Science and the sea
One man's journey
Authored by: John Diebold
Brought to you by www.dieselduck.net, comments to [email protected]
Seafarers often say that the only significant distinction between a sea story and a fairy tale is that the sea story lacks the traditional opening: "Once upon a time....".
- Reader, be warned that most of what follows is sea stories-
John Diebold 1998
Some kids dream about running away and joining the circus. When I was a boy, growing up in Rockland County, the circus came to town only infrequently -- but Lamont was always there, seductively offering the chance of running away to sea. Over the years, half a dozen of my friends took low level, unskilled, underpaid jobs at Lamont and disappeared -- to return six months or a year later, occasionally tattooed, but always with sea stories (and usually swearing never to make the same mistake again.) Eventually I took the plunge too. I got a job in "the shop" expecting to be shipped out in a month or two. I hoped to join my pal, Roy who was sailing as cameraman on the Vema, and had written letters encouraging me to come, with advice about getting a seagoing job at Lamont. A first effort, to work as a heat flow technician for James Hiertzler failed to produce a job offer. Someone suggested I try the shop, and in early 1967, I did.
My job interview consisted of answering "yes" to four questions posed in a gravely voice by Angelo Ludas:
"Do you like mechanical shit, young man?"
"Do you work on your own car, young man?"
"Do you want to go to sea, young man?"
"Can you come to work on Monday, young man?"
A week later, I started work at a salary of $3,200 per annum.
The shop was a busy place. Between ten and twelve men worked in a crowded warren of sheds and trailers attached to the greenhouse of the original Lamont estate. Virtually all of the over-the-side equipment used aboard Vema and Conrad was fabricated there: everything from core heads, winches and cutting edges, through air guns, water barrels and net frames to bottom cameras, strobe lights and pressure cases. The place was ruled with an iron hand by Angelo, who had started working at Columbia during the war (in the Manhattan part of the Manhattan project), and was then taken on by Doc Ewing as one of Lamont's first employees. His first assignment was to find war surplus machine tools, and set up the shop that would turn Doc's ideas into realities of steel. By the time I got there, a lot of other famous scientists were working with engineers and machinists, developing and prototyping things like heat flow apparatus, and the lunar seismometer. It was an exciting place, but to me the most important part was that the shop supplied the manpower for the core crews, the essential three musketeers on each of two ships. Getting one of these jobs was my goal: It would be my ticket out of there. My home would be the ship, the world my front yard. But somehow it didn't work out quite that way.
As the youngest, most junior (and, virtually only) apprentice in the shop, I got stuck with the worst, dirtiest, unskilled jobs. First, chipping and scaling the rust from old gear housings returned from the ship, breaking off taps in corroded screw holes and painting with red lead and Rustoleum, then welding, and eventually being permitted to run the oldest, clunkiest milling machine and lathe, turning out production runs of simple equipment items in mind-numbing numbers. Worse yet. week after week, the ships stayed out, and nobody quit. As the months went by, I fretted in the shop but slowly developed into a halfway competent mechanic and machinist.
Life in the shop offered a variety of jobs, experiences, and rituals. For instance, coffee breaks were sacred. Standing at your machine a minute beyond ten in the morning or three in the afternoon was more than a departure from tradition, it was a sin -- and invited a glowering stare from Angelo. Coffee was shared in the small, sunny welding room. On my first day, having had no task yet assigned me, I was first into the room for the morning break. I looked around and selected the shabbiest, rattiest-looking paint-spattered wooden box in view and sat on it. A moment later, I was saved from disaster by Ray, who sat down next to me and muttered indignantly: "That's Angelo's seat!" I jumped up decided to stand around until everyone was settled, and available territory would be revealed.
As my first year went on, I started to work on air gun development projects for Roger Zaunere and John Ewing (Doc's younger brother). The two of them had invented a simple but effective airgun in 196_, and its design was continually being modified and improved. The airgun had replaced explosives as a repetitive seismic source in 196_, following a disastrous accident aboard Vema, which killed geophysicist John Hennion on ____,____, 196_. Continuous seismic reflection profiling had been more or less invented at Lamont in the 1950's. The impulsive pressure of an exploding half-pound block of Navy surplus TNT would create a voltage in a hydrophone towed in the water behind the ship. The voltage would trip a circuit, letting a metal drum start to rotate. The same pressure wave would travel downwards, and some of its energy would reflect from the seafloor and deeper geological layers. When the hydrophone "felt" this returning energy, the resulting voltage would appear as a spark jumping between a sharp stylus and the metal drum, and would be recorded as a black mark on the piece of paper attached to the slowly turning drum. The deeper the ocean, the more time required for the sound waves to travel down and back, and the farther down on the paper would the mark appear. As shooting progressed, the stylus would slowly shift sideways, so that each shot left its own trail of smudgy black marks on the paper. When the paper was full, the trails of marks, like the scan lines on an old black-and-white TV screen, created a visible image of the seafloor and the underlying sedimentary layers. This system revolutionized marine geophysics, and started a new era of sub-seafloor mapping which goes on today.
