Leroy Millers Blog

June 27-28, 2018

Hot Blog!
When I hear the news, I am giddy, like a little girl rocking a cradle (I’m tired, been tired, please excuse a little recycling of metaphors. They’re robust enough, for the most part): my shift has been cancelled due to weather.

Here’s a hymn to blessed insomnia, for had I not wandered to the mess hall in my sleeplessness, I may have gotten the news too late, and ruined the one chance on this cruise I might get a decent night’s sleep (Not that I am not grateful – Hell, they could put me in that van from dusk to dawn and I’d still be overjoyed for the opportunity, as long as there were no vampires, of course). “You’re excited,” remarked the student scientist who gave the Good Word, as I rolled around on the mess-hall floor speaking in tongues in my exalted state, so unlike the peaceable bliss those ascetics reached in the last blog. Oh well, we live to contradict ourselves.

We made a date, instead, to go star-gazing. A boy in a boat, in the night, in the middle of the ocean. Unfortunately, it was a cloudy night, and few stars were to be seen. Also, not five minutes after marching to the bow, one of our party professed to being “cold,” but what I really think she meant was “scared.” Hard to blame her though, even a he-man like myself shivers at the thought of going overboard in the dead of night.

So we went back in, and I went to bed, and got (almost) a full night’s sleep. In the immortal words of Bobby Darin, “the man upstairs was smiling at me that day,” because the moment I staggered into the mess hall after waking on the other side of the morning for that other “hair of the dog,” a hot cuppa, I was greeted by a grinning AB, who had agreed to an interview for my project just a few days prior. It was a remarkable interview, and the smoothness and ease with which it went boded well for subsequent recordings, but I can only take a small share of the credit, for it was the interviewee himself who did all the work (the Ex agrees, “he is my spirit-animal,” she says. This hurts, I remember when I was her spirit animal). I told him after concluding the interview that if my other interviewees are even half as candid as he, my Pulitzer is in the bag.  “Okay, buddy,” he replied, smiling like a bodhisattva.

Then I went for a bike ride, no small feat on a rolling ocean. Mountain biking has nothing on this. Then a student meeting (crushed it), then something I can’t remember despite the night of rest (I’m not sure I have ever slept this little in this length of time. Like the women in the magazines, 8 hours a night has become an impossible standard, not to mention damaging to my self-esteem). Then dinner, shortly after which I discovered I am allergic to ice-cream, a disheartening discovery at any time, but the emotional anguish was further compounded by a very physically ocean. I am a fussy baby that grows weary of the cradle.

But good as new after a few hours of rest, I got up about 8 or nine pm, ready to face the day, a cuppa in hand like a caffeinated parenthesis. Sometimes you gotta go forward just to stay in place (really starting to miss those sweltering 10-hr line shifts at the BBQ shack back home; at least when you limped home after those your bed didn’t try to swing you to your floor).

God I love it here.

June 26, 2018

Blog the III, or Sleep is 4 the Dead
In “Homage to Catalonia,” Orwell writes of his time spent in the trenches, fighting for the Italian Resistance as a British expat:

A proactive man,
he did not wait for war to come to him,
but took a gun to Hitler’s Reich
Shooting an Elephant, instead

On the front lines, sleep quickly became a non-option. Amid the horrors of war, Orwell implies that this lack of sleep my have been an ironic boon, dimming a soldier’s consciousness and protecting his psyche from trauma. If sleep can be considered a variety of nourishment (I certainly hold it as such), the peacefulness and complacency Orwell experienced seems an analog to the bliss associated with extended fasting undergone by ascetics.

Four days at sea in a busy, borderline hectic research vessel, and I can almost see what Orwell was on about. I myself have slept very little in the last couple days (maybe six or seven out of the last 48) thanks to a combination of my graveyard Jason shift and exaggerated rocking due to the boat’s position “in the trough” (that is, parallel to the oncoming waves; greater slop difference is felt). The gentle woman rocking the cradle has become an energetic little girl, no longer lulling the baby to sleep but only rocking for the fun of it. One student scientist remarked that her top bunk has no rail. I asked her how many times she fell off in the night.

This lack of sleep has in part inspired my outreach project about ship routine, especially since one does not always see the deep importance of routine until theirs is disrupted. I asked one strapping young scientist for an interview, and while I was explaining its purpose he remarked that you often just “put your head down and go.” Like Orwell in the trenches. Nothing motivates like the breath of a bullet, or million-dollar projects with short timelines restricted further by the whims of the sea.

