For the first time since we left Woods Hole six days ago, the Knorr’s captain, Kent Sheasley, appears in the main lab. At 36, Sheasley is young to be in command of a ship. He dresses casually, in tattered khakis and an old rugby shirt, and speaks little. By 9 p.m. we will reach our destination, just west of Greenland’s continental shelf, he says, but sea conditions have continued to deteriorate. Clouds of drizzling rain have lowered around us. The second mate spreads weather maps on a workbench, and we gather around. The winds right now are blowing 31.5 knots out of the north—out of the Arctic. Through the portholes we can hear them scream. By tomorrow morning, the winds will be 40 knots: gale force.
In three days, in Nuuk, the capital of Greenland, the first leg of voyage 192 is scheduled to end and the second leg to begin. The second leg’s scientific team, flying out from Seattle, is already on its way to meet us. There’s no time left to wait out the storm. Sheasley’s recommendation: we deploy tonight. “You OK with that?” Bower asks deck boss Will Ostrom.
Deep crow’s-feet have formed at the corners of Ostrom’s eyes, and black crescents of grease have collected under his fingernails. His wardrobe consists of old blue jeans and old flannel shirts, the sleeves of which are always rolled up. The bosun of another research vessel once drew a caricature of Ostrom depicting him as a little devil in a red jumpsuit, pricking deckhands in the rear with a pitchfork. Ostrom says he loves this drawing.
Three days ago, out on the fantail of the Knorr, back in the temperate climate of the Gulf Stream, when sea conditions were, as he put it, “flat-ass calm,” Ostrom had conducted a crash course in mooring deployment. Working with a skilled team of specialists, he can deploy 10 moorings in a single day, one after another, even in rough seas. But Bower couldn’t afford to pay the usual team to spend nine days in transit and one day at work deploying a single mooring. She could barely afford Ostrom, who was therefore obliged to press-gang the available able-bodied members of the unusually small scientific crew. There were only three of us: Kate Fraser, a science teacher from the Perkins School for the Blind, in Watertown, Massachusetts, who was helping Bower develop oceanographic curricula for visually impaired teenagers; Dave Sutherland, a 28-year-old doctoral candidate from North Carolina; and me, a writer who had come along to learn firsthand what oceanographic fieldwork was like.
“I’ve been doing this for 34 years,” Ostrom had said to us. “When I started, I was 21 years old, 20 years younger than most guys. I was this little guy.” At 55, he was still a little guy, with windblown white hair and a two-tone beard, white on his cheeks, black around his mouth. “The guys who taught me,” he’d said, “most of them were military. They’d been in World War II, Korea. Now I’ve got to train guys like you”—he shot a glance first at Sutherland and then at me—“so that (a) you won’t kill me and (b) you won’t lose the mooring.” For the next hour, he had introduced us to the basics of marlinspike seamanship, teaching us how to cleat and clear a tag line, a rope that keeps hoisted objects from swinging wildly around; how to tie a bowline and a clove hitch; how to coil a rope properly, letting it drip from your fingers to the deck in a clockwise ellipse; how to operate the diesel-electric winch; how to follow commands flashed in the semaphoric language of crane signals.
“Look, it’s crappy out there,” Ostrom says now, in the main lab, tapping his greasy fingertips on the weather maps. “But this is what you’re going to see for the next three days. The sooner we do this, the better. This sea state’s just going to keep filling over the next five hours. I mean, it’s not going down.” At her computer, Bower posts an audio postcard on a website for the visually impaired: “Two hours from the mooring site,” her podcast begins. “We’re in a race with the weather.”single page
Five amazing, clean technologies that will set us free, in this month's energy-focused issue. Also: how to build a better bomb detector, the robotic toys that are raising your children, a human catapult, the world's smallest arcade, and much more.