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Dispatch 20 – An Oiler’s Perspective on VERTIGO

Lat: 40° N
Long: 177° E
Air temp: 21.87 °C, 71.36°F
Sea temp: 21.37 °C, 70.47 °F
Sky: Sunny, and beautiful!
True wind : 9.8 knots
Waves: 2-4 feet
From port to starboard, forward to aft, ours is a space crammed with machinery.
And it’s hot…really hot…
…and loud.
The work is not always glamorous, or comfortable, for that matter.
If we are surgeons of machinery, this is our operating room.
600 Volt Generators-together with the diesels that drive them, they suck in air and fuel and spit out electrical power.
The human component: powered by caffeine. This is what happens when the tank runs dry.

The ship moves almost imperceptibly, rising and falling gently with the faintest of swells. The sea is flat, glassy; so much that two planets setting in the western sky cast reflections that shimmer all the way across the water. And the biggest waves for miles around are the ones that are kicked up at the bow and radiate out from the stern.

The sky is clear, the air is cool. A gentle light from the passageway on the main deck warms our little sanctuary, and we move on, making good time, mile after mile through an eternity of water, undisturbed and undisturbing in our way.

If you could take a snapshot to illustrate peace and perfection, this would be your Kodak moment. The insane isolation and the spirit-sapping chill of the K-2 site seem far behind us. The hard work of collecting samples, operating winches, and fighting off the foggy gloom seem years away, if not in another lifetime. To be out here now is to sense completeness, accompanied by the satisfaction of an uncertain mission come to a successful end. And now there is just time and space between us and Hawaii to savor it all.

It’s tempting, I think, in these moments, to imagine that the universe has somehow conspired to put all this together, right down to perfect balance of cool night air and warm water in the make-shift hot-tub, and the occasional shooting star that streaks across the sky. But of course, there’s more to it than that…and it’s good from time to time to look a little more closely at some of the forces involved in the grand conspiracy.

One of those forces–and an easily overlooked one at that–is the vessel’s engineering crew. Yes, somewhere behind that perfect hum that drives us gently through the sea is a very loud, vibrating, hot, oily diesel engine, and an engineer and his assistant (an “oiler”) down below devoting their attention to making sure it continues to create that perfect hum and gentle motion. In fact, for every facet of life out here, there’s some system that has to be monitored and managed by the engineers–down to the lights coming on when you flick the switch, to that seemingly endless supply of freshwater in the taps, to the humidity- and temperature-conditioned air coming out of the vents in the staterooms, to the continued operation of the overworked washing machines, and yes, even to the supply of warm briny water in the jacuzzi…

It’s a Jungle in There
So, you might ask, what is life like for these unseen, unheard subterranean dwellers–these fellows who stoke the mysterious fires that make the Revelle a ship and not just a lifeless floating box of steel?

In a sense, engineers are like doctors and paramedics for a great metallic organism. Only they work and live inside the beast itself, surrounded by its intestinal pipes, its vascular wires and hoses, its endless clutter of valves, gauges, tanks, oil, cooling fluids, and paint. And there are mysterious parts made of steel molded and machined into an unimaginable variety of shapes. Each with a precise purpose and extremely precise characteristics. Big, small, ugly, elegant, shining, dull, contorted, blunt, refined-you name a shape and a characteristic metal can be worked into and we’ve got it. At first glance, it might look like unmanageable chaos, but, depending on the diligence of the crew, things are maintained such that there is a purpose to every item, down to the last nut and washer.

It’s preserving this order and managing these systems-fixing things when they break, and keeping ahead of things so that they don’t break in the first place-that defines the life and work below decks. It’s complicated at times: when mysterious leaks, noises, or vibrations appear, and need to be tracked-down, detective-style. Then it can be tedious and downright boring: when you need to just “watch” something to monitor it for the slightest changes. And, of course, it’s got its share of excitement: when things overheat, generators shut down unexpectedly, hoses rupture, and other things occur that are too disturbing to mention. (Generally, from an engineering perspective, “excitement” is a bad thing…) It also takes brains, I suppose (immediate appearances notwithstanding)-enough to understand some complicated systems and machinery. But it also takes the patience to perform mindless menial tasks that can stretch for hours, such as sanding and painting machinery or sorting out nuts and bolts.