The drums (at first adapted from commercial weatherfax machines, later manufactured in the Lamont shop) revolved once every ten seconds, but the detonation of each charge of TNT was the ultimate step in a sequence of manual operations that took 30 seconds or more to carry out: cut the fuse (12 - 18 inches); pluck a blasting cap from its waterproof, spark resistant box, slip it on the fuse and crimp it, unpack a block of TNT (100 per wooden case), put cap end of fuse in the hole, or well, cast into the block, fasten it in place with black friction tape, slip a fuse lighter over the free end of the fuse, pull the toggle lighting the fuse, and toss the smoking thing over the side, into the water. It was dangerous to try and keep up this pace 24 hours a day, much less go faster, and even at this rate, two thirds of the possible data were missed.
The advent of the air gun solved this problem, and made things a lot cheaper -- and safer to boot. It took three shifts of "shooters" to keep up with the TNT operation, while one technician could maintain the airgun and the compressor that fed it. One month of constant profiling required loading and storing 20 tons of TNT, while the compressors were driven with electricity created by the ship's generators. And the data came in faster and looked better.
Now, a new era in Lamont's marine operations began. Each of two ships, Vema and Conrad, started a program of continuous geophysical surveying, circling the globe, collecting data on each of up to 320 days a year. At least once a day, the ship would stop, "onstation" to take sediment samples and bottom photographs. The rest of the time was spent cruising at ten knots, trailing magnetometer, air gun and hydrophones, and measuring changes in the earth's gravity field with the gravimeter mounted on a gimballed, gyroscope-stabililized table in the belly of the ship. Instead of returning home after a "cruise" of three or four months, the ships stayed out longer and longer. In late 1966, the Conrad was about to return home, finally completing its first year-long cruise, RC11. And at long last I was sent out to join the boat in Panama, Conrad's penultimate port. My task was to get on-the-job training as an air gun man, apprenticing under David Crippen.
I flew to Panama in October, to meet two youthful chief scientists (Bill Ryan and Steve Eittrem) and a jaded crew, 11 months out. Crippen was gruff but competent, and I learned what I had to know. As we sailed into the Caribbean, the ship started to roll, and I had to deal with the green-hued demon of seasickness. The queasiness was worst when I was below decks, and something told me to go out and up. I spent an hour on the flying bridge, hanging onto the railing, eyes fixed on the horizon, training my brain to associate what my body sensed with the ship's actual rolling motion. For some reason, this cured the seasickness. I am blessed that it never came back.
The principal amusement during that leg consisted of catching sharks while the ship was on station. Sharks are easy to catch -- hard to pull in, but hooking them doesn't take much more than pandering to their instinctive greed and a big hook. I was struck by the bloodlust that affected nearly everyone exposed to the scary presence of a wildly flopping eating machine on deck. Sharks are hard to kill, I learned, and they smell bad when cut open. Several had their jaws cut out for trophies. Hung out to dry, the exposed razor-sharp teeth still presented a hazard to the unwary. In one case, a snapping corkscrew roll set everyone on deck reaching for something solid. One poor fisherman grabbed a drying jaw instead of a hatch dog. Sliced to the bone by a dead shark!
We pulled in at the Piermont pier in early November, and after a few days off I went back to the shop to help get the ship and its gear ready for the next cruise, for which I'd be the air gun man. On my first day back, Angelo detailed me to work with Joe Worzel -- associate director of Lamont, and Doc Ewing's right hand man. Doc had a reputation for getting things done by hard work, and Joe seemed to be trying to outdo him. Nothing I could do seemed to please the man, and I fumed under what I felt to be unjustly contemptuous criticism of every effort I made. During the lunchtime break, I warned Angelo that I was ready to kill Dr. Worzel. Ange couldn't stifle a little grin; wordless confirmation that he knew what I was feeling and why. I was reassigned on the spot. I can't remember who took my place with Joe, or if anyone did.
