Latest Expedition Journal
October 12: Day 10
“All hands to set the mains’l!”
The cry sets every sailor on deck into motion, and we move quickly to position ourselves at the appropriate lines, casting them off belaying pins, ears sharp listening for the command of the mate on watch.
“Ready on the halyard?” the mate calls out.
“Ready on the halyard!” comes the roaring response.
“Ready on the downhaul?”
“Ready on the downhaul!”
“Ready on the sheet?”
“Ready on the sheet!”
“Cast off your downhaul, tend your sheet, haul away halyard!”
The sturdy rope of the halyard (the line that hauls up the mains’l) passes through many hands, abrading palms that have already begun to callous, as we take up the strain of the sail with every muscle in our bodies. The sail grows heavier as it gets higher, and I launch into a sea shanty, belting out the rhythmic verses as the rest of the crew calls back the response, just like sailors have done for hundreds of years to coordinate effort when working at a strenuous task.
Cape Cod girls ain’t got no combs!
Heave away, haul away!
They comb their hair with codfish bones!
We’re bound away for Australia!
It is so good to be at sea again. We’re all sticky with salt, achy from sail handling, and more than a little sleep-deprived, but we are also so very much alive. Last night’s and this morning’s squally weather has been nothing short of exhilarating. Over 700 miles offshore and just entering the gyre, we are steeping ourselves in maritime skills and traditions. And it’s not only sea shanties—we live in a world of jiggers and fife rails, scuppers and gimbals, bowlines and binnacles, ballentines and baggywrinkle. Nobody bats an eye at phrases such as “hands to sweat the fish jigger” or “standing a trick at the helm.” We all learn to box the compass, to identify every one of 78 lines aboard, and to furl the foresails while standing out in the bowsprit netting.
These maritime traditions are not only fun, but crucial. This ship is our home. Everything we do is part of one constant effort to make it possible to live on the sea, though she feels no obligation to make our work easy. Author Gary Paulson put it well when he talked about his first encounter with the number one law of the sea:
"If given the chance a container of oatmeal will open, mix with an open
container of coffee grounds, further combine itself with eight or ten gallons
of seawater and then find its way into your sleeping bag."
Aboard the Robert C. Seamans, we are all familiar with laws such as these. For instance, one well-known law is that the moment the mate or captain comes to check on you at the helm, the ship will do everything in her power to lurch at least 10 degrees off your ordered course, then docilely return the moment they look away. The same law states that all wildlife sightings—such as hundreds of dolphins leaping off the starboard bow—will occur during emergency drills when you are fully zipped into and almost immobile in your immersion suit. There are laws that state that you must bump your head on something at least five times a day, that you will be confronted with grease or tar within hours of your only shower for three days, and that the night you’ve spent hours killing your night vision by looking through the microscope is the night that the stars are perfect for celestial navigation.
And, ironically enough, we’re all here to study what seems to be a new, though far less humorous, law of the sea: you will find plastic. Even here, over 700 miles offshore, you can find this material that the ocean cannot fully break down or get rid of. It doesn’t look polluted, I think to myself as I stand on the bow and watch waves of the bluest blue roll by. But after the past three years of filtering water samples from the Gulf of Maine and examining the contents under a dissecting microscope, I know that looks can be deceiving. A single liter of surface water from Frenchman Bay averaged 66 pieces of microplastic (pieces smaller than 5 mm). Some contained as many as 488 pieces per liter. I’m studying microscopic plastic pollution on this expedition too, and though I have only processed the first few samples, I’ve already counted hundreds of tiny plastic pieces that are nearly invisible to the naked eye. How many thousands more will I count over the next month?
Unlike the other laws of the sea, this is one that we do have some control over. Though it isn’t feasible to clean up the microscopic pieces of plastics, we can work toward stopping the flow of plastics into our oceans. We can use less of the stuff in the first place, so that it never has the chance to become a microscopic mess.
It seems like a worthwhile goal, since we’ll have our hands full enough keeping the oatmeal out of our sleeping bags and our good ship happy as she bowls along through the waves of the Pacific.
Glossary of nautical terms:
baggywrinkle: a bundle of frayed rope attached around standing rigging to keep lines and sails from chafing
ballentine: a special type of coil that allows line to pay out quickly and cleanly if a sail needs to be struck in a hurry
binnacle: the housing for the compass card at the helm
bowline: a crucial knot for every sailor
bowsprit: the large spar (pole) that extends from the bow of the ship
downhaul: a line that hauls a sail down
fife rail: a rail that encircles the mast where lines are made fast around belaying pins
foresails: all sails on the forward portion of the boat
gimbals (as in a gimbaled table or oven): a set-up that allows a surface to remain level while the boat rotates around it. This creates the illusion that the table tops are rocking, while in reality the boat is moving and gravity is keeping the tables level.
halyard: a line that hauls up the top of a sail
jigger: a line with additional mechanical advantage for hoisting the sail the last few inches
mains'l: the sail that runs up the main mast
scuppers: openings for water to drain off the deck
sheet: a line that changes the angle of the sail to the wind