Monday, February 21, 2011

The Winter of Our Discontent

Sailing aboard the Wilkes would never classify as a pleasure cruise.  She left the Ocean Terminal in Southampton, England, on a cold and gloomy January morning, bound for points north.  Not a large vessel, she was one of the “great white fleet” of oceanographic research and survey ships.  In addition to their normal crews, these ships embarked groups of technicians who carried out the actual surveying and researching of the ocean.  These fellows were not seamen; they just worked aboard ship.  In general, their type of work was done in good weather and calm water.  The voyage the Wilkes was beginning this morning would prove to be the exception to this rule.

The Wilkes sailed west and then northward to go around Ireland.  She headed for a seemingly random stretch of ocean in the vicinity of the Faeroe Islands.  It did not take long to reach this area, but it was a very rough voyage and so it seemed long.  For the technicians, the transit to the operations area seemed especially long and extremely uncomfortable.  One of them found the discomforts of the sea so disagreeable that in all seriousness he requested that the ship return to Southampton so he could get off.  The Captain, of course, refused, and told the unfortunate man that the ride would get worse before it got better.  Cold comfort, but true.

The North Atlantic in winter has long been recognized as the most violent of all the bodies of water on the Earth.  In the area west of Ireland, where the Wilkes was underway, an uninterrupted expanse of ocean carries many of the worst weather systems of the Western Hemisphere eastward toward northern Europe.  There is nothing to stop or even reduce the wind and the ferocious wave action it generates.  A ship sailing the North Atlantic in winter is therefore guaranteed a very rough passage at best.  What the Wilkes encountered in this area was the norm for the season.  It was time, then, to simply face the storm and exercise the faith described by the poet and scholar Brother Apelles Jasper:

            Though stormy seas about me roll,
And angry waves conceal the goal,
I need not fear.

Though my frail bark is tempest tossed,
And dangers crowd, yea, all seems lost;
I should not fear.

For Thou whom winds and sea obey
Wilt all my pains and griefs allay,
When Thou art near.1

As the Wilkes ventured farther north, however, the weather became increasingly more violent.  As the windspeed increased, so did the wave heights, and the little ship, obeying the laws of physics, pitched and rolled even more uncomfortably.  She was not in any danger, though; at least, not yet.  She had good stability with a low enough center of gravity and a sufficiently high center of bouyancy.  But she was a small ship, and so she lacked the comparative resistance to wave motion of, say, a fully loaded tanker.  Like the weather, this was normal, too.

Understanding the laws of physics and their application to the Wilkes on the North Atlantic did not help this one technician, though.  The ship reached her designated survey area, the weather got worse, and the ship’s motion became even more intolerable to him.  He couldn’t eat; he couldn’t sleep; he couldn’t work.  He suffered from extreme vertigo and motion sickness.  Finally, he had to be sedated.  At this point the Captain relented.  The ship did not return to Southampton, but broke off from operations nonetheless and proceeded toward Londonderry in Northern Ireland.  A week after the Wilkes’ initial departure on this voyage, she discharged the patient onto a harbor launch, and then returned to sea.

The respite from the violent ocean that we enjoyed while this fellow was being discharged had come as a welcome relief.  Once this errand had been accomplished, however, the Wilkes went right back into the teeth of the fury.  She stayed there, too, steering repeated back-and-forth patterns of courses so the technicians could conduct their survey of the region with their electronic gear. 

This routine continued for many days.  Usually, but not always, the ship headed into the waves.  This gave the most comfortable ride, or perhaps more accurately, the least uncomfortable ride.  But still, it got worse.  Up to this point the wave heights had been in the vicinity of 25 to 30 feet, with breaking crests and lots of spray as the wind blew the water right off the tops of the waves.  The Wilkes rode up to the crests, which broke over the bow of the ship and sent vast quantities of spray flying at the bridge windows, and then rode down the back side of the waves into the trough, where the cycle started again.  The ship was in constant motion, lurching at both crest and trough, and shuddering under the weight of water that crashed down on her foredeck. 

When surveying with the seas on the beam, the ship rolled from side to side constantly, typically to the extent of 35 or 40 degrees each way.  But she always came back.  Like a pendulum, her motion was predictable.  She rolled fastest through the top of the arc, then slowed as she leaned over more, and finally stopped at the maximum angle of roll.  Then she gradually started back towards the upright and increased speed until she had healed over a comparable amount in the opposite direction. 

As predictable as the rolling motion was, the simple act of standing up on a constantly rolling deck remained challenging.  It was always necessary to hold onto something, and this became even more important as the amount of rolling increased.  And it did increase in proportion to the increase in windspeed and wave heights.