The Conrad had been out for a year, and there was a lot of gear to repair, refurbish, replace and upgrade. From my angle, important projects included improvements of facilities and furniture in the ship's machine shop, which was to be my domain, and the installation of two new air compressors. Little did I realize how much time I'd be spending maintaining, repairing, modifying and generally babying those two demanding machines!
Meanwhile, back on the Lamont campus, final touches were being put on a new, extra-long hydrophone array being built in Harry Van Santford's electronic shop. Back in the TNT profiling era, a small number of sensitive hydrophones were towed behind the ship to detect the reflected sound waves. Since dragging the bulbuous 'phones through the water at ten knots made signal-obscuring noise (gurgling and swooshing sounds) a special winch was constructed that payed out the towing wire at ten knots for a few seconds at a time, stopping the hydrophones' forward progress while the reflections were coming in. Between shots, the winch would take up the slack, pulling the 'phones through the water at double speed. When the introduction of airguns allowed a threefold increase in shot repetition rate, there wasn't enough time for slacking the hydrophones, and a new method had to be developed.
The answer was to use a longer string of smaller hydrophones, strung like beads inside a piece of oil-filled flexible tubing. The resulting "streamer" was pulled through the water at constant speed by the ship, but early versions were still found to be noisier than the original slacked hydrophones. The extra-long streamer was created in an effort to improve the signal-to-noise ratio by adding more hydrophones, and increasing the overall length of the array.
I had a few other projects underway, too. Selling my car, storing my books and records, trying to get my teeth fixed up in marathon sessions with a young dentist someplace in New Jersey, getting fitted for contact lenses, and slogging through the Coast Guard's bureaucracy to get my seaman's credentials -- the prized "Z" card that promised casual employment any time the holder was willing to go to sea in the merchant fleet. Winter was coming too, and as every day went by the winds blew a little colder down the Hudson valley, chilling the workers out at the end of the pier. Small flasks of brandy began to bulge in coverall pockets. To my surprise, the schedule was advanced, and we sailed from Piermont three days early -- too soon for me to complete either my Z card or my dentistry. The latter deficiency was to have effects that are felt even today.
RC1201, the first leg of Conrad's twelth "cruise," started on January 6, 1968. The ship left Piermont with 18 inches of deepening snow on deck. As we left New York Harbor, the wind picked up and the snowstorm evolved into a snowing gale. The ship started rolling heavily, and heavy objects, hastily stowed in the machine shop and lazarette, started to shift, working loose and eventually sliding around, making those enclosed spaces a hazardous environment. I'd been worried about getting seasick, but I wound up working for 48 hours straight, stowing the loose gear and metal stock and tying things down . The storm continued, but I was too busy and tired to get seasick. The ship was doing its job, carrying us southwards until the weather finally calmed down, but then it seemed as if everything in the scientific department was breaking down. The new, long streamer developed electrical problems. One of my new compressors failed, with a broken cylinder. Six days out, we pulled in close to a Florida port, and exchanged one seasick electronic technician for compressor parts, brought out by small boat.
Southward, we continued, and slowly (it seemed) the "scientific operation" was brought into workable order. The typical mode was one in which each day's effort was shared between the gathering of geological samples and geophysical data. The work went on twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, for what was, typically, a 30 day cruise. Most of the time was spent motoring at 10 knots, collecting continuous geophysical measurements, but at least once every day, the ship stopped for a coring and seafloor camera "station."
Underway measurements included gravity, magnetics, bathymetry, single channel seismic profiles, and seawater temperature. Bathymetry, or water depth, was determined by the time it took for a short, high frequency pulse, or "ping" to travel from a hull-mounted transducer to the seafloor and back. Two "pingers" were typically used: the high frequency (12 kilohertz) one gave the most accurate results, but the 3.5 KHz pings had the capability of penetrating soft sediments, and were very useful in deciding where to take cores. The gravimeter was installed down in the engine room, as close to the center of the ship as possible. Measuring the force of gravity is conceptually simple -- determine the apparent weight of some reference mass (or, equivalently, the speed with which it falls when dropped). But this is not so simple when the measurement is made on a constantly moving platform; think of how you feel in an elevator: the sudden lightness as the car begins to descend, followed by a knee-bending heaviness when it stops at the ground floor. And not only is the ship moving up and down, but it's constantly turning, pitching and rolling; think of being thrown to one side as your taxi driver makes a sudden, unexpected turn. These confusing effects never disappear on a ship, but they can be minimized by placing the gravimeter as close as possible to the ship's natural axes of motion.