And of course, no discussion of the engineer’s life would be complete without mentioning the heat and the noise. Yes, folks, it is hot–enough so to turn a hapless oiler into a sizzling pancake when he has to crawl on the metal deck-plates to reach a far corner of a main engine. And it’s loud–enough to rattle your brains even through two layers of ear protection.

A Floating Power Plant?
Putting aside the so-called “romance of the sea” for a moment, it’s not at all inaccurate to conclude that we are essentially operating a power plant out here. This one just happens to be floating and has accommodations attached that must be provided for. Basically, if you take an average small power generation facility, cram it into a steel box, toss it around a bit and slosh some sea water around, you’ve more or less got yourself a modern marine engineering facility.

Which, quite naturally, brings us to the subject of…

…Our Role In The Carbon Cycle
In short, it’s not a proud one… Everything here is driven by that infamous reaction: the rapid oxidation of hydocarbons in enclosed cylinders, otherwise known as internal combustion. That’s it. That’s the source of everything we do: Ripping apart hydrocarbon molecules and spitting out Carbon Dioxide. Belching out great gusts of the stuff, really. (At a rate of about 4500 gallons of diesel fuel a day, at cruising speed, you can imagine how many tons of CO-2 we’re putting out.) It’s this process that creates that kinetic energy in the form of a rotating crankshaft (or, in our case, up to six crankshafts), spinning to the tune of 1800 RPM’s.

This is the energy we steal from the fossilized remains of ancient, dead sea-creatures. And from here, the engineering department is responsible for harnessing, managing, and administering this energy through endless permutations to create the wonderful floating sanctuary that has been our home these last 40 days.

From the spinning crankshaft, a clever device called a brushless generator takes the kinetic energy and converts it into 600 volt ac power. The river of power forks many times from there, some of these agitated electrons flowing to propulsion units, and others going to work powering compressors, hydraulic pumps to run deck machinery, the elevator, the galley stove, sewage pumps, and everything else in between.

It’s a grand process, just a bit of a shame that it all depends so completely on the formation of Carbon Dioxide.

But It’s More Than Just That…
In those hours spent busied in a tangle of hot engine parts, mopping up oil, it might seem that the phrase “romance of the sea” was dreamed up by someone whose experience of the ocean was limited to sipping umbrella-adorned tropical drinks on the “lido” deck of some modern cruise ship. Still, there is something about life out here, even for a humble oiler that makes things different. There is a reason we are here and not working in a power plant ashore.

And there’s also a reason we are here and not on a 900-foot vessel schlepping containers back and forth between Long Beach and Honolulu, or carrying oil up and down the coast. No, our payload is certainly more interesting, complicated, and at times, quirky than your typical cargo. But, of course, therein lies the magic, the thing that makes an ordinary mundane industrial process something much bigger, more meaningful. It’s that we are all playing a part, however small or unseen, in a dynamic, evolving endeavor, and in the very human process of exploring our planet.

On the second or third day after our arrival at K-2, while the scientific teams were still taking water samples to determine the best location to begin their work, our bow-thruster cooling pump lost pressure. The problem was that its strainer was clogged, which happens from time to time. But this time, when I emptied the contents into a coffee-can, I looked down and saw a squirming mass of little pink creatures. On my way out onto the main deck, to wash out the strainer and empty the coffee-can, I happened to show the little creatures to Mary Silver, who was at work in her lab. Much to my surprise, she was thrilled to see these very unscientifically collected samples; and she proceeded to examine several of them, producing some beautiful photographs and discovering things she hadn’t known before. Watching all this unfold, I learned more about the stuff that can clog a sea-strainer than I ever imagined possible. And it’s likely I will never look at the endless bluish mass of liquid that separates Port A from Port B, nor the little creatures that dwell therein, quite the same again.

— Joe Stanford (including the photos)