At Sea: In the North Atlantic Day 20


“But I don’t want to go among mad people," Alice remarked.
"Oh, you can’t help that," said the Cat: "we’re all mad here. I’m mad. You’re mad."
"How do you know I’m mad?" said Alice.
"You must be," said the Cat, or you wouldn’t have come here.”


Everything slides at once, and as soon as you hear that noise you reach for your breakfast with one hand and for the nearest stable object with the other. A few unlucky forks always escape, and a second after the sliding noise starts, there’s a crash as everything in the kitchen arrives at either the wall or the protruding lip around the kitchen worksurfaces. You keep holding on, waiting for gravity to be trustworthy again. The First Mate, who had thought until a second earlier that he was about to step into the canteen, is frozen in time like a character in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. The pause only lasts until the ship rolls back the other way and then he arrives at the coffee machine rather more quickly than expected. Nobody stops eating, cooking or talking as all this is going on.

Last night was hard on us all. No-one slept. Floating is a very relaxing state to be in, but it tends to be spoilt when it only lasts for half a second before you thump back on to your bunk. My cabin is close to the middle of the ship, so I’m mostly spared the floating, but I spent the night sliding down the bed and back up again and sometimes also from side to side. It occurred to me for the first time that bedsheets should be made with a measureable tread, so that you can choose the grip appropriate for the conditions. Only the enthusiasts are at breakfast, or the ones who gave up on trying to sleep hours ago. The steward cracks another egg on to the griddle, and waits as the ship saves her the bother of tilting the pan to spread it out. Wonderland, and the world Alice saw through the looking glass, have nothing on this. The same thought is in everyone’s mind: We are mad. We must be, otherwise we wouldn’t have come here.

There’s an anthropologist on the ship, studying how scientists get science done. One of the questions she has asked almost everyone is “is working on a ship like you thought it would be?”. Everyone has the same answer: society romanticizes this life, and the reality is much more prosaic. And we are in a modern ship with liferafts and the internet and chocolate icecream. Imagine being an early seafarer, out in this weather, in a creaking wooden ship. No icecream, and the only entertainment would have been to play hide and seek with the rats. It’s amazing that humans explored the ocean at all, especially the bits of it that are like the North Atlantic in storm season. My respect for the early explorers of the ocean easily outweighs my respect for the humans responsible for any other achievement. Living in those conditions while you sailed off the edge of the known world is an astonishing feat that should never be underestimated.

I like ships, and I like living on ships. And it’s true that each voyage is a new adventure. But we’re three weeks into this trip, and almost everyone has cabin fever. It’s partly because we only have ocean to look at, and few big events to mark the passing of time. The days blur into one another. Our lives are dictated by the comings and goings of colourful splodges on weather maps, and decisions can change at a moment’s notice if the wind or waves change. You can’t really plan your time, and so it feels as though time isn’t passing.

I’m typing this in the ship’s library, and Trivial Pursuit just zoomed along the floor past me. When things fall on the floor, it’s frequently easier to leave them there, to save them the bother of falling down again. But then you have to listen to them all playing bumpercars as the ship moves around. Oh, and now Trivial Pursuit is on its way back to the port side, accompanied by Pictionary. The games are playing games. How sweet. I hope that Humpty-Dumpty is not on board as well, because he really wouldn’t last very long out here, with waves slamming into us from every direction and no kings horses and no kings men to try putting him back together again.

How do scientists do science at sea? Today, on this ship, the answer is: very sleep-deprived, but occasionally also on a temporary high resulting from the potent combination of new science and candy riddled with E-numbers. The Oxford Encyclopedia of Astronomy has just arrived at my feet, chaperoned by a chair and a small guitar. I think it might be bedtime.


Naming the buoy

Thank you to everyone who suggested names for our buoy! With the help of twitter (special thanks to Helen Arney for her enthusiasm) and Radio 4’s Inside Science programme, we assembled quite a long list of potential names. Here is a selection of the best:

  • Bob
  • Buoyancé
  • Sue (A buoy named Sue)
  • Robin the Buoy Wonder
  • Danny Buoy
  • Buoy George
  • Nauti buoy
  • Beastie buoy
  • Boogie Woogie Bugle Buoy
  • Pike (Stupid Buoy!)
  • Pudsea
  • Del Buoy the globe Trotter

We also got lots of puns along the lines of Buoy meets Gull, and a plea for its storage area to be called Buoyzone.

My two personal favourites were Buoyancé, and Del Buoy the globe Trotter. I was really impressed with the variety of ideas that people had! We had a meeting of all the scientists on board about four weeks into the cruise, and looked at all the names then. And the name chosen was… Bob. The final choice had a sort of inevitability about it – Bob is a nice short simple name that you can shout easily across the deck, and it has the added advantage that you can say it the way that Edmund Blackadder would. Also, our buoy does have a slightly grumpy look about it, and it seemed that Buoyancé was a bit too cheerful!

So thanks again to everyone who contributed – it provided a very welcome source of ship entertainment!

Vivid Imagination