Posts Tagged With: Southern Ocean

Dolphin Diplomacy

29th November 2013

Part II

An American Welcoming Committee

The New World has a strong tradition of sending its welcoming committees. Today was no exception.

Between 0930 and 1000 hours we crossed onto the South American continental shelf, just west north west of the remote Chilean island group of Diego Ramirez, with the ocean floor silently rising up beneath up from the Mornington Abysmal Plain at 3000 to 4000 metres depth to around 150-200 metres depth on the shelf. As we passed to the north of the island group the most northerly of the islands became visible on the ship’s radar. I glanced at the dim black and green screen with its cyclical ‘refresh’ sweeps; they lay only 24 nautical miles to our south.

“We’d see them if the fog lifted”, said Captain Klaas surveying his charts in the wheelhouse and preparing to move into the deckhouse to deliver his seminal pre-Horn lecture to an eager voyage crew, who were there waiting, packed into this ‘saloon on the high seas’, with its foggy windows tracked with the occasional streak of salt water blasted through aging seals from the tumult outside.

Talk all about the ship, above and below deck, was of ‘Rounding the Horn’. The sense of expectation was palpable, yet there was no sign of this great looming landmass, beneath which we were passing.

Dolphin Diplomacy_Peales Dolphin ID_lowres17

As if to herald our imminent arrival to the Americas and that wind-swept and ocean-smashed region of rocky promontories, known as the Horn, a pair of what we ascertained to be Peale’s dolphins (aka Cape Horn dolphins as they are truly a Cape Horn restricted species) briefly visited our barque just before 1400 hours. Unlike their cousins the Hourglass dolphins and the Southern Right Whale dolphins, which we’d cavorted with (at least in our dreams) weeks before further west in the Southern Ocean, the Cape Horn fellows didn’t go much for the breaching and twisting in our bow wave. Beneath the clear blue waters their speeding grey, black and white bodies glistened; a few passes along the port beam and around the bow, barely raising a deft dark dorsal fin, and they were gone before most of us could return the favour with a friendly fire of shutter action. But at 1530 hours they returned to continue the welcome, and I managed to freeze a fleeting image on camera. We were six hours from crossing into the Atlantic Ocean and this esteemed Cape Horn envoy from the mist-enshrouded Americas had successfully completed its dolphomatic mission for the UN: Europa was duly welcomed. Visiting pass granted. Please proceed.

Peale's dolphins

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Five Degrees of Separation

Our World in Numbers: Five Six Fifty Six

5: the temperature of the sea in degrees Celsius

6: the temperature of air in degrees Celsius

56: the degrees south of the equator

800: the [approximate] distance remaining in nautical miles to Cape Horn

Sunday 24th November

Our instruments on board Bark Europa show some vital statistics: Five degrees Celsius the water temperature, six degrees the air temperature. A person overboard counts their life in minutes now. Something the Captain is only too aware of.

My wet face, buffeted by the steady so’ westerlies astern, winces with the sweet sting of the wind chill, as I gaze off the stern railings down toward Europa’s billowing wake. My watch companions on the helm lightly wrestle with the spokes on the wheel and beneath the ‘bread box’ behind the wheel the manually-driven pump valves make the occasional knocking sound in the hydraulic lines as they spin the wheel back from fighting position. It’s close to midnight and even if the waxing moon were risen, the low pillows of cloud and mist would not light our way. We haven’t had a sun sighting in over a week, much to the consternation of Fruitbat’s constellation navigation students.

My eye catches a low glowing body of green-yellow luminescence trailing off within the wake. Then appears another. I squint and strain my corneal muscles and I make out its shape as a sphere, floating just under the water’s surface. What could they be? I’m told later by a fellow voyage crew mate that they might be communities of dinoflagellates, rising of a night from the dark Southern Ocean depths to undertake unknown, strictly-nocturnal, business in the shallower night waters.

Five Degrees of Separation_Dinoflagellates on radar_lowres20

It appears that their collision with Europa’s gliding hull causes them to react with phosphorescence. More appear. Different sizes. Eerie orbs of the night; all with the same other-worldly hue. I follow them in the wake and an approaching wave front lifts up my distant deep-sea friends a little, enough for me to see them from further astern the ship. And through the wave’s cresting profile I see their three-dimensional forms hover and ripple. They then falter and fade as the water column curtain grows thicker and their little nightlight glows are extinguished. Where do they come from? What depths do they return to? What business do they have?

