Dusk sifts through the cumulonimbus clouds settling where the ocean meets the sky. The past few days these puffs of billowing water vapor have become permanently fixed to the horizon like colossal sentinels guarding the gates south to Nome. Tinges of orange and pink, mere wisps of a greater power obscured by this barometric wall, wedge their way through the cracks kissing the air and seas with warm repose. Lately, when science and ship crew have retired for the evening, I find myself up in the bridge gazing at the Arctic waters lost in its vast expanse. My mind races, agitated and turbulent, a meld of rambling prose and pensive reflections. It’s as if Bach with all his symphonic thunder clamors on inside my head using my tympanic membrane for cymbals—yet only silence can be heard on the bridge. Cymbals clashing, drums pounding, violins concerto-ing have become a constant discordance reverberating against my thoughts, but still Bach plays on.
I think back to Caitlin Forster, Alex Poje, Caitlin Smoot, Rachel Lekanoff, Sarah Seabrook, Jess Pretty, Heidi Islas, KoFan Lu, Stephanie O’Daly, and Brittany Jones in 2017 and 2018 ASGARD cruises to name but just a few and now Haley Cynar, Anna Mounsey, and Sarah Donohue of this cruise. I see such promise in these young women, and hope that my daughter has the same drive, passion, and wonder as they do. Or that she may meet some of these esteemed women in science already pioneering Arctic oceanography and marine biology—the Libby Logerwells, Lisa Eisners, Phylis Stabenos, Kate Staffords, Catherine Berchoks, Sarah Hardys, Katrin Ikens, Carin Ashjians, Laurie Juraneks, and of course the Opik Ahkingas of today. Maybe the stories of her old man will inspire her to hop on a ship like I did many years ago…to find adventure, excitement, love, or to simply discover herself. I have been so fortunate that these waters that we are steaming on have provided me all of that, and so much more—especially my friendship with Pete Shipton. He and I have steamed on three cruises together laughing more each time as he photobombs my photographs, finishes movie quotes, and fills my repertoire with dad jokes I can use when I get home. I can’t wait for the day when my daughter asks to look through pictures of this Arctic expedition and point to Pete asking why he’s always wearing the same clothes.
As the swells start to pick back up again as we head further south into the formidable North Bering Sea, it seems only appropriate that the R/V Ocean Starr rolls on through with science and ship crew tucked in safe and sound. Her bones may be old (built in 1965) and engines pre-dating the ship, but her crew have tended to her neatly. In 2017, she barely reached 7 knots according to Chief Scientist Ryan McCabe, but now she hums comfortably at 8.5 knots; she even made it to 10.6 through Unimak Pass. In many places the Ocean Starr looks tired, weathered from more than 40 years of oceanographic research with NOAA. Pipes showing signs of saltwater corrosion, cables lining the bulkhead that probably have no start or end, generator panels that still use incandescent light bulbs, air ductwork that hasn’t been fiddled with in years but she still sloshes through the Bering like any other modern ship. And if you look carefully at the bridge with its flat screen monitors adorning the helm next to the original gyro and magnetic compasses, computerized HUD engine room displays, and a science lab with all the latest scientific instruments from a portable mass spectrometer, underway nitrate, fluorometer sensors synced to a raspberry PI, you would think she was still in her prime. The Ocean Starr is a beautiful juxtaposition of old and new working together in tandem, very much like the entire crew currently aboard.
So how does a ship in her twilight years run better than the way than the way she did two years ago? This perhaps is one of the easiest questions to answer—her crew led by Captain Pete Hall and his surrounding cast. I look down at the crew roster and pause. Each one of the men on this list have impacted me in their own way, some big and some small but still impacted nonetheless. I have listened to many of their stories, from Brian Ripley (Second Assistant Engineer) wanting to see the Northern lights and Larry Weeks (AB #2) trying to Facetime in the mess with family from back home. Chief Steward Gregory Davis yarned with me about life back home in the south always referring to me as the “TV man.” I found out that First Engineer Frank Hutton has a home near Norwalk, Connecticut only a stone throw away from where I grew up. Even though it took awhile for me to find my connection with Chief Mate Terry Reilly, we soon were sharing stories about his granddaughters and of my own daughter about the same age with dreams of visiting Disneyworld. Bosun John Loane promised me a drink at the bar he owns near Western Somoa where he grew up. Jose Valentin (AB#1) endured my terrible Spanish translation of moorings coming to the surface, and OS Austin Goss was always on deck with a smile, cup of coffee, and memories of Astoria, Oregon. Even OS James Smith and I had a chance to talk about Alaska in detail, and while I may not agree with his grand plans of urbanizing the 49th state, it was great to hear what others might think of the land under the midnight sun. But let’s not forget the Chief Engineer Terence Faulkner who amid tales of 7’ bodyguards, the ’67 Mustang Pony, and barely limping into Greenland under power, I met a man whose rough, salty exterior protects that which he holds dear to him—working hard on the things he loves (his car, and whether he admits it or not the Ocean Starr) and his family.
I fear that this may be the last time I am ever in the Arctic or that this may be my last voyage period. And yes, I have said that in 2017 and 2018 when R/V Sikuliaq returned from her ASGARD voyages to Nome. But this time…it feels real. It feels emotional and it weighs down on me. While I have been away from my family on these voyages these past three years, I am reminded that if it weren’t for the Arctic, I wouldn’t even be where I am today writing this blog that probably only my mother really reads. But it’s true, I would have never met my wife in the Arctic or much less pictured a life at sea more than a decade ago when I stepped onto the Norseman II. Steaming south to Nome feels like an end of a chapter to a wonderful adventure that hopefully some of the folks that I have met aboard the Sikuliaq and Ocean Starr will finish.
I can’t help but return back to the bridge and lean up against the chart table. Evening watch has started and Christopher Wahlers, Second Mate, has relieved Chief Mate Reilly. Instantly, Chris goes to the chart on the computer and starts clicking away on our location, zooming in an out on the screen with such zeal that everyone watching the screens knows that he just took the helm…like clockwork. I never understood why there were warning signs on video games that might cause seizures until I met Chris, our self-described millennial, working that navigational system. Lately though, I’ve been staying up late to keep Chris company or maybe perhaps it’s vice versa.
Young, quick-witted, and confident, Chris packs so much in his tall, lanky unsuspecting frame. When we chat, we often both look out into the horizon, but I can hear his enthusiasm, feel how excited he is to be in the Arctic and to experience an adventure like this. Every once in a while, I’ll turn and glance at him when he talks about his future and what it’s like being on the water, and I can actually see his happiness exude from his countenance. In those moments, I see a little bit of me in him. While I fear that Bach will continue to play in my head for quite some time, Chris at least in the meantime has soothed those tempestuous ballads in my head for I couldn’t be happier to see him be a part of this great journey that we have all been a part of on the R/V Ocean Starr.