Measuring the local strength of earth's magnetic field is a bit simpler. Free hydrogen atoms act like little compass needles -- when free to rotate, they align themselves with the local magnetic field. Our magnetic sensors were heavy plastic cylinders filled with hydrogen-rich oil, surrounded by an electric coil. When the coil was energized, it created a powerful magnetic field in the oil-filled cylinder, and the hydrogen atom-compass needles would turn to align themselves with the coil. When the current was turned off, the atoms were free to "precess," or wobble back to their original alignments. This wobbling induced tiny, but measurable voltages in the electric coil. The speed of wobbling could be measured, and this speed depended on the strength of the earth's magnetic field. Once the electronics were worked out and built, this was a relatively easy measurement to make, but the magnetometer had to be placed far away from the ship, whose steel hull distorted the ambient magnetic field. To accomplish this, the sensor bottle, usually referred to as the "maggie," was towed at the end of a long, heavy wire, whose shipboard end was connected to the electronics and chart recorder which together made up the magnetometer.
The seismic profiling gear included two items -- the acoustic source and receiver -- both of which were towed behind the ship along with the magnetometer. The acoustic source was usually called an "air gun," though this nomenclature could cause problems when shipping the things. To keep from alarming customs officials around the world, descriptions like "pneumatic sound source" were often substituted. The air gun we used had been designed and developed at Lamont, much of the inspiration and perspiration coming from Doc's brother John, and a wild man named Roger Zaunere.
Nowadays, more advanced airguns are the essential to offshore exploration for oil and gas, and thousands are in operation every day. In the mid-sixties, however, the exploration industry was just starting to make the transition from explosives to air guns, and it was almost impossible to buy them [check this!], so at the time, the Lamont gun represented the state of the art. The Lamont airgun was primitive, but at the same time elegant in its simplicity and efficiency. It had only one moving part, and was manufactured in the shop at Lamont.
Its principle of operation was the same as all airguns from then until now. Air, compressed by a factor of nearly 150 to a pressure of 2,000 pounds per square inch, was pumped into a storage chamber in the gun. A kind of plug (usually called a "shuttle") held the air in the chamber. Some of the air was diverted and used to hold, or "control" the shuttle in place as the pressure built up. In modern air guns, the gun is fired when an electrical impulse activates a solenoid valve, shifting the "control" air from holding the shuttle to freeing it, letting the larger volume of pent-up air escape from the chamber into the surrounding water. The Lamont air gun differed in that it went off when the air pressure reached a certain preset level. This arrangement eliminated the complexity and expense of a solenoid valve, and although the exact moment of the shot was a bit unpredictable, the recording system, originally designed to be triggered by even-less-predictable TNT detonations, handled things flawlessly.
In preparation for a station, the chief scientist would ask that the ship slow down to two or three knots, reducing the towing strain. The trailing equipment would be pulled in, always in the same order, and by hand. First, the maggie was recovered by two scientists who shouldered the dripping, thick and heavy cable at the transom and walked it forward in turn, flaking it on deck, making the "figure 8" pattern that prevented tangling when the gear was redeployed. Next, the airgun tow rope was pulled in, using one of the ship's capstans; this time, though, the trailing air hoses had to be pulled in by hand, and finally the most exhausting item, the seismic streamer. Connected by a thinner wire, the streamer offered a lot more towing resistance than the maggie did, and it was necessary for two or three people to team up, straddle it and pull it in, hand over hand, as yet another scientist flaked it in a safe place along the port rail. The sight of the streamer itself, finally emerging from the water, always brought a sigh of relief, as it signalled the end of the ordeal. This exercise developed the muscles in our forearms to the extent that I realized why this feature had been so prominant in the caricature of Popeye the Sailor Man.
With the geophysical gear on deck, the ship could be stopped at the desired spot. A spectrum of new station-related activities began on deck. A "full" station included sediment sampling, heatflow measurements, bathythermograd, bottom photography, current measurements, nephelometer profile and biological sampling. "Lamont-style" was to simultaneously do as many of these things as possible. This involved having as many as five sampling assemblies dangling from three different wires, all at the same time -- something, I later learned, was absolutely unheard of on ships operated by competing institutions, Woods Hole and Scripps. This strategy saved a lot of time, but it could be risky and had to be carried out with skill and care. First, the seafloor camera was launched and lowered from a middle-sized winch situated on the "01" deck, one level above the main working deck. During RC12, the camera apparatus was evolving from the simple "sled" originally designed by Ed Thorndyke, to a tripod, which could house not only the bottom camera, its strobe light, and the constantly measuring nephelometer, but a current meter, as well. Light in weight, large in cross-section, the camera apparatus tended to move with the currents, "kiting" away from the ship, which was being held by the officer-on-watch so that the camera wire was on the upwind side.