At about the same time at around midnight our good ship Europa passes just 54 nautical miles to the south of the deepest ocean floor in these parts; a speck of a place located to our north at 54.6° South, 95.1° West. On the floor of the Southern Ocean this deep hole lies in the middle of the Mornington Abysmal Plain – a large area extending far off the southeast coast of Chilean Patagonia towards the East Pacific Rise, with depths gently moving between 4000 and 5000 metres below sea level. In the midst of this vast uncharted area the gentle plain suddenly dives towards the centre of the earth and over a space of less than eight nautical miles, plummets from the surrounding plains at 5000 metres to an astounding depth of 6034 metres below the surface. It must be like a steep inverted cone. What detritus accumulates here? What life lurks here waiting in abeyance for manna to descend from the watery heavens above? In the case of the dinoflagellate enclaves however, await they do not. And arise they do, in the cover of night.

I’m left imagining what unknown worlds this planet contains. And as I gaze in awe and serenity at the dinoflagellatic globes below me in Europa’s wake, I contemplate how many degrees of separation there may be between me and these wondrous communities of bioluminescence, rising from these dark worlds to greet the night time surface of the Southern Ocean. Perhaps there are five; the same number of degrees Celsius above zero that these glowing waters beneath me currently possess. Brrrr. I shudder at the thought and turn back to the helm and the business of the ship.

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The Face of God

01:17 ship’s time

Thursday 21 November 2013

Twenty two days out

Southern Ocean

54o 09′ South, 116o 27′ West

“It’s like looking straight out into the face of God!”, yelled Rod above the howl of wind and waves as he looked at what was about to hit the starboard beam. “And he doesn’t appear to have noticed us AT ALL!”

After twenty two days sailing from Auckland, the weather considered normal for these latitudes and for which many had been wishing, was finally upon us.

Face of God_Sleet n Ice_PaulHicks_lowres16

On Wednesday afternoon as we approached the rising low-pressure system emanating from the Southern Ocean, the winds built up from the southwest, just as Captain Klaas had relayed to us from the radio-transmitted weather report. At around 23:00 hours the chain for the sheet to the main lower topsail snapped under the pressure – the winds were gusting up to 40 knots – and sent one half of the sail out loose, flailing and flapping like a mad thing, while the rest of the chain fell to the deck with a crash. Some of us heard the crash followed by the two bells calling the remaining permanent crew to the deck. Keen Rod was one of them. In short time, amidst the building storm, they made good the situation. And by the time the rest of our watch was on deck, the ship was a hive of activity in the gusting winds. Standing spread-legged on the mid-ship deck, I craned above to see the main upper topsail now safely furled, bathed in yellow halogen deck lights and framed by the inky heavens.

“It’s the only chain we hadn’t got around to replacing yet!”, exclaimed Dutch deckhand Niels, shaking his head of crazy hair, wind tossed and wild, as he stared up through the horizontal rain. Before I could pursue any more of my incessant questioning, Captain Klaas yelled an order from above me beside the wheelhouse; luckily I was familiar with the location of the line that he required hauling, and happy to be avoiding the dreaded ‘klaastrophobia’, I merrily heaved to.

With the damaged main lower topsail now gasketed to its yard we were still pushing up to nine knots. Speed demon Ruud (Europa’s First Mate) was pleased.

Later that morning during the long penumbra the able deckies repaired the broken sheet chain and reset the topsail; while the gale blew on around them. Impressive! And as the gale approached a storm, with gusts of more than 45 knots, we were pushing ten knots over ground. At one point we reach just over eleven! Speed Demon smiled; Captain Klaas decreed clip harnesses mandatory on deck.

That afternoon we had already prepared for storm-sailing with the sky, royal and top gallant sails furled, along with the main course. And a team had been formed to close, seal and place canvas covers over all the hatches and air vents on deck. The weather-proof bulkhead doors accessing the main deck were also shut and all access to the poop deck from crew quarters and the deckhouse was to be via the main galley corridor below deck through to the wheelhouse via the stairs near the library at aft.

