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SEA Currents: SSV Robert C. Seamans

June 14, 2017

The Sounds of the Sea(mans)

Hanna Payne, Stanford


Photo: Stanford@SEA

I love diving for the hush quiet it brings. I can feel the lack of noise: it's heavy and light at the same time, a thick film that shifts easily as I move. It feels like my breadth has just caught in my lungs. It's thunderous, and wonderous. The muted melodies of the sea often envelope my thoughts, and I've come to associate a tangible silence with most aspects of the ocean.

Yet living on a tall-ship in the middle of the South Pacific is anything but quiet. The 41-meter ship with 40 people crammed aboard develops a familiar rhythm, not all that different from the beat of steel drums of my youth. If I close my eyes, these are the sounds of ship life:

In the background, there is always the lull of the waves, the hum of the engine, the faint movement of sails and lines. It's punctuated by the loud calls of the watch officer or the JWO or the master. Classmates Robby, Sam, Chris, and Lia often burst into song. Natasha strums on the ukulele.

The whoosh of the fishing lines buzzes and our TA, Ben, makes himself laugh. There's the drip-drop from the coffee machine when coffee-addict Jan makes a fresh pot, and the ring of the lunch bell after steward Charlie has cooked lunch. Daela hums the Jurassic Park theme song until it's drilled into my head. A camera, probably carried by Dan, clicks away furiously with the snapping of pictures. It's followed by his catch phrase, "very rare and very awesome." The sun sets as Captain Pamela discusses sail plans, and I can hear fire crackling as the sky catches flames- red, pink, and orange streaks exploding from the horizon with a silent bang.

Our first scientist, Nick, teaches students the safety of going aloft, his calm voice easing people up the mast to startling heights. Stella's presence-- and her laugh-- echoes through the halls. There's the sound of rushing water through the pipes as someone turns on the fresh water, for a navy shower or to fill a bucket to wash laundry on deck. The sharp snap of the jib catches in the wind; it luffs for a second, and then fills again with satisfaction. Maddie climbs the riggings and screams "Lay away!", signaling that the lookout below can follow her up. There are yelps of delight, and surprise, on the science deck as Lindsay and Sierra cut open a tuna heart.

A bird's wings, and then our mainsail, catch a gust of wind; we're sailing at about 6 knots. Dylan's blue eyes crinkle with laughter and his waxed mustache wiggles. Squares the braces. Hands to pass the staysl's. Ready on the port sheet. The words swim call! drift enticingly down to my stuffy bunk. The pool is open. We're drifting over the Tonga Trench, the second deepest spot in the world's oceans. Splash! The air is filled with the sounds of classmates screaming as they leap from the headrig into the sea. Their squeals float over the waves for only our ears to hear; there is no one else on this ocean for 200 miles.

A toilet flushes and there is a sigh of relief from the engineers when it doesn't clog. Scientists Gabi and Helen finish a 100-count of marine organisms brought up in the plankton net. No one asks how many copepods they found because we all know they are the most abundant metazoans in the ocean. The ship takes a roll and there is a crash, and a curse, in the galley. I can't tell if it was pots or pans or plates, but either way, the 'hours since last spill' board will drop back to zero. If there are whales and dolphins and sharks below the ship, we can't hear them. But we can hear the ocean floor: the seamounts and the ridges are reflected back in the echo of a 'chirp' emitted by the sonar.

Classmate Mike steps on deck, and promptly informs everyone: "Mike on deck". Rob corners another unsuspecting victim into hearing his colonoscopy story; some sounds should be lost at sea. I hear a joke and a gybe and then, just silence.  

Over the past five weeks, I've learned to appreciate sounds in their different capacities. While the ocean once brought back memories of a quiet I could feel, it now reminds me of the comforting sounds of the Seamans.

We're five days out from Pago Pago, and I fear the impending silence of shore-life the most.

Categories: Robert C. Seamans, • Topics: stanford@sea  life at sea • (1) Comments


Leave a public comment for students and crew to read when they reach their next port and have access to the internet!

#1. Posted by Sharon Bonner on June 15, 2017

To Rocky. After reading this entry I see even more clearly why you chose tall ship sailor as your profession. Love, Mum



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