stomach hasn’t been quite right since Punta Arenas. Not nausea – somehow you dodged that bullet this time – but your appetite’s been off since day one. The tea’s been working, though.

You realize that you feel old, older and more tired than you’ve ever felt on land. Something about being at sea. Something about being at sea at night in a throbbing metal box that lists a constant five degrees starboard.

Then, of course, there are your eyes. Your eyes have never done particularly well on the ship, but you’ve got the eye drops, and three different pairs of glasses to get you through the morning. Just need to remember which to wear when, so you don’t squint and stumble around like the blind old bat you are. You left the reading glasses on the console keyboard over in Drylab when you had to reboot the RVDAS a couple of days ago, and it took you half the morning to find them again.

Two hours to dawn.

Joee’s got the CTD done, and we’re moving again. You feel it below your feet, you feel it in the walls. And the radio’s alive – bridge calling down to Tony, and chatter on the back deck. No, too much ice; they’re going to have to skip doing a tow at this station. You saw what happened two years when the net caught a chunk: seems like it would just bounce off, but it bent the frame into half a pretzel and damned near snapped the cable.

Last cruise you got out there a lot, out on the back deck, a couple of times a day. Threw on your Xtra Tufs, a hard hat and float coat and lent a hand. Nothing fancy, just putting stuff away, taking up slack and, when there was nothing else to be done, just standing there with whoever was on duty, watching the cable play out into the streak of churning black, a thin dark line lost against an unthinkably immense canvas.

How can we possibly imagine space? You’re only thirty miles off the South Shetlands, not even a hair’s-breadth on the globe, and still the immensity of the sea in that small stretch is beyond comprehension. Taken against the ocean at large, and then against our planet, the farthest grasp of our troubled human history is at best a pale blue dot in someone’s sky.

Getting out on the back deck felt good – you think you should probably do more of that. But ops are a little more complicated this cruise, and they’re trying to keep the numbers down. Still… In the meantime, there’s that socket problem to debug, and breakfast.

The food’s better than last time. Much better. But you’ve never been particularly big on breakfasts, and there’s something unsettling about marking the passage of time by when you’re going to eat next. So you’re not excited by breakfast, but it’s an excuse to get up and move, and somewhere in the back of your brain you remember that moving is always a good idea.

In the larger scheme of things, it’s not surprising that you’re tired. The job is an 84-hour week: a duty cycle of 12-on-12-off, seven days a week until you make port. Not that you’re counting, but twenty-one more days of that is 252 hours.

You can tell the ship has turned, because everything’s listing to port now. The wind’s picked up, and some time in the pre-morning haze you remember distracting yourself with the marine forecast. The sleet’s cleared – you can tell that from the CCTV – but you’re supposed to get quite a blow in the coming days. The phrase “60 knot gusts” sticks with you.

Where you sit in the IT shed is one of the only spots other than the engine room with no windows – sorry, portholes. So when you’re doing your job, weather is just a matter of how far and which direction the floor tilts, and how often that changes. You’ve got to flip through channels, or pad across the green rubber tread of main deck and peer out from Drylab to see what it’s really like, and…

Hey – it’s actually getting light out. Chart shows you coming up on Livingston Island to the north, but outside’s still not much more than a hint of dawn. Besides, Livingston will be over on the other side – you’d have to go out on deck to see anything.

The contrast in names down here has always amused you – you’ve got Jagged Island and Destruction Bay. The Forbidden Plateau, Hell’s Gates and Devil’s Point. And scattered among them are a slew of place names lifted from the deck of the Royal Navy: Smith, Clarence, Livingston and the like.

As you work south your way south, you get the sense that whoever did the charting had even run out of petty officers and started grasping at straws: “Low Island” is shown on the Admiralty charts as no more than an outline with the note that it is “low & inconspicuous.” As is its equally-imaginative companion Snow Island (ditto) across the Boyd Strait. Astrolabe Island, further to the southeast, makes you suspect that by that point they were just phoning it in, picking whatever object was nearest at hand when they had to mark down a new sighting.*

But Livingston looks interesting, and there’s a touch of pink in the eastern sky. You might actually wander out on deck after breakfast, and bring your camera, to boot.

