Paul Levine

The R/V Thompson

I spent the early part of my academic life dreaming of becoming an oceanographer.  Not the George Costanza marine biologist kind, but a real one.  A towering figure, with a grizzled and tanned look and unkempt beard housing sea salt, barnacles and icicles that could only result from sailing the seven seas.  It was an inevitable dream, having spent half my childhood growing up near the ocean in Rockaway Beach, Queens.  I could look out the window and see the Atlantic pounding the shore, and occasionally witness hurricane force winds cause the ocean to overflow the peninsula, and meet up with Jamaica Bay, only four blocks away.  We lived on the slimmest of land between the wind-driven waters. My childhood revolved around summer swims, boogey boards and bicycling along the boardwalk year-round. The views were always glorious. It was the only good thing about living in the projects, as the architecture had all the allure of another, nearby seaside community, on the other side of the borough.  Rikers Island. 

As an undergrad, I supported myself by working summer jobs and shelving books in the library while on campus.  But the best source of income was working on a small research vessel (R/V), the R/V Micmac, that was operated by SUNY Stony Brook. Several weekends a semester, we’d  load up the vehicles with all sorts of gear, electronics, rope, floats, and sampling devices and drive to the Micmac’s last berth, more often than not at the Merchant Marine Academy at Kings Point or Fort Wadsworth, Staten Island, depending on our intended sampling plan.  We spent a lot of time “cruising” New York Harbor and taking samples of water, sediments and sludge. It was tough and physical work that was conducted in all types of weather, day and night. Though we completed several trips around Long Island, the East River was most often our intended target, as our research attempted to rectify the appalling water quality conditions that existed in the early 1970s.  The East River particularly was anoxic and unable to support marine life.  Failing wastewater treatment plants were discharging untreated sewage into the river and this research provided the data necessary to improve water quality within New York’s real gem.  The harbor.  Though my role was small, I still take a certain amount of pride whenever I look out at the harbor, knowing that I contributed to its improvement.

I was elated to be accepted to the University of Washington’s Graduate School of Oceanography. And I was particularly excited to hop on board the R/V Thompson for my first “cruise” on a real ship.  Every student was required to go to sea after the first year, and I couldn’t wait.  The Thompson was an oceanographic research vessel, purpose built in 1963, for the UNOLS, the University National Oceanographic Laboratory System.  It was 1,200 tons and 209 feet in length; about two thirds the distance to the right field fence in Yankee Stadium.  It drafted 16 feet with a more than adequate cruising velocity, mid-throttle.  It was capable of carrying 14 civilian mariners and up to 30 scientists in rather sparse, close quarters.  Relative to the Micmac, it