As the long twilight continued, rogue waves continued to pummel the starboard beam. A few times the waves went straight into the deckhouse and over the sloop deck. The crew promptly placed the storm shutters over the starboard side deckhouse windows. We were feeling our expectations rise. Hold up in the deckhouse, someone reported what they could see through the misted window across the main deck awash to the helm. A couple of superpositioned waves peaked on the starboard quarter and came crashing over all the crew on the poop deck. Deckhand Dirk, about to take the wheel, was unclipped at the time as he manoeuvred himself into position at the helm. Before he could safely clip on somewhere, he was suddenly washed off his feet and carried by the departing waters toward the portside railings. A pointed example of why we wear the clip-on harnesses.

Face of God_Water over deck+crew_Sandy

In the wee hours, as Wednesday slipped into Thursday, Rod and I found ourselves on lookout post together, standing clipped to safety ropes either side of the wheelhouse. Rod was on the windward side with the waves coming from the starboard quarter, pushing through like big black slow-moving freight trains. He was still yelping with disbelief as the crashing wave tops suddenly appeared in the corner of his eye; in the dark seascape the hulking wave forms melded into one huge ebony water colour and the foaming white tops would suddenly appear like flashing ghosts of the great white whale. Rod’s yelps alerted me. We glanced at each other, braced for the lurch to port and then again for the opposing lurch to starboard. We’d then glance at our colleagues at the helm, their faces tinted with the faint red glow of the compass light, rapidly spinning the wheel to compensate for the throw of the wave as the ship tore down its advancing slope. As the foaming water scurried from side to side on the mid-ship deck like oil on a hot skillet being tossed spitting and fuming from side to side, Rod and I turned back to each other, mouths agape waiting for our laughs to punch through the whine of lines, and when they never did we raised our thumbs up and turned back to our posts, eyes wide and glistening with excitement.

Face of God_big wave+foam_Dick_lowres22

Face of God_waves over portside from wheelhouse_PaulHicks_lowres24

Later on a switch-around, I was on the poop deck with John from Canada. I turned and saw a huge wave crash over him. The wave continued on over onto the roof of the wheelhouse itself. Gasps were audible. As John recovered from his icy dousing, I watched as the water ran off the wheelhouse’s polished wooden roof through corner gutters and down over the foggy widows; inside Ruud was standing alert, hand on the joystick in case conditions got too rough forcing him to yell out “Hands off helm! I have the joystick” or something to that effect and infinitely more related to the seafaring lexicon.

No sooner had that passed than a larger wave hit the starboard beam at mid-ships and with the combination of its force and the gradient of the rising wave face, it sent the ship into a deep lurching heel that would have approached close to 30 degrees from the vertical. Standing transfixed on the poop deck, my gloved hands clasped the railings at the top of the stairs rising from the main deck as I was thrown to portside, and my face stared down to the boiling cauldron below me; and I heard Rod’s voice of raw passion shouting in my head: “It’s the face of God! It’s the face of God!”

Face of God_wave over portside_PaulHicks_lowres21

The safety net that stands a good two metres above the main deck gunwales was awash with the ocean and I struggled to find a distinction between what was inside or outside of the ship. The coiled lines on the pin racks were awash like wholemeal spaghetti in a boiling saucepan of frothy salt-laden water; bunts, sheets and clew lines all became one. And the whole portside of the deck was quite simply a pool of swirling white water. Then slowly, with the gentle inertia of a lady of the sea, Bark Europa righted herself amidst the multitude of criss-crossing waves. Then, with her counter-heeling to the starboard, this pool-sized volume of water rushed like a guillotine across the dark deck boards to pour out the starboard scuppers, only to rush back in again.

It was at this time back in the deckhouse that the real fun and games were happening. My watch mates Rod and Sandy were feeling the comforting side of gravity, wedged as they happily were into the downside bench seats. Above them topside was Michelle from Paris, with the mere friction of the vinyl cushions keeping her in position, the energy potential just a broadside bash away from being realised. When Europa hit that 30-degree tilt, Michelle was forthrightly launched airborne across the deckhouse, pushing Sandy into Rod and Rod into the dark-stained wooden walls: a French-Canadian sandwich with Dutch trimmings and Southern Ocean lashings. Ouch!