It’s now a quarter to midnight. Getting on shift, I am told of the great importance of logging a mysterious entity known only as “weird fish,” that until recently had only been found once several decades ago in Antarctic waters. This specimen was captured and examined at the time, but only anatomical drawings and descriptions proved its existence until now. But for the last three years it has been spotted in this location, 3000 meters down, on the bottom of the Pacific. As such, it is imperative that I note it in the log if I or anyone else spots it. Other than Weird Fish, I am also tasked with noting other biology of interest (and because we are very deep down in the water, it’s pretty much all of interest). I spot one such specimen, not Weird Fish, but strange enough, an eel-like fish with stream-lined tail abruptly transitioning to a bulbous head, swimming and whipping its long tail slowly back and forth, languid in the cold water.

“Cool fish on the science cam” I write in the log. Jason has just finished unplugging an old CTD package and plugging in the new model, a CTD/DO/OPTAA combo deal, after a 2+ hour descent to get to the ocean floor. But now, a slight snag. The cord running power from the J-Box to the CTD/DO/OPTAA has become tangled during transit, and several loops form a coil at about mid-length. One man uses what looks to my eye like an X-box controller to zoom in on the coil. The pilot stands and traces the concentric loops displayed on the monitor. I notice a cool octopus under the junction box.

“Cool octopus under the junction box,” I log.

“Farthest loop out, if we can get that over to the other side, maybe the whole thing will unravel.” Jason begins to nudge the loop, getting a knot out of a shoelace on the bottom of the ocean with his enormous titanium claws. The loop miraculously comes undone, but the coil remains.
“Okay, now start backing up, but stop if it starts to tighten.” Jason begins to slowly go in reverse, but the coil is stubborn, and the loops begin to close. Jason shakes the coil to loosen it again, a mechanical tantrum twenty thousand leagues under the sea. I wonder if it makes a sound. The octopus looks at me and winks.

“Okay, I think that’s the best we can do. Put it down by the J-box to keep tension down.”

“There’s that cool fish again.”

Jason begins a 1400-meter transit to the next site, and relief comes. Exhausted after my four- hour logging stint, I leave the Jason crew to finish off the rest of their 12-hour shifts (last push fellas; only eight more hours to go). I wonder what they will do without me, I wonder, as I step out of the van and into the ocean.

June 25, 2018

Going over my notes from last night, there is a reminder to write my daily blog entry while I still have some pep in my step, but in hindsight I now see the arrogance in assuming I would ever have any to begin with. Even now, after a coffee and a Gatorade, I am only marginally functional, like the doodles you find on the edge of a bored student’s notebook paper. The caffeine and sugar work a magic that often feels black, selling your health for your soul. I feel like a hoodoo in Arizona, my good spirits the large upper portion of the rock upheld by a spindle of resistant stone. But enough deck-side shoe-gazing, I have things I ought to cover other than my esoteric musings on sleep and unsleep.

If the day begins at midnight, then my day began at midnight, working the 0000 to 0400 Jason logging shift alongside my berth and workmate Bing, who is by now a 4k camera whiz. The shift was an exercise in patience. The first dive, which I logged the final portion, was less than a total success, as the piece of equipment we were down there for proved unrecoverable at the time because of a change in the rigging of Jason from 2017 to 2018. The crew had to make a tough decision to end the dive, the only other alternative waiting until old photos or schematics could be found that helped explain how they got the piece of equipment down there in the first place in 2017. Bing left to photograph the recovery, while I sat snugly in the control van (less a Ford and more a modified shipping crate), affectionately dubbed the “ice-box” due to the cooling effect of multiple high-powered A/C units all running in tandem.

Turn-around of the vehicle was thankfully brief, and a second dive was shortly underway, the mission this time to recover and replace a CAMDS, a camera tripod, from a location not far from the previous dive. Once down on the sea-floor, unlatching the old CAMDS went smoothly, despite the large mud clouds created whenever big ol’ Jason shifted and disturbed the fine-grain sediment. Trouble came after, when trying to find the new CAMDS with which we would replace the old. It was not where it ought to be, and we were forced to spend over half an hour using sonar readings to check on every likely signature. Now, as the other students and I learned a few hours later during a tour of the now on-deck Jason, the radar is extremely sensitive, and allows adjustments of position down to the cm scale with super-responsive electric thrusters. But, as you may have gathered, it can’t tell you exactly what something is, so to be used effectively as a locating tool, it helps to know in general where something is supposed to be. Without this information, or as in this case, the object is not where it ought to be, there is little alternative to checking all signatures of a size consistent with the searched-for item, which is what the Jason crew was forced to do. Finally, the new CAMDS was found, just about the time my part in the troubled saga was over, and I was relieved by next watch.

