1.26.2011

What moves when the engine stops.

Most days in the last week started with crepes (very thin pancakes). Yesterday started with oatmeal.

Crawling out of the galley, I eased in to a quasi-puddle of four crewmembers melted on portside deck of the boat, washed aglow with watercolor magic that the sunrise was painting across the sky. 6am… Smiling. Content. Glowing.

"Nine days left," Menzies laments to the ocean, without turning her eyes towards us. I nod my head and chew the last of my oatmeal.

It was one of those moments in which, retrospectively, I shoulda coulda woulda let my occasional belief in superstition prevail. But, the closest piece of wood to knock on was the dive compressor casing at the other end of the boat, and truthfully, nothing about Menzie's statement seemed off.

We're nearly through the gyre, and thus close to completed on the research front. Since entering the accumulation zone, we've trawled every 60 nautical miles to conduct sampling on the presence and characteristics of plastic organic pollutants in the ocean. Every sample we've pulled has been plastic-positive, and the last few days have been particularly prolific. That said, in contrast with the other 5 Gyres South Atlantic expedition from November, the presence of large macro debris – pieces like bottles, milk crates, etc. – has been largely absent from this voyage.

Part of the reason we're able to have such successful and accurate trawling is because we've had NO wind. It's not a surprise… we're cutting through the center of a high-pressure zone that most boats blatantly avoid. However, no wind equals a calm sea state, which equals minimal disturbance of plastic buoyancy in the water column, which equals good research… BUT no wind means adding the boat's engine to the sailing equation to optimize timing – both of the trawls, and of getting to Uruguay. We've come to know the engine as a necessary evil, and the sails – though up – are itching for some autonomy.

And then we had today.

First, we entered a down-welling – where two surface currents meet and the water gets pulled down in the seam between them, creating a visible line through the water. Both down- and up-wellings are indicative of conditions where macro debris collects.

In this particular one, there was a bolus… a massive mess of plastic nets and ropes that have collected and spun together, catching other plastic and debris as it floats. It's like gold in plastic hunting.

The next 5 minutes were a flurry of activity that we've yet to see on the boat.

"Shut the engine off! Pull up the trawl! Grab the hook from the fore peak!"

Lucky for us, we have a South African artist on board whom – I kid you not – brought a handcrafted spear with him for slaying plastic pieces from the sea. With practiced grace and I would imagine a bit of channeling to a video game of his youth, Simon launched it over board and stuck the spear straight through the bolus's heart.

As he pulled it closer to the ship, crew rushed over to examine and document, and…

Then we heard a really bad noise.

Snapping of guard wires. No one actually saw it happen, as by the time we looked over, there was just an opening across the railing directly out to the sea. And no trawl. Our beloved high-speed trawl was now dangling not-so-dramatically under the boat, having been ripped off the deck by its haul line that had stealthily slid off the deck and wrapped around the propeller.

And it broke the engine.

And there was no wind.

I suddenly remembered a definition of plankton that had come up sometime in the last few days – "organisms that lack the ability to self-propel." It seems, just like that, we'd been reduced to plankton in the sea. Great.

Here's the thing though - what I love about this boat is that no one stopped for a second to complain, question or be melodramatic. Our skipper and first mate had nothing but measured leadership and great communication to get us through the rest of what is, to date, my most favorite day of the trip.

When there's no wind, what do you do? Dive down and clean the line off the propeller. Free dive to get images of the bolus… and find an entire ecosystem of crabs, feeder fish and barracuda that had colonized this floating monument of plastic as their home, shelter and South Atlantic taxi. Learn that a dive tank and regulator unit can be used to inflate a buoy and lift up the engine inside the boat (as the trucker's hitch didn't work). Make art out of plastic debris. Jump off the ship and swim after dinner, doing synchronized aerial tricks off the after guy spinnaker line as the sun sets.

And as with most things in life, it could be worse. This could have happened in the very center of the gyre, where the hope for wind would be days away from where we are now. Or worse, we could be on a motorboat. But, lucky us, we have sails and we're going to learn to use them really well now. (All we need is some wind!)

Last night, I watched the last golden fingers of sunset retract back over the horizon from the same spot on the boat as where I'd sat at sunrise… the boat facing the opposite direction from its proper course, but happily bobbing north nonetheless. And then, for the first time in my life, I saw stars shine so bright on an ocean so flat, that there was a mirror image of sky to sea. The deepest, darkest sapphire blurred out the edges that differentiated water from air along the horizon, smoothing the view in to one blanket of diamonds that wrapped us in to the moment.

I don't know when we'll trawl next, or when we'll get to Uruguay… but life, my friends, is not so bad.

(** Brief update – it's the next day and by the grace of our good whistling, the wind we requested is starting to come in… after watching it read "zero" for 24 hours, we're up to a 5 nautical miles per hour! Good ol' Sea Dragon.)

3 comments:

  1. oh my! What an adventure, lucky peeps!
    cheers and smooth sailing!
    Hayley xxx

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  2. Thinking of you Sarah! So psyched to read your posts. Keep em coming!

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  3. So vividly described, I feel like I'm there with you reading this. Miss you Sara.

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