I wondered about it, those days at sea.
Walking through the narrow spaces of the Research Vessel (RV) Atlantis presented an antithetical experience to what we’ve all rapidly come to think of as our technological birthright. Nothing on this colossal creation of human ingenuity had any regard for the comfort of its passengers. Hard surfaces lit by harsh lighting threatened to catch a foot or slam a shin or force a person to shimmy sideways and bang an elbow. Decor, as a descriptive term, consisted of whatever color fleece a crew member pulled on for the day, although considering the challenging demands on successfully accomplishing laundry or personal showering, most sartorial selections tended toward faded shades.
Heavily insulated electrical cables of all sorts snaked across the ceiling and down the walls. Clamps and brackets and nozzles and intakes jutted up from every conceivable surface, presumable designed for some purpose. In fact, everything inside the ship served a purpose or didn’t have a place onboard.
But where the working areas inside the bulkheads presented human tests of aesthetic suppression, the outside working areas were downright hostile. Massive metal beams and arms and gears and contraptions of every description conspired to score a bruise, or worse. The rear deck supported a bizarre, aggressive mix of construction gear permanently affixed to the boat and portable, heavy scientific equipment. These machines were all essential for gathering vital data about Earth’s changing climate, but any elegant armchair analysis of our planet’s beautiful interconnectedness could not be gleaned by simply standing in the middle of the deck. The rear deck was a place for hard muscle and level-headed guts, and “you can take your elegant analysis and get the hell off the deck if you’re not doing something useful.” Metal railings around the ship gave small comfort to the thought of working outside while it pitched in 40 foot seas, icy water raking the deck in an effort to feed you to waiting ocean life just a few feet off to the side.
History does strange things to the way we think of human suffering. The wars of the 21st century throb like grim bruises, so recent are their memories. The wars of the 20th century hum with academic gravity, political lessons, and a strangely expanding social nostalgia. Much further back, however, battles take on a strange romanticism. We lionize the revolutionaries and we sing Homeric songs, as if time itself was a balm, a transformative chemical. What were days of parched throats and aching muscles and blood and pain and death have burnished into matters of literary experience rather than of actual suffering.
It’s not the same, of course, on a scientific expedition. Almost everyone on The Atlantis was giddy to go, said they loved the sea. Yet when asked about their last voyage away from land, almost every person said how brutal it was, how cold, how sleepless, how bruising and hard and long.
Clearly it’s so much better than the travails of war, of course, but that doesn't make the days easy.
We must celebrate these inventive souls, these explorers. The journeys they’re taking are far from luxury cruises. These are the unsung heroes of the 21st century. On their imposing boat, filled with unpronounceable hardware powered by advanced theories and algorithms and white hot elbow grease, they’re running at a pace that would make any SpecOps warrior flinch. They’re up all night in high seas, soaked, cold, and battered, trying to collect data in order to understand fundamental things about the way our home planet works, things that have been going on since the ostensible beginning.
There's a romanticism here, an engine of intention that makes these people do what most other people cannot even fathom, let alone try. They are far from home, far from safety, far from convention. The goals of these explorers are to advance scientific knowledge about life on earth, but the silent by-product is to prove that they’re actually alive themselves.
Days at sea: the metaphor implies one of distance and disconnection from ordinary life on shore, but as a metaphor it may be we who sit in corporate cube farms and meeting rooms and fiddle with our email accounts who are really adrift. In the plush spaces we’re used to, sweet latte within reach, one good crashing wave might be all that’s necessary to take us down.