Once the camera wire had established a stable orientation with respect to the ship, the coring apparatus, which had been previously set up by the coring crew, was hoisted from its cradle, swung to its vertical position, and lowered by the diesel powered coring winch. The coring apparatus consisted of a 1,800 lb core head, connected to the wire by a triparm assembly, which released it to free fall twenty feet or so when it approached the bottom. Attached to the core head was one or more twenty foot long sections of pipe, which were driven into the sediments by the inertia of the free falling head. The core head provided more than mass, however; it included tubes designed to hold more subtle devices. A fully loaded core head included a strobe light and a camera, whose function was to photograph a compass, bolted to the pipe below, establishing the orientation of the recovered sediments. A third tube was filled by the heatflow recorder, wired to a series of sensors placed along the length of the core pipes. After plunging into the sediments, the corer was allowed to rest in place for ten minutes or so as the sediments cooled down from the slight frictional heating produced by the pipe's penetration, and thermal equilibrium was established. By accurately measuring the temperature at two or more depths (and knowing the thermal conductivity of the sediments, which was measured later, from the cored sediments themselves) the amount of heat being given off by the earth's crust could be determined.< /P>
Sometimes, water sampling bottles would be attached, either to the core or camera wires. These were sent down open, with the seawater flowing through them. When they reached the desired depth, a heavy brass "messenger" was clamped over the wire and dropped, to slide along the wire and trigger the closing of the sampler's lid, trapping the water inside for later geochemical sampling. The largest of these samplers was the "Gerard barrel" named after its designer, Robert "Sam" Gerard, one of Lamont's early scientist-engineers. The third wire over the side reeled off the smallest, "BT" winch. On its end was either the eponymous bathythermogradient meter, or a biological sampling net, lowered last, and taking the least time. BT measurements were important to our prime customer of the time; the Navy, and therefore to us, because they provide the information required for predicting the dependence of sound velocity with depth in the upper water layer. This information is crucial when using acoustic means for tracking large metal objects [ie, submarines] underwater.
If all went well, the three wires would be recovered in reverse order; BT, core, camera. Of course, things didn't always go so well. The downside of two- and three-wire stations was that the wires could get tangled. This was especially likely to happen when the water barrels were used, or in the presence of undiscovered deep currents running in unknown directions, which could drag the camera back towards the core wire. Tangling was bad for the wires themselves, since the thinner camera wire could actually saw through the half-inch core wire, unless the two were reeled in at the same speed. Most of the time, the wires were untangled after careful removal of the water barrels, and a lot of swearing. Once in a great while, a wire had to be tied off, and then cut, so that things could get straightened out. After the cut wire had been temporarily reattached and the equipment retrieved, the bo's'n would have a day's work in front of him, long-splicing the wire again.
A more frequent mishap was a bent core pipe. Predicting how far the falling coring apparatus would penetrate into the bottom was an uncertain business, especially in a new, previously unsampled area. The desire to recover as much sediment as possible often led the chief scientist to an over-optimistic selection of pipe length. If this happened and the giant dart comprising the core head and pipes didn't strike the bottom exactly vertically, pipes would bend. Upon recovery, the first problem was how to land the suddenly V-shaped core pipes into cradles designed for straight pipes. Then, the pipes, sticking out at odd angles to the ship, had to be disconnected, and then straightened, using a portable hydraulic press, before the sediments could finally be extruded.
As soon as the core head and camera were aboard, the ship would get underway, the geophysical gear redeployed, and the cycle would start again. To do all this took ten or more scientific personnel. Recording and annotating the geophysical data required watchstanders, who (while the ship was underway) worked at these tasks between eight and twelve hours a day. The core crew and air gun man were exempt from standing watch, since they had so much else to do. This exemption usually extended to the core describer as well, since he had to spend so much time sampling, describing and archiving the core samples. The ET, or electronic technician, usually had more work than he could handle, too, as did the cameraman, who spent so much time in his darkroom and behind the camera winch. Less favored were the heatflow, gravity and maggie men. When we were lucky, the chief scientist brought along some students who could assist; otherwise those guys had to help out.
