Onboard the S.S. Barakuda, steaming to Ulithi Atoll
At midday we’re on a course of 240 degrees, steaming toward Ulithi, 40 islets surrounding an enormous, oval-shaped lagoon in the westernmost Caroline Islands. Rain clouds in every direction have turned the sky a ghostly gray. Winds, waves, and swells pushing on our stern from the northeast are giving us an improbably smooth ride.
Even on a small ship like the Barakuda, there are moments when you forget that you’re on the ocean. When the floor beneath your feet is reasonably stable and you’re looking at an Internet-connected computer screen, you’re distracted from the fact that a few feet away, the world’s biggest ocean is searching for weak spots in your ship and your self-confidence. Yesterday morning she drove a marlinspike through mine.
I was standing on the Barakuda‘s small main deck next to a narrow opening in the side of the ship. Seven-foot (two-meter) swells with white-capped waves were pressing against our stern quarter. I’ve made many a boat-transfer in my life, and I know the deal. You stand by until the 32-foot RHIB (a rigid-hull, 500-hp, inflatable boat) comes alongside the Barakuda, matches her speed through the water, and nudges her husky pontoon against the steel hull. You wait for a wave to suspend both boats at the same height—and you jump. Two things must be considered with a ballerina’s precision: the timing of your jump and the placement of your feet. The RHIB is packed with a steering console and a communications console, and if you plant your feet in the wrong place you’ll twist your ankle, break a leg, or jam your shin between the ship and the RHIB.
There are essential truths about boat transfers. One of them is that when you’re on a deep-sea expedition like this, it’s crucial to move scientists and technicians from one ship to the other. On previous expeditions, when the weather was good, I’ve seen as many as 20 people move back and forth each day. Another truth is that you don’t just make one transfer—you make four. At the beginning of the day, you make one to get off your ship and another to get on the other ship. At the end of the day, probably in the dead of night when you’re exhausted, you make two more. Thus, your first transfer is fraught with consequences.
I waited for the RHIB to come alongside. Sako Palandjian—one of the world’s best RHIB drivers—was at the helm. He matched the speed of his boat with ours, and Joseph Harvey, a muscular young electronics specialist in his early thirties, stood at the edge of our ship and waited for a wave to bring both craft to the same height. It never happened. After a few long seconds, it was clear that the two boats and mother ocean were wildly out of synch. So Joseph did what any determined young man would do—he dove into the RHIB like an NFL lineman recovering a fumble. His left shoulder went over the pontoon first, his body went next, and his feet followed.
It was my turn. I stepped up to the edge of the boat, looked at Joseph in the bottom of the RHIB and at the uneven series of seven-foot (two-meter) swells coming our way. I locked eyes with my buddy Sako and thought I saw him shake his head. Then I did what any alpha coward would do—stepped back and gave Sako a big smile and a military salute. He gunned the RHIB and took off.
I’ve been working on and under the sea for almost 50 years and know a few things about fear. Like the flame of a trick candle, she can be extinguished but always appears, bright and burning when you least expect her. After you’ve made her your friend, it’s best to take her advice.
Photograph by Joe MacInnis