Bing and I, cold and hungry and totally over it, ran to the mess hall and fixed ourselves some left-overs, steak and potato for myself, steak and cobbler for Bing (interesting choice, Bing). Bing discussed durian fruit with the chef while trying out every single condiment on his steak (“What is this taste?” he asks philosophically, covering his mouth while chewing on a piece of steak dipped in a mixture of A1 steak sauce and sriracha). For anyone as interested in the minutiae of food and food service as I am, the quantity of food is rivaled only by the number of condiments to put on it. Below I provide a list of condiments provided at table, but like a list found on Wikipedia, it is constantly evolving and has little hope of ever being fully comprehensive, and is only offered here as an example of the ship’s bounty (alphabetical, if variations exist they are listed on the same line to save space):

A1 Steak Sauce
Brown and Yellow Mustards
Dragon Sauce
Heinz 57 Sauce
Heinz Ketchup
Mazzetta and Yucatan Habanero Pepper Sauces
Soy Sauce [for some mysterious reason, all are low sodium varieties]
Tiger Sauce
Valentino Hot Sauce

After Bing tried all the sauces, he started on the cobbler. After a moment, he looked up at me. “I am too lazy to chew,” he said. I agreed. In fact, I myself had swallowed about half of my steak whole, like a little wolf, a “decision” I came to regret later. It was about five in the morning. We decided to call it a night.

June 24, 2018

Only our second day at sea, and I already feel like a cod fish packed in salt. In our short time, I have begun preliminary research for my student project, been assigned and worked a midnight to 4am shift in the control room operating Jason, the remotely-operated submersible, providing color commentary and notes for the log, and gotten my sea-legs, at least for the time being (they look a lot like my land-legs – the differences are very subtle and involve a slight bending at the knee).

I have also eaten my bodyweight of grub (about 140 lbs, if any recruiters from the NFL are reading this). Few times in my life can I remember being so consistently and voraciously hungry. I have eaten with the Captain, with the crew, with my fellow scientist-students. I shared a bowl of cereal with a man who patiently explained how terrible of a person Al Jolson was (a singer who performed in black-face and stole other comedians’ jokes before promptly suing them for using what were now ‘his’ jokes) at three in the morning.

What I haven’t done much is slept, but I understand this to be quite common; at the orientation meeting, we were told that the ship runs on diesel and caffeine, which I thought was a joke until I saw a crew-member shoveling coffee beans into a stove in the engine room (just kidding, I don’t even know where the engine room is).

I am also frequently lost, both mentally and physically. It’s a big ship, and I’m fairly certain M.C. Escher had a hand in design.  The crew-member in the engine room’s job was made more difficult by the fact that the stove was attached to the ceiling and the beans had to be tossed from their position on the wall. There are several ways to get everywhere, and I have yet to encounter a locked door. I believe the only reason I have yet to walk into anywhere too dangerous or off limits is a deep, instinctual foreboding I experience when I open certain doors. Signage is only sometimes helpful, and many of the doors I routinely use to get about are marked with red placards warning away unauthorized personnel. Does this mean I am authorized? If so, it doesn’t always feel like it. I feel more like I am being baby-sat, but no sitters were available, so I must baby-sit myself.
Non-student science crew, as well as the other members of the crew seem to be either sleeping, eating, or working. Usually working. I have gotten in the way of enough busy sailors to fuel a Navy. I have also gotten in enough quarrels with my fake ex-wife about the well-being of our fake daughter (who is very truly sea-sick) that she is considering fake-divorcing me again. It’s a running joke that is in turns hilarious and unsettling.

I am a creature of habit, and while my routines must be adjusted to fit the ship, they still exist in modified if generally faithful forms. On shore, I run in the mornings. Onboard, I stationary bike about the same distance, in roughly the same amount of time. On shore, I sleep once, at night. Onboard, my sleep is split in two. Once in the evening, after dinner, and once in the early morning, before breakfast. I like this, even prefer it in some ways, as it almost feels more natural. Before electric light, diurnal sleep patterns were the norm. Our waking interim is, however, slightly different: in older times, this block was used for dream analysis, philosophy, and exaggerated cuddling. I use it to stare into a monitor and out the many eyes of Jason, the huge, multimillion dollar remotely manned submersible working on a sensor array.

I guess that would be the unifying theme onboard: most everything you find on land, you find here, albeit in a modified form. This extends to both physical characteristics (On land, the ground is still, but here it sways back and forth, the ocean a woman’s hand rocking a cradle), as well as metaphysical. Even relationships have changed, rapport has been developed with folk I have relatively little to do with onshore, thoughts have a tendency to swash back and forth in your head, following the motion of the boat. I am passive, I am aggressive, with each pitch. But never am I not grateful for this life-changing experience. When I step onshore about a week from now, I know my life will continue, but it will certainly do so in a modified form.