At Sea: In the North Atlantic Day 5


It’s early in the research cruise for the emergency chocolate to be called on, but it’s been that sort of week. It’s only 5 days since we left port and it feels as though it’s been about two months. This is that bit of experimental science that no-one really talks about, the bit where nothing is really going to plan and you’re spending hours working through a never ending maze of logic puzzles in the hope that even if this particular task doesn’t let you escape from the problem, at least it may show you that some of the possible turnings are dead ends. It would be a lot more fun if getting out of the maze wasn’t quite so important!

Things are not actually going that badly, and I’m confident that most of the problems can be solved. But these are long work days, usually 7am until 9pm, and chocolate is essential fuel.

I’m currently sitting in the main lab, which has a door at one side that leads out on to the back deck of the ship. This room is big (about 15m x 6m), but it’s very full of benches, storage boxes, straps, data cables, power supplies, cameras, computers, notes, giant jubilee clips and us, the scientists. Most things, except the scientists, are strapped down to prevent unplanned meandering around the lab as the ship rolls and bumps its way through the ocean. Some of what is in here should be out on the buoy, but it isn’t because the buoy is currently in need of quite a lot of TLC. The day before yesterday, the wrong things went “crunch”.

The buoy had been out in the ocean for 48 hours, recording bubbles, wave and turbulence on about 8 separate devices. It was a beautiful day on deck, sunny and relatively calm, and everyone was outside to watch the buoy being lifted out of the water. The buoy was horizontal, parallel to the deck and halfway out of the water when a freak bit of swell turned up, rolled us, and the buoy started to swing. After a few near-misses, it barrelled straight into the side of the ship. The red dome on the top of the buoy met the hull of the ship with considerable enthusiasm and broke. The communications devices and cameras inside it took a seawater bath. The buoy structure itself also took a bit of a bashing. All my most important experiments were further down the buoy and were fine, but the top of the buoy is a wreck. So we’re taking a few days to rebuild and check everything, and to try to recover the data (some of that went AWOL when the power was suddenly cut).

This sounds awful, and it is a temporary setback, but we knew that we were coming out here to work in difficult conditions. Although we didn’t anticipate this specifically, we have a whole pod of plan Bs in reserve. It looks as though we should be mostly up and running again in two or three days, since we have enough spares to rebuild. It’s just a lot of work to do.

While all that is going on, the ocean is pretty lively. The swell at the moment is consistently 6-8 metres high, and the largest wave that has gone past in the last half hour was 11 metres high. Looking out over the bow of the ship, you can see walls of water coming towards you. But the ship just rides over the top of it all, and I feel completely safe. The wind has consistently been 22 metres per second overnight (that’s 50 mph). These are exactly the conditions we wanted to measure in, so everyone is happy, but also more than a bit sleep-deprived. Sleep is a bit tricky when you’re getting rolled about quite so much. Walking around the ship, you’re always going slightly faster or slightly more slowly than you expected, and there’s a sort of ship’s waddle that you adopt without thinking about it. For any theorists out there who think that what experimentalists do is easy, I challenge you to assemble fiddly bits of electronics with horribly small screws while going up and down 10 metres every few seconds, and also while keeping an eye on your tools because Newton’s laws give them permission to rush off in any direction with no warning. I hate tiny fiddly screws.

Hopefully all this will calm down soon and I’ll have time to blog about the science as well as the practicalities. But now I have to go and see a sonar system about some data.

Also, happy Ada Lovelace day, everyone! See if you don’t already know all about it.

Sean Atkins