For a time the Wilkes headed east toward an area almost due north of Scotland.  In this section of the ocean the ship encountered the roughest weather of the voyage.  Wave heights reached 45 feet and remained there.  The ship’s pitching motion increased in intensity to the point that as the ship crested each wave, the bow slammed down into the water as the next wave approached and broke over the foredeck and sometimes over the bridge as well.  When steering with the wind and waves on the beam, the rolling increased to 45 degrees and occasionally more each way.  It became very uncomfortable, even for the most experienced men of the crew.  Food preparation, let alone eating, became all but impossible.  Sandwiches replaced the normal menu.  Sleeping became difficult, although when people got tired enough, they did sleep.

One midnight, at the change of the watch, I stood at the chart table looking at the plot.  I stood with my feet apart and held on tightly as the ship swayed from side to side.  Despite the discomforts, the excessive rocking was by now routine.  The third mate whom I was about to relieve was still out on the bridge finishing up a few things.  Suddenly the Wilkes gave a lurch to starboard and shuddered, apparently hit on the port side by a wave out of synch with the rest of them.  A moment later the normal violent rocking resumed, but now the ship was taking bigger rolls.  Finally, the biggest one hit.  I gripped the railing in front of the chart table tightly as the Wilkes rolled over ever farther to starboard.  The chartroom seemed to spin around me.  The deck became more nearly vertical than horizontal, and the bulkheads more nearly horizontal than vertical.  On the bulkhead just to the left of the chart table was a bookshelf containing many volumes of sight reduction tables, large hard bound tomes used in celestial navigation. As was standard, a safety bar extended across the open front of each shelf.  As the ship leaned over and reached her new maximum angle of roll with me leaning at an outlandish angle in the opposite direction, these many volumes spilled out of their shelves, jumped over the safety bars, and rained down upon me.  Book after book hit me on the head and shoulders, bounced off, and went clattering onto the deck.  I could do nothing but hold on and wait for it to end.  When the ship stopped rolling, she hung in the balance for a very long and quiet moment, as if reluctant to right herself.  The third mate on the bridge broke the silence and called out, “We hit 55 degrees on that one!”  He was hanging from the overhead in front of the inclinometer and just happened to notice.  Then the Wilkes slowly started rolling back.  She accelerated through the upright position and rolled over almost 55 degrees to port.  The books adrift on the deck skated all over the place, hitting me in the ankles and shins this time. 

After cleaning up the mess of displaced books, I relieved the watch and remained on duty until 4:00am.  Except for this extremely rough weather, it was a routine night at sea.  The ship took many additional rolls of 50 degrees and more, but we just held on tight and stayed the course.  The next day, however, it became more serious.

Across the corridor in the radio room, some equipment had been gradually working its way loose.  Finally, it broke away from its mountings, flew across the room, and crashed into a table and cabinet.  No one was injured, but the machinery was badly damaged and bouncing around the room more and more with the continuing motion of the ship.  It required the Herculean efforts of several men to capture the stuff, wrestle it back into place, and securely tie it down.  This coupled with the midnight madness changed the Captain’s mind about continuing the survey.  Over the protests of the head technician, then, he ordered the operation broken off, and the Wilkes turned south toward Edinburgh.

Once the Wilkes came into the lee of Scotland, the weather improved significantly.  The windspeed decreased, the wave heights shrank, and the little ship provided a less uncomfortable journey. Finally, one morning the Wilkes entered the Firth of Fourth and dropped anchor just offshore from Leith, the harbor adjacent to Edinburgh.  Fog enshrouded the area, and snow was falling.  But there was no wind, and the water was calm. This was the civilized way to go to sea!  What a pleasant change! 

I did not think of it this way at the time, but it illustrated a good scriptural point: “For it must needs be, that there is an opposition in all things” (2 Nephi 2:11).  No one among the Wilkes’ crew would have appreciated the still air and calm water nearly as much if the ship had not just previously been so savagely tempest-tossed on the winter time North Atlantic.  If fair winds and following seas were a seaman’s only experience, he would never learn to appreciate them and would never learn to respect the great power and majesty of the ocean.  He would never grow sufficiently in his profession, and would remain an ignorant and underqualified seaman.  The scriptures express this point well: “if the billowing surge conspire against thee; if fierce winds become thine enemy; if the heavens gather blackness, and all the elements combine to hedge up the way; know thou, my son, that all these things shall give thee experience, and shall be for thy good” (D&C 122:7).  When a seaman has survived the storm, acquired the experience that does him good, and returned safely to port, then he can echo Nephi’s prayer of thanksgiving and say, “My God hath been my support; he hath led me through mine afflictions in the wilderness; and he hath preserved me upon the waters of the great deep” (2 Nephi 4:20).

Sailing aboard the Wilkes in this tempestuous winter on the North Atlantic did not qualify as a pleasure cruise; on the contrary, it was a valuable experience in patience and endurance and fortitude.  It remains a lesson I would not have chosen, but one I’m grateful to have learned.

1 Br. Apelles Jasper, FSC, (given name: Joseph L. Scanlon), “Fear Not,” in The Manhattan Quarterly, April, 1914, p. 294.  Brother Jasper is the author’s great-granduncle.

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