Friday, August 13, 2010

Ode to a Ship

Meet Captain Kent.

This is our Captain. The Captain of the Knorr, that is. His name is Kent Sheasley. And truth be told, he really is kind of like Clark Kent —unassuming, a little shy, quiet but still very commanding. And because he’s got to keep the ship on course, it often happens that people don’t even know he’s the captain, until days into a cruise and he introduces himself to you at dinner and asks you--in a very gentlemanly manner--if you’d like a tour of “The Bridge.”

Sure, I’d like a tour!? Are you kidding? But, how’s that ever gonna happen?!

And then he replies simply that he can make it happen. He’s the captain.

View from a bridge.

This is actually what happened. And this is when I discovered that Kent is secretly a Superman. There he stands at the helm, high above the vessel, surrounded by a panoramic view of the blue-blue waves of the Atlantic crashing and flowing round us, dolphins frolicking on the starboard side of the ship, their fins catching the sun’s light as they arc into the sparkling waves. I am not making this up. I am not waxing poetic. This is what really happened. I wonder if I’ll ever be able to return to land and stay there.

I do believe I’ve been hypnotized by the siren song of the sea.

There are so many amazing scientists and crew here, and they are all working around the clock--collecting sediments, guiding our vessel and keeping us on course as we roll and steam forward through the waters of the Gulf of Maine.

Here's a photo of Kevin Butler, Able Seaman.

Yes, even as all this science is taking place, we are always steaming forward, always in motion. And someone is always at the bridge.

Late into the night, when I sleep in my stateroom, on the upper bunk, I am lulled to sleep by the gentle rocking motion of the ship as she glides through the waters. There is something so primal about this rocking motion, this gentle tipping back and forth, that I do believe I sleep better here on the Knorr than I have ever slept anywhere in my entire life. I have always struggled with the idea of where do I belong—New York City, Paris, Woods Hole, Seconsett Island where I live now, or Connecticut where I am originally from?

I have never truly felt at home anywhere. Bu tnow, I think I just don't belong on land. Perhaps the Great Atlantic is really my home.

I say the Great Atlantic, because being here, surrounded by the water on all sides—and watching the various permutations the Atlantic takes on—from the bluest blue to the blackest black, from gently shifting swells to pounding, thrashing white capped waves--I have a newfound respect for ocean. For the Atlantic. For the water I grew up on in Stamford, Connecticut, walking along the beaches, occasionally digging for clams in the mucky, muddy low tide beaches of Shippan Point.

I am a "guest."

Yesterday, when I visited the bridge and talked to Captain Kent Sheasley, he was not in any kind of uniform, but rather he was wearing shorts and a slightly wrinkled tee shirt. But, I suspect that the manner of dress is one of the few things that have actually changed over the years on the Knorr. Other than this, there is a sense of decorum and politesse that I find enchanting.

Kent is incredibly kind to me, and truthfully I can imagine this as a scene in a movie. I am the “guest”, a still-attractive though slightly-fading-older woman. I could be his mother, and so he is very polite to me, but not just because I could be his mother, but because he is an officer and a gentleman! He is after all, the Captain of the Knorr!

And while he was rather reserved, I did get to talking with Dee Emrich. She’s our Chief Mate, second in command.

She told me how everyone on the ship is actually rather sensitive and definitely very sensory-oriented. “This is 911,” she told me, meaning that if anything goes wrong, the people on board this ship become rescue workers. And so, everyone here has a heightened awareness of smell, taste, touch, sound and sight. A strange smell can mean something has gone wrong. But what moves me about this is how very writerly it is. When I teach creative writing, this is the first thing I tell my students. Use your senses! So, in the end, I realize that this sea-faring world and the world of the writer are no so far apart.

You have to be a certain kind of person to spend your life on board a ship. And Dee is that kind of person. She loves the life. She grew up by the beach in Hyannis and graduated from the Massachusetts Maritime Academy and she's been on some pretty dramatic WHOI cruises. For instance, she was abroad the Knorr when it traveled to the Irminger Sea—between southern Greenland and Iceland—one of the stormiest places in the world. Not surprisingly, there were several huge storms while she was there and she told me how they had to batten down everything. “Were you scared?” I asked, and she just shrugged her shoulders, calmly telling me, “No. We just did our job.”

When I am ready to leave the Bridge, the kindly Captain tells me that I don’t have to go out through the outside—that’s the way I had come in—by starting at the lower deck and climbing all these precarious stairs (okay, maybe only precarious in my mind) up and up high above the ship, the blue-blue water roiling beneath me.

Rather, the Captain says--directing me to a secret corridor--I can go back down to the deck through the inside chambers of the boat.

Yes, the inside chambers.

And then he bids me farewell.

I had several floors to descend, and so you can be sure, I took out my camera and photographed all along the way. I stopped at this lounge area. Isn’t it exquisite?

Doesn’t it feel very post modern/midcentury chic? Look at the table, the chair, the lamp. And oooh, the door with the porthole.

Standing there, I wanted to just move into this room and play chess all day (and I don’t even know how to play chess).

And then I imagined, I'd drink champagne with Tony Curtis (who would be wearing a nautical cap just like in Some Like it Hot and oh--just watch the ocean curl and foam all around us. Wouldn't that be delightful?

Yes, this is the life for me!

Oh, but I forgot to tell you something really grand! Before I left the bridge, the Captain, (that would be Kent) said he wanted me to come up to the bridge upon arrival, so that I could experience pulling into Woods Hole! This is a very big deal. Very few people get an opportunity like this.

And then later, when I was walking back to the lab, I saw a plaque on the deck level honoring the Knorr because it was the ship that discovered the whereabouts of the Titanic. I looked it up on the internet and learned that there was a very famous arrival for the Knorr, back in 1985 when Bob Ballard returned to a big crowd of fans and reporters!

Here’s a photograph of the media circus that awaited the

famous scientist and crew upon their return to Woods Hole.

Gee, I wonder if there will be anything like that when I return?

And speaking of my return, as it turns out, we having finished coring early and we are actually returning tomorrow at 1630.

That means at 4:30 p.m. I must confess that I am a little out of sorts about this change in plans. I had so much more to write about. Honestly I think I could fill a book.

Well, perhaps I will.

Good night, sea. Good night, sailors. Good night scientists.

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