On the other hand, there wasn't much else to do during what little leisure time we did have. In those days, there was no video tape, and certainly no VCRs or television screens on the ship. No movies, either, and microwave popcorn hadn't been invented yet. Mostly, the entertainment choices were eat, sleep, read or work -- and reading while on watch was a major no-no. There was no formal library, but rather the usual collection of dogeared, left-behind paperbacks and books donated by various seamen's missions around the world. A lot of the time, we (the scientific crew) devised our own entertainment. During one leg, we made kites and tried to fly them from the fantail with varying degrees of success. I remember another project that met with even less success -- trying to make plywood boomerangs. Since none of the dozens we made ever returned to the ship, each was a one-toss wonder. A more frequent sport was our own version of the national pastime, which we played on the fantail and called "tape ball." Making the ball out of rags and friction tape was a practical and economic necessity, since the ball was prone to being lost, especially if anyone got a good hit with the mop handle we used as a bat.
Nighttime entertainment included playing cards, though seldom did anyone have much money for poker. Frequently, therefore, we used matchsticks and other counters and played for "payday stakes," in which case accounts were settled when cash became available in the pre-port salary draw. If one was losing steadily, the result could result in a financial shock, and not much fun in port. I played payday stakes for about three months running. After a series of highs and lows -- alternately accumulating winnings and losses of as much as a hundred dollars, I broke even, and decided my nerves couldn't take the stress. Consumption of alchohol was then, as now, a favored nighttime diversion. The trouble of course, is that there were no liquor stores at sea, and it seemed that after a week or two, the booze always ran out. There was, however, one reliable source, though not without its risks.
Louis Lamphere was one of the two most memorable Conrad characters ever. During the years I spent on the ship, he progressed from messman to cook to chief steward. Even as steward, he did most of the cooking, at which he was great. But Louie loved to live it up. Since he was in charge of ordering and loading "stores" [all that food, paper towels, toilet paper, laundry, etc. that comes onto the ship in every port] it was easy for him to get whisky on board by the case, whereas the rest of us were forced to sneak it on, a bottle at a time. [As an aside, I should mention that then, as now, the shipboard policy was to maintain a "dry ship." But boys will be boys, and to quote my ex-boss, ex-advisor and longtime colleague, John Ewing: "It's better to be on a dry ship than one with no alchohol."] Louie's favored flavor was Johnny Walker's red label scotch, and he almost always had plenty of it. A lot too much, in retrospect. Louie's other main vice was young men. Louie never kept his light under a bushel, or in the closet, either. If Louie invited you down to his room, especially late in the leg, the temptation to accept was fairly overpowering. He made it clear that consensual sex was his ultimate goal, though talking, laughing, drinking, and listening to the show tunes he loved was even more important. The trick was to keep Louie happy and leave with your honor intact. Often, this involved leaving after Louie had reached a comotose condition.
Less frequent, but much more public occasions for sport and amusement were shipboard rituals, including boat drills and equator crossings. Coast Guard regulations mandate weekly safety drills, intended to keep sailors and scientists familiar with emergency duties and procedures. When the weather was good, the daily schedule of station work gave the opportunity to actually lower Conrad's two clumsy steel lifeboats into the water. This involved teamwork and a lot of shouting and gesticulation as the bo's'n orchestrated the process of un-clamping the boats, cranking out the davits, and freeing up the winches that did the lowering. The boats were held at deck level for boarding: eight scientists on one side, eight ship's crew on the other. After being dropped into the water, the crews cast off and put out their oars. Upon rendevousing at the bow, the two crews raced, one lap around the ship. After eight months or so at sea, the scientists were able, at least once in awhile, to beat the crew to the finish line.
