Only rarely is the Southern Ocean calm. On such days work is easy and spirits high. But usually there is little time to acclimatise to your ocean environment — the ship begins rolling as soon as it enters exposed waters and varying levels of seasickness pervade the ship. As wind strengths increase life becomes more difficult. With winds around 50 knots and seas of seven to 10m the vessel can no longer maintain the desired heading and hoves-to, heading into the wind at just enough speed to maintain steerage.
Seas sometimes reach 20m or more in height, tossing the vessel like a toy in a bathtub, and the ship can roll more than 50 degrees either side of vertical as it is dwarfed by menacing walls of dark, forbidding water with foam-capped crests. The ship bucks, rolls and shudders, impossibly making it over the crest, followed by a sense of weightlessness as it falls into the trough below. The bow buries into the base of the following wave, throwing spray high in the air that is whisked away on the screaming wind and causing the entire ship to flex and vibrate from stem to stern. Astern, great waves careen across the aft deck threatening to tear away or disintegrate fittings and equipment.
You soon learn to keep one hand available to cling to passing objects and avoid being catapulted into fixed objects like bulkheads, tables and doors. Life becomes an endless set of callisthenic exercises as you compensate for the ship’s roll, and people attain crazy angles negotiating the corridors. Non-skid matting over meal tables does not always ensure your food stays with your plate. Cups, glasses, jugs and sauce bottles have an unerring ability to become missiles as they cascade from tabletops.
Simple tasks like pouring a glass of water become a juggling act. Working on computers includes chasing the mouse around the desk and gripping the bench to avoid falling off your seat. Taking a shower involves grimly clasping the safety rail in one hand and intermittently soaping yourself with the other while making constant adjustments to the shower rose which swivels wildly as the ship gyrates. Soaping your feet becomes a high-risk occupation.
Sleeping is intermittent if not impossible. Lying in your bunk may at least allay the worst of the seasickness for many but is anything but restful. First you stand in bed as the vessel rolls one way, then, as the vessel lurches in the opposite direction, you are scraped across your sheets to then find yourself standing on your head. In mountainous seas, normal life ceases completely. You can only hang on grimly or jam yourself in your bunk with kit bags, pillows and any other available materials, hoping against hope that the awfulness will soon end.
The trauma of the vessel and its occupants is unrelenting. Inability to sleep results in losing all sense of the passage of time which leads to the perception that the storm has gone on interminably. But eventually the seas subside, accompanied by a collective sigh of relief from expeditioners and crew alike as life returns to a semblance of normality.
Biology Program, AAD