Sea Dragon Reunion















I spent a happy past weekend helping out with Algalita special events at the Ocean Institute in Dana Point. In addition to extra big display tables and a lecture and book signing by Charlie, the Sea Dragon and crew were docked for tours.

After seven months apart, I weave through buildings with the tall mast as my guide, approaching the boat with excitement and slight trepidation. Would the Sea Dragon look the same? Would the crew remember me from the July expedition? Would stepping aboard bring back the nausea?

And there she is, all white-clean and shiny from a winter of refurbishments. A brand new mainsail replaces the one splitting at the seams last summer, the shiny paint on the now-white hull not yet chipped by sampling equipment hand-hauled on and off deck in open seas.

I descend into the cabin (facing forward, swinging from the deck rather than safely backwards as directed of course), and it feels like the same friendly boat with new clothes. There’s some fancy wood shelving, brand-new seat cushions, and everything moveable stowed clean out of sight. I admire the new electrical system, especially the individual sockets for charging laptops in each bunk space. But the second I see ‘my’ bunk there’s a tiny flashback to the first rough days of the expedition, a mini wave of nausea. Or maybe it was just skipper Dale sneaking up behind me to rock my shoulders while chanting “woooeeeeweeeeooo.”

This was a test. The visit held the answer to a question I keep asking myself: would I do it again despite the first rough days, the close quarters with people that start as strangers, weeks without land in sight?

YES! Absolutely. If only I had funding.

If you’d like to join the Algalita-Sea Dragon families on the science adventure of a lifetime, a few guest crew spaces remain for both the Western Pacific Garbage Patch and Tsunami Debris Field expeditions coming up this May.

Leeks in the Lab

As I type up my field notes, I am constantly reminded of the challenges of conducting scientific research on a sailboat designed for racing. Take the following conversation, in which I attempt to procure ingredients for a giant pot of lentil soup:

“Hey Hank, are there any more leeks?”

“I think there’s still some in the cooler.”

“Which one is that?”

“Here.” [Hands me three slightly yellowed leeks]

Seems like a pretty unremarkable exchange. Except that Hank was our resident marine biologist postodc, hard at work processing samples in the ‘lab.’ Imagine, for comparison, a university cafeteria cook walking into the biology lab asking for onions. So why I am troubling Hank with my legume improvement project? The ‘lab,’ you see, was a requisitioned bunk with barely enough room for a single person to stand on the cabin floor. And this tiny space was also home to the cooler, bread machine, and freezer (where Hank rested his laptop when using the microscope). Where other research vessels reportedly have lab spaces bigger than our entire boat, on the Sea Dragon leeks become benchmates with drying samples and digital microscopes. Questions about the location of vegetables are only part of what I can only assume were some pretty strange circumstances for laboratory research, even on a boat. Not long into the expedition, Hank realized that using his digital microscope alongside the hardworking bread maker would trip the breaker on the limited electrical system. Bread versus science quickly became a very practical decision: make fresh food for lunch or let Hank use his microscope?

As much of the lab space as my normal camera lens could capture. The freezer is behind the bucket next to the fan:

Sea Dragon Index

While I’m not ‘that kind’ of social scientist, here are some silly statistics I compiled aboard the Sea Dragon using top secret methods:

Number of crew aboard the Sea Dragon for Algalita’s North Pacific Expedition: 13

Number of countries represented: 7

Nautical miles sailed between July 7 and July 27, 2011: 2995

Miles actually sailed in the right direction 2343, or 78%

Chance that the person sitting next to you had substantial sailing experience: 1 in 4*

Percentage of guest crew that experienced seasickness: 90

Approximate number of days where better conditions were ‘just 2 more days away’: 5

Average number of  additional photos taken each time Jin declared ‘one more’: 4

Number of digital image capture devices on board: 62, or almost 5 per person.

Number of books packed with the intention of being read: 33

Number read in their entirety: 5

Divide between those electing to sleep facing the stern versus bow: 50/50

Relationship between sleep direction and something important: 0

Number of sharks sighted throughout entire 20 day voyage: 4

Times elapsed between first shark sighting and swim time: 50 minutes

Number of trawl samples collected: 38

Percentage of samples containing plastic: 100

*While I couldn’t resist the juxtaposition, I must confess that most miles in the ‘wrong’ direction involved beelines direct north for better weather, chasing debris and zigzagging through the accumulation zone rather than lack of experience.

Meet the Crew

Now that I’ve had a chance to get to know the people on board, thought you might like to meet them too:

From the left: Clive, Dale, Me, Karen, Rob, Hank, Carolynn, Marcus, Tim, Brandon, Ming, Judy (Jin is behind the camera)

Taken after the epic swim, this photo was quite the comical production involving Jin, still in swim trunks, being strung up the boom, the 7m beam that extends over the side of the boat, which we normally use for trawling. Dangling precariously in a harness with what I can only assume is a very expensive camera, he snapped away as we laughed.

The crew is divided into three watch teams that rotate through the five shifts dividing our days and duties (6-12, 12-6, then 6-10, 10-2 and 2-6 at night). This results in a 3 day repeating rotation of pretty irregular sleep patterns. Having the two 6 hour day shifts off in a row is the closest thing to a weekend – it’s called ‘Sunday’ accordingly.

Grouped with Marcus, Jin and Brandon, I quickly dubbed our team “Man Watch.” Hank stepped up with the tagline “it’s like a cross between Baywatch and a manwich.” Although Marcus recently re-christened our watch ‘the wolf pack’ I still prefer the original.

My team:

Marcus is the research director for Algalita and 5 Gyres’ founding member. He seems to be on deck or in the lab area at all hours, always full of energy and ready with stories of dinosaur digs and solo jungle campouts to help pass night watch hours.

Jin is a high up dude with the Seoul Broadcasting Corporation, tasked with filming the voyage as part of a documentary on the Pacific. Although his colleagues were sent on comfy cruises and other cushy assignments, he’s always laughing, in good spirits, and has a seemingly endless stash of candy squirreled away among camera equipment, Korean hot sauce and instant ramen.

Brandon is here as Jin’s assistant and translator. He throws all his energy into the task at hand, whether dishes, sleeping or dreaming of hot tub soaks. Before the trip Brandon had only ever seen Jin in serious suits – certainly never strung up a boom topless.