Equator crossings were marked by a ceremony that has been played out at sea in similar circumstances for hundreds of years. The shellbacks, who have crossed the line before, take charge from the pollywogs, who haven't. On Conrad, what followed was essentially a hazing ritual, but it retained resonances of the original, mystical obeisances to the powers of the deep. The pollywogs were sequestered, nervously discussing their anticipated fate, while things were made ready on deck. Eventually, the fun began. One at a time, the candidates were blindfolded, led out on deck, and (at least in my case) fettered with chains. On hands and knees, the supplicant crawled through a gantlet of abuse, to be smeared with grease, paint and foul smelling fluids. A tugging accompanied by snipping sounds convinced us that our hair was being cut (a serious threat to a young man in the '60's) though it turned out later that this was just an illusion induced by cutting the bristles of an old paintbrush close to the paranoid sufferer's ear. At the end of this avenue of indignities, the blindfold was removed, and the pollywog faced the royal family, usually consisting of King Neptune, his wife and baby, all dressed in appropriately fantastic style. This was, essentially, a kangaroo court. Accused of imaginary but always appropriate and funny sins against the empire of the sea, the pollywog was given little chance to defend himself. (In the fullblown version, there's a judge, a priest, and a hopelessly incompetent public defender.) Punishment, typically involving a seawater bath, was then meted out, and on they went to the next miscreant, as the ex-pollywog, pleased and relieved, joined his preceeding fellows to watch the fun.
The most fun of all, anticipated and discussed from the first day of every leg, was time and money spent in port. The typical pattern was 3 days in port, following a 30-day leg at sea. Three days wasn't really long enough to dissipate the tensions that built up after more than four weeks of continuous workdays, but we tried -- and unlike the ship's crew, scientists didn't have to stand watch in port. As long as the work got done, time management was up to you. The ports of RC12 were pretty good: Panama, Manzanillo, Honolulu, Brisbane, Tokyo, Adak [oh, well], Kodiak [a little better], Suva [yippee!], Mar del Plata, Buenos Aires, Cape Town, Colombo, Sasebo, Hakodate. Each place offered new adventures, new things to see, to taste, to experience. Youth and lack of responsibility helped a lot. After the gear was pulled in for the last time on each leg, I worked feverishly to overhaul my compressors and guns as we steamed into port, trying to get all my work done in advance. Channel fever might have kept me awake most of the last night at sea, and I was often a sweating, greasy mess as we entered the harbor, but youthful energy and the prospect of something new pulled me through every time.
One of the last and most important ceremonies of each leg was the "draw", when the ships crew and the long term technical staff lined up outside the captain's office to receive some cash, drawn from our salaries. Typically, the request for this had been made days in advance, and it was important to accurately predict how much would be required. I learned that $100 per port day was a good figure, unless there was something big to buy, like cameras in Tokyo. $100 a day seemed like a lot of money then, and it was, considering that my regular salary came to a lot less than that, but there were things to do, beer to drink, strange food to eat, fun to be had, and it just wouldn't do to be unprepared. Wine women and song. Well, perhaps it's best to skip over the "women" part a little, but there were no women on research ships in those days, except once in awhile the captain's wife. And in every port [well, not Adak] establishments could be found where socially deprived seamen could meet girls [women, too], talk and dance. And pay - and more, though the social interaction seemed most important. I'll never forget what happened while I was sitting drinking beer with a young lady in a place in the outskirts of Colon, near the Panama Canal Zone. She asked "What ship?" and when I said "Conrad", she giggled and ran back to her room. She emerged, shuffling a thick stack of Polaroid pictures, and came up with one of her sitting on the laps of two of my colleagues, back at Lamont. The world my backyard, indeed!
Small though it was, Conrad's crew fell into a well defined social structure. This was clearly visible in the dining arrangements. The galley was small, but the dining area was divided into three zones: officers, scientists and crew. Officers and scientists were served by a messman; the crew lined up at a passthrough window into the galley and were served directly by the steward. I was told that the officers/scientists mess had originally been integrated, but that the scientists' dining behaviour had offended the officers to the extent that a partition was erected. I'm sure this is true, because the highjinks and food fights we engaged in then would be offensive to me now. Among scientists, there was a fairly clear division between short-timers and, as we thought of ourselves, "lifers." Chief scientists and the students they brought with them typically sailed for one or two legs, after which they went home again, with their data under their arms. On the other hand, the technicians were expected to spend a long time continuously at sea. Six months was generally considered to be the minimum. In retrospect, the enforcement of this minimum probably wasn't legal, but enforced it was. A salary bonus of 50% ("sea pay") was withheld if you "made waves" and quit early. In some cases, malcontents were reported to have found that the cost of their return tickets was deducted from their pay.
As the months rolled by, RC12 got longer and longer, and the technical crew became somewhat jaded and battleweary. Chief scientists came and went, each full of energy and wanting things to be done in some particular way. We tried to make adjustments, but we thought we were doing a pretty good job already, and to be told "they do it differently on the Vema" rankled a slight but sensitive inferiority complex. On the other hand, it must have been frustrating for the chief scientists to have to deal, one at a time, with each member of this recalcitrant crew. From time to time, however, an interesting project, a chief scientist with a compelling personality, or a near-disaster, mechanical or natural, would come along and totally re-engage our attention.
