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Latest Expedition Journal

October 4:  Day 2

Our Ship Community

On a balmy, cloudless day in San Diego, we're underway just before noon on our second day of 35 more days to follow en route to the Hawaiian Islands.  Herring gulls wheel above our masts.   City skyscrapers slowly merge toward the horizon.  

While moored in port the last two days, it quickly became apparent that living aboard a ship is akin to joining a family.  More than 100 years ago Herman Melville wrote of ship's community in his book Moby Dick, when his sailor protagonist Ishmael conceded:  "All hands should rub each other's shoulder blades and be content."

What would prove a very revealing comment for the 19th century is routinely echoed today.  Jason Quilter, Captain of the Robert C. Seamans (RCS), cites the age-old mantra needed to achieve our goal of getting the vessel to Honolulu:  "Ship, Shipmate, Self."

Trent Hodges (25), who last sailed aboard with SEA in 2007 as a student, just finished a two-year Peace Corps stint in Guatamala (building a school, in part, from used plastic recovered from the beach).  Trent says that the ship, "is a living, organic community and each sailor is an appendage of that community."

Cina Loarie (33), who flew here from her environmental policy work in Beijing, sailed throughout the Pacific on the RCS for three years as a scientist.  But even consumed with her science calling, Cina still believes, "that sailing's all about the people."

Pat Keoughan (65), who qualified for Medicare on the day she boarded and last rode with an SEA ship to Novia Scotia in 1980 as a student, is now performing kindergarten through 12th grade outreach, answering daily questions emailed to the RCS from 14 teachers in 10 schools around the country .  Pat says, "that the best part of these trips is hearing others' stories—this promotes intimacy, an unfolding of our lives."

So I'm traveling with a pod of swashbuckling, exceptional, yet congenial shipmates.  This includes soon-to-be-Dr. Kristen Mitchell who has just finished writing her doctoral dissertation, "Biogeochemistry of Selenium Isotopes" and will celebrate her second seafaring birthday during this trip.  Then there is our sandal-making artist, Madelyn Soldner-Sullivan (26) from Colorado who has her surfboard lashed to the ship in order that she can follow her passions in Hawaii; she last sailed with SEA in 2009.  Contrasted by our "hospitalist" Dr. Andy Felcher (47), crewing while away from his wife and three young  children in Portland, and a 1985 SEA alum.  

When the June crew call was emailed out to SEA alumni, over 200 applicants vied for a mere 26 volunteer vacancies, alongside 12 professional scientists and sailors.  Our 16 men and 22 women crew ranges in age from 22 to 65.  

In July, while sailing aboard the RCS, I learned that ships—particularly vessels with scientific and educational goals—allow us to leave our egos ashore and reach for the common good.  Each morning, for instance, a shipmate gently awakens us for breakfast.  While hauling lines to raise the sails (sheets), as many as 17 sets of hands work together while singing a sea chantey.  

Posted prominently in each of the three heads (or toilets) is an 8x12 notice, "Top 10 Community Tips", which includes, of course, "Ship, Shipmate, Self".  Or:  "Walk Softly, Someone is Sleeping Below You".  Concluded by:  "Real Sailors Sit".

I am not alone amid this community in feeling thrilled to leave the dusky air and vehicular hum of southern California.  Sea lions bayed from their perches on channel marker buoys.  Pelicans dove into a school of scattering fish; a pod of spinner dolphins cut through the waves like carving knives. 

Eventually, the smell of rotting kelp gave way to a cool, ocean breeze as the limber and smiling Chief Mate, Rocky Hadler (60) from Houston, calls for the fore staysail and the main staysail to be hauled.   Third mate Mackenzie Haberman (27), replete with an E.E. Cummings quote tattooed in inexplicable Tahitian letters on her left forearm, stands nearby shouting for us to pull the taut line "one more time for Jesus!"—soliciting laughter all down the deck.

Sheltered by my new brothers and sisters, accomplished crew and respected scientists all, I alone have never left sight of land for more than a couple of days.  Just thinking of the prospect of an infinite blue horizon for a rollicking, long month gives me an adrenaline buzz (and no small forebodings—for instance, how will we "weather" a gale?).   Like Ishmael on his first voyage to find the great white whale, I have come for "the wholesome exercise and pure air of the forecastle deck."  And mostly I am here to learn of the plastic "herbs" that season the Pacific Gyre as part of a prodigious, swirling soup.