Breakfast is…well, it’s nutritious. It’s fine, really; you’re just still not particularly hungry. But it’s a chance to sit with others and hear the chatter of conversation. And it’s more of a lifeline to humanity than you get by staring at a pair of glowing monitors for twelve hours at a stretch. You do wish you felt like joining in – it sounds like a good idea, but the wall in your head is just too high to scramble over right now; easier just to listen, and nod along at the appropriate times.

It’s definitely light out by the time you scrape your plate and drop it into the sink in the dish pit. Wave thanks to Ralph and sidestep down the slanting corridor back to the IT shed. Throw on your shell – it’s not actually much below freezing – and grab the camera, then up the aft companionway to 01 Deck.

You feel the transformation beginning even before you’ve pushed through the first of the two hatches out to the starboard rail. It’s a familiar quickening, a tension of sorts – the same feeling you brace yourself against stepping into a warm shower. You’re through the first hatch, now closed behind you. You’re still surprised by it after all these days, but by the time you’ve un-dogged the second hatch, the transformation is complete: it’s a different man who steps out onto deck, sealing the already fading memory of your other self in that narrow corridor behind you.

The hum is there, but it’s below your feet now, carrying, rather than engulfing you. You’re standing at the rail of a freaking Antarctic icebreaker, plying the Bransfield Strait in the dead of winter. You might as well be an astronaut. Below you lies the indifferent ice, languid and infinite. Above you, an endless sky, washed dark in unnamable colors leading east to where the pre-dawn glow breathes warmth, and the promise of new life, and a new day.

The air is strangely still; you might as well be the only soul alive on this immense planet. Here, alone and afloat, perched on the shoulder of your iron giant.

You’re unprepared for the sense of gratitude that descends, and it almost overwhelms you. To be here, at this improbable, impossible place, in the shadow of such grandeur. Even more, to be a part of it. You are, you remember, quite literally on a mission here. Indoor house pet or not, you’re a part of the whole crazy chain that even makes it possible to do science down here, and the sense of place – the sense of belonging – rises and fills you to bursting.

You admit it: you’re getting a little worked up. It’s just another morning on deck. A gorgeous morning, but you’ve had plenty of those. But yeah, this is why you’re here. This is why you put up with night shift, with 84 hour weeks, with nausea and the incessant humming, clanking, buzzing and whooshing of living inside a machine for a month at a time. This is worth it.

This Is the American Earth
Nancy Newhall

To the primal wonders no road can ever lead; they are not so won.
To know them you shall leave road and roof behind; you shall go light and spare.
You shall win them yourself, in sweat, sun, laughter, in dust and rain, with only a few companions.
You shall know the night — its space, its light, its music.
You shall see earth sink in darkness and the universe appear.
No roof shall shut you from the presence of the moon.
You shall see mountains rise in the transparent shadow before dawn.
You shall see — and feel! — first light, and hear a ripple in the stillness.

You shall enter the living shelter of the forest.
You shall walk where only the wind has walked before.
You shall know immensity, and see continuing the primeval forces of the world.
You shall know not one small segment but the whole of life, strange, miraculous, living, dying, changing.
You shall face immortal challenges; you shall dare, delighting, to pit your skill, courage, and wisdom against colossal facts.
You shall live lifted up in light; you shall move among the clouds.
You shall see storms arise, and, drenched and deafened, shall exult in them.

You shall top a rise and behold creation.

And you shall need the tongues of angels to tell what you have seen.

(* Turns out that the Astrolabe was the name of d’Urville’s ship on his quest to discover and claim the southern magnetic pole for France.)






3 responses to “Antarctic Daze

  1. Oh, Pablo. Dig in, hang on. I’m an old guy myself, can relate to gritting teeth & finding small joy. It gets better. Loveya, man.


  2. I remember sitting on the bridge, in that chair on the port side, breaking ice and watching Antarctica move past, occasionally reading only to look up again, mesmerized by the moving art gallery of bergs and water…


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