Seismic projects which involved "shooting" explosives captured everyone's attention. The air guns were fine for reflection profiling, but to determine deeper structure, like the depth of the crust-mantle transition [the Mohorovic - "Moho"] discontinuity required more power. The first step, loading the explosives onto the ship, was usually the hardest part. Typically, the US Navy supplied us with TNT or tetrytol, from the vast surplus left over from WWII and stored at various facilities around the Pacific. Navy stevedores would bring the stuff from the storage bunkers and leave it on the dock, alongside the ship. From there on it was our job to stow it safely. The bo's'n and his seamen would move the wooden boxes -- 50 or 75 lb each, onto the fantail, but the rest of the shipboard handling was the responsibility of the scientific staff, which usually meant the core crew and air gun man. One by one, the boxes were lowered through small hatches two decks below into Conrad's magazine, located underneath my machine shop. Fully packed, the magazine could hold about 17 tons. When it was hot, which it usually was, working in that stifling airless space with its low overhead and tight access was hell. We took turns, so nobody had to work down there more than 15 or 30 minutes at a time.
When the shooting started, the boxes had to be hoisted out again, but at a more leisurely pace: five or six every hour. Making up the charges and setting them off was the job of the chief scientist and one other person, who acted as his relief. Apparently by tradition, the air gun man was usually the second shooter. Chief scientists Bill Ludwig and John Ewing taught me the strict rules we followed, in the successful hope of preventing another accident like the one that killed John Hennion. I have never found another task that held my attention quite the way that cutting fuse, crimping blasting caps, strapping together blocks of high explosives, lighting the fuse, and dropping the charges over the rail did. Timing was always important. The "listener" -- usually another ship on station with hydrophones dangling in the water -- turned on its analog recorders for specified periods and at specified times, when the shot was expected to go off. We had to predict how long it would take for the fuse to burn, and have the shot ready to go that far ahead of time. The two crucial pieces of information for each seismic arrival used in the final data analysis were the distance between the shot and the receiver, and the exact time it took for the energy to travel that distance. Since the distance was determined from the time it took for the sound of the explosion to travel directly through the water to the receiver, the single most important measurement was time. Therefore, analog recordings were made on the shooting ship, too. A single hydrophone, towed in the water close (but not too close) to the explosion, provided a signal, which was recorded simultaneously with a clock pulse. Before and after the line of shots, each at a different distance from the receiver, the clock pulses produced by the two ships were compared, to obtain fine corrections, so that travel times could be determined to 1/100th of a second.
When it came to strong personalities, few could compare with Maurice "Doc" Ewing, who sailed as chief scientist for a single leg during my tenure on Conrad. I think we worked harder during that voyage than any other, which reflects Doc's constant desire to get as much data as possible at all times. Doc came on board in Sasebo, a port on the southern island of Japan. The plan was to carry out two-ship refraction surveys in cooperation with a Japanese ship. Conrad was already loaded, as usual, with tons of TNT, but Doc had failed, somehow, to obtain blasting caps. Unfazed, he handed me a box of .45 pistol bullets as we left the harbor: "See if you can figure out a way to detonate the TNT." Meanwhile, he set the core crew to take three cores a day, every day, in the shallow waters of the Japan Sea. I worked on the TNT problem for a day or two. It was hopeless, but I learned a lot. I read up on blasting caps, which comprise a train of three successively less sensitive explosives; the fuse ignites fulminate of mercury, which sets off lead azide, which in turn is powerful enough to detonate a small charge of the plastic explosive PETN, which can make TNT, which is relatively insensitive, explode. I reported to Doc that of the three substances, we could probably try making the lead azide, an ammoniate of lead, but that I thought it would be a bad idea. He agreed, and asked me to give up and help the core crew, instead. With two two-man crews, we were able to meet Doc's insatiable demand for cores (about 90 for the leg) but I've never been so relieved to see a chief scientist leave the ship.
Not too much later, we arrived in Honolulu, our fourth visit and the final port of RC12. It was September third, 1969, and I had been aboard for twenty months. Time to go home, and an end to my first stretch at sea. 20 months was long enough!.
Visit John's website at http://www.ldeo.columbia.edu/~johnd/