The gale-storm passed during the following day (Friday) and progressively more sails were set. But as the winds dropped the seas maintained a strong southerly swell. And we continued to experience her icy dousing from time to time. I was on helm when deckhand Mark suddenly yelled, “Watch out!” I turned to glance at a rising pyramid of waves just off the starboard stern and I turned around in time for the wall of seawater to crash across my legs, back and head. Wow, what a rush. Captain Klaas emerged from the wheelhouse, long grey hairs flowing, to check on everybody: no man overboard we assured him.

Since then I’ve been reminding Rod that there are more manly ways to bruise his ribs on a sailing ship on the high Southern Seas. However, I don’t think he’s heard me yet. He’s still trying to remove the burnt image of the face of God from his salt-encrusted retinas. As for me, I’m wondering if it was indeed God or just Old Man Sea sending me more cold stories from lonely sea mounts below. We are, after all, sailing near the coldest ocean on Planet Earth.

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From Saturday to Friday in a Second

This morning I woke up pre-dawn for my 0400 hour watch duty; at the helm steering the Bark Europa at a bearing of 100 degrees in eighteen knot winds and a moderate northerly swell. We’re a day south east of the Chatham Islands and a great and unexpected visit that was. Being at the helm is a great responsibility to have, the First Mate ahead in the wheelhouse keeping you honest and the feel of the lurch and strain of the ship – her hull heaving in the water and the masts and sails taut – in your hands as you turn the spokes on the giant wheel, marine elements all around you. We were out of the massive blocking high and heading south and east to its lower limits toward the international date line – pushed way east by the geopolitical dictates of New Zealand and her outlying territories (viz. Chatham Islands).

And then it happened. At 0719 hours this morning – being Saturday 9th November – we crossed the most vexing of anthropocentric lines upon this planet, the International Date Line; at 174.5 degrees West. And suddenly within a heave and a lurch of a swell under the hull of the ship and passively to the sound of the whine through the lines (ropes), we went from being fourteen hours in front of GMT (a day ahead) to being ten hours behind. In that sea-bound moment, the clouds hurtling low around us, it was suddenly 0719 hours plus a few seconds on Friday 8th November. Groundhog Day you might say in homage to all things Bill Murray. But the playlist didn’t kick over to ‘I Got You Babe’ by Sonny and Cher. And we continued as before, but then again, not quite.

The 9th of November happened to be voyage crewmember Stephen’s birthday. And so today he woke to a galley and mess decorated for a birthday breakfast by the crew, the deep stained timber wall panelling and ceilings bedecked with colourful flags and bunting. “Hip hip hooray!” we all cheered as we periodically clutched the seats, walls and tautly strung ropes to remain upright in the lurching motion of the ship. But moments later we crossed the date line and suddenly his birthday no more it was! Twas now the day before his birthday. But we’ll leave the bunting up as in just under seventeen hours it will be his birthday again. Weird! I adjusted my watch. It was the first time I’d ever legitimately moved its date back without also adjusting the hour. Again, weird!

Later in the morning, young Daniel, one of the voyage crew, the slightly nerdy-looking whiz kid with matted hair combed down on all sides, kicked off the Europa guest lectures. He is not only a sailing enthusiast but also a budding nuclear physicist. We all – minus the watch on duty – crammed into the deckhouse to hear his talk and before too long the humidity was fogging up the windows, obscuring the rollicking overcast day outside.

We began with the basics of atomic theory and I was enjoying improving my populist knowledge on quantum mechanics with the expert in our midst, refining my theory and seeing the proofs unfolding. But our collective contentment was curtailed when, twenty minutes in, young Dan paused mid sub-atomic equation, and looking slightly bemused, apologised that he was feeling quite squeamish and that he may have to postpone the lecture. At which point he promptly stood and clasping the bench tops lurched his way out of the deckhouse to the port side and discreetly ejected Stephen’s birthday breakfast overboard into the foaming South Pacific Ocean.

It may be Groundhog Day after all. A notice was left on the deckhouse chalkboard that Dan’s lecture had been postponed due to illness. Not to worry, it’ll be Saturday 9th November again tomorrow morning and he, like the Birthday Boy and indeed the rest of us, can have a chance to start afresh. Such are the peculiarities of tall ship travel on the high seas on the Far Side of the World.

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