Last night – day eight? nine? – of an epic storm that has held us hostage out here in the South Atlantic, the wind hit 51.7 knots. 50 knots translates to about 60mphs and at that speed the wind is audible. Physical. Like a chorus of shrieking witches, the dark side of nature laughs at you, tossing you about like a toy. You can do nothing but watch the angry ocean, water spraying so fine it pixelates. If I look into the wind, I’ll pay for that luxury; pins and needles of rain burrow into my face, my pores. In a word, it’s awesome. To witness the raw power and force of the ocean in a frenzy is to be audience to the incomprehensible. No human made creation, perhaps with the exception of a nuclear bomb can show such fantastical energy.
At all times, someone must be on deck to watch over our vessel, looking to the horizon for other ships (we are in a shipping lane) and watching to see if the wind swings, increases – anything that might go awry.
I want to write about our research. I want to write the environmental story that we’re making here, but all I can do is talk about the weather. Talk about why humans will expose themselves to such vulnerability for the sake of science. But as I sit here below deck, dry and writing, my mind is distracted by the boat heaving up and down. I’m wishing I could be in my bunk, asleep. All I can think about is my fragile mental state, tired, so tired. Storms never last this long. Yes, I find beauty in watching this power, but to be this physically exhausted makes for an agitated state, one that makes writing, sharing – hell, just being – difficult. And there is no escape. Capetown is weeks away.
But perhaps I can get a bit lost in my words here as I describe the work we are here to do. I will try, enervated as I am; obsessed as I am with the weather.
We sample the ocean every 60 miles or so for plastic pollution. As I’ve noted before, this is the first expedition in the world to ever do so in the South Atlantic, and being a part this crew is exciting. Being a part of a new discovery is an honor. But the glory quickly fades once the sea acts up. The view from deck never changes with the exception of the weather, the clouds, and the moon phases. Each wave is different of course but they come and pass so quickly their shape is never committed to memory. Water, water everywhere and not a drop to drink.
Even in these chaotic seas, where the state of the sea drives that which would normally float (plastic) down, we’re still finding more plastic than biomass in our sampling. The deployment and retrieval of the trawl is extremely dangerous. In this world, you don’t want to step to the edge of the boat. Though only six feet off the water, it might as well be the cliffs of Dover. In the space of a few seconds, the deck will rise and fall 20 feet, and that doesn’t account for the tangential, lateral movements, either. During the day, you can watch the ocean, and make your movements on deck based on anticipating what the next wave will do. But at night, mother ocean is a constant mystery. At any moment she can take you down. Hard. You simply don’t take chances. Falling overboard here is certain death.
Turning a ship like this around takes a bit of time, at least a quarter mile, and by then, you’re lost in the dark swells, nothing but a head bobbing from a vantage of infinity. To avoid this, we’re all wearing harnesses and strapped to the deck at all times. We are safe from death by following a strict protocol, but injury is another matter. Even in the time it’s taken to write this, we’ve had a close call. Ten minutes ago, a rogue wave broke over the stern of the ship and took our crew member James, one of the pro surfers, aboard across the deck from the cockpit to the helm, washing him at least 20 feet. Clipped in, he’s alive.
For now, I’m dry below and I am writing my words. And I’m safe from a storm that will not end. But today, I don’t want to end this post here. To end now means to go back to the present moment. The wind. The waves. Prayer for a rising barometer. Prayer for a conversation where we don’t talk about the weather.