Blog entry by Lisa Skein
Going to sea for long periods of time gives one the chance to meet many new people that you most likely would not have met otherwise. This also brings the opportunity to hear many different stories from people who have sailed all over the world. I’ve been particularly interested in hearing some stories from the officers on the bridge and, as it appears, so too have some scientists and technicians. So this Friday evening, I gathered a few questions from the main lab to take upstairs!
On duty on the bridge this evening with Chief Officer Ian McLeod and Third Officer Jordan Greenhow. For both officers, life at sea has delivered many extraordinary experiences and I had a great time listening to what is probably only a very small snippet of a seagoing life. Below are a few questions I asked the officers on duty and their responses. Enjoy!
Let’s start with the basics. Where are you from?
Ian McLeod: Western Isles, Scotland.
Jordan Greenhow: Cambridge, England.
How long have you been going to sea for?
IM: 18 years.
JG: 10 years.
What is your favourite part about going to sea?
IM: A nice aspect is that it’s a job with time-on and time-off schedules. It’s great to be at sea say for eight weeks, and then knowing that you’ll have around eight weeks off once you’re back. It makes for a good work-life balance. Plus it’s a lot of fun to work on research vessels as the work is very interesting and you get to learn a lot!
JG: I’ve also really enjoyed working on research vessels for the past five years. Before this, I have worked on offshore vessels, ferries, hospital ships, you name it. But the things you get to do and places you get to go on research vessels is great. Going on research expeditions, especially to very remote regions in the world, gives you the chance to see things that not many other people will ever get to see.
What is the longest time you’ve spent at sea?
IM: My longest continuous trip at sea was for six and a half months when I was doing training on a Norwegian cargo ship. It was a fairly standard cargo ship transporting goods like timber and metals. The ship used to sail from Chile, over to Taiwan, up the Chinese coast, to Los Angeles, and back again to Chile. It was okay as I knew this was needed to complete my training, although I’m not sure if I’d be very keen on doing that again!
JG: In 2019, I set off on what was meant to be two-month trip to Antarctica. As the Covid-19 pandemic unfolded, the trip was extended bit by bit in what ended up being four and a half months in the end. It was great to have had a trip down to Antarctica, but it wasn’t great not knowing when you’d finally be able to go home. In the end, we refuelled at the Falkland Islands and ended up sailing the ship all the way back to the UK (not flying back as per the initial plan). This alone took about 26 days.
The bridge of the RSS James Cook sits about 18 m high. One can only imagine all the things you must have seen from a vantage point like this. If you had to narrow it down, what would you say is the best thing you’ve seen from the bridge?
IM: The stars that you get to see stand out for me. Another highlight has also been in 2013 when there was a volcanic eruption in Iceland. We were on a research expedition on the previous RRS Discovery and the scientists wanted to collect volcanic ash samples so we got to sail underneath the ash cloud from the eruption
JG: Shooting stars, icebergs, and loads of wildlife!
Out of all the places in the world, where is your favourite place to sail to?
IM: The Pacific coast, Mexico, Costa Rica, and especially Tenerife. Tenerife is probably my favourite as the ship usually docks at a great location close to town.
JG: Home! And Antarctica is good too.
How does life on a research vessel differ from that of other vessels?
IM: It’s a lot less commercial-orientated and the work is very interesting. You also get to drive the ship a bit more, and move around more than you would when you have one destination and a straight line there. The things you get to see and learn on scientific expeditions is unlike anything you’d see in other parts of industry. Plus it’s more fun to work with scientists! I actually met my wife on a scientific research cruise in 2010 aboard the previous RRS Discovery.
JG: Work aboard scientific vessels is very varied and hands on. One day you’re doing a CTD cast, the next you’re performing a multibeam survey of the seabed. With things like multibeam surveys it’s great to be able to see the data come in in real-time, and to play a part in the scientific work being done.
The next one is a burning question from many people downstairs: what is the biggest swell you’ve faced at sea?
IM: We used to go storm-chasing on the previous RRS Discovery, for example to validate the predictions made by a wave radar. In one storm we faced a 19 meter swell! These trips subsequently got banned as the damage to the ships and risks were becoming too great.
JG: I happened to face my biggest swell on my first ever trip at sea, when I was 16 years old. It was January in the North Sea. The weather on trip was generally good, but all of a sudden it took a turn for the worst and we ended up in a 13 meter swell.
Out of all the trips you’ve completed thus far, which one stands out as your favourite?
IM: This one of course! The runner up would probably be an ROV-focused cruise in the Caribbean looking at hydrothermal vents. The things we got to see on this cruise was amazing, and it was great to be able to see things like this alongside scientists. You learn so much in the process.
JG: A trip that stands out for me is when we sailed to St Helena and the surrounding islands for a scientific cruise in support of the Blue Belt Programme This was very exciting as much of the seabed in this area had not been explored before and one of the main things we did was seafloor mapping. We also got to go to shore a bit which was very cool as these islands are incredibly remote and a place not many people get to see.
As an officer on a scientific cruise, what is your favourite kind of scientific study?
IM: Seabed mapping is quite fun. Using the ROV to go explore unknown features of Whittard Canyon the other day was also great as it gives you a much better idea of what’s going on beneath the surface. In other parts of the shipping industry, you’re unlikely to think about the life beneath surface as you do during scientific work.
JG: Any sort of camera work where we get to see the seafloor. What’s also interesting for us is when we’re doing seabed mapping work and to be able to contrast these data against what is shown on charts. It feels quite cool to play a part in creating chart features, for example. I’ve been part of some expeditions to Antarctica that aimed to map glacial retreat owing to climate change. In a way it’s kind of cool because you’re seeing and mapping things that no one has ever seen before. It’s also sad because the charts would for example show that you are ‘on land’, but you’re in fact on water where there used to be glaciers.
A notion shared by both officers is that it’s quite impossible to relay experiences of a seagoing life to someone who’s not yet been to sea. In some way, I think it must be comparable to when you return home from trip abroad: No matter how thorough your explanations of your experiences are, people who’ve not shared these experiences with you will never truly understand what you mean. Perhaps trying to explain a life at sea is similar to this.
A since thank you to officers Ian and Jordan for taking some time to have a conversation with me. It’s been fascinating to get a small insight into life on the bridge!
PS: Turns out the bridge also has a pigeon. His name is Abe and by the looks of things, his diet is much more gourmet than poor Michael’s downstairs on the aft deck. He seems to be on the verge of abandoning the aft deck all together, so the downstairs caregivers will have to step it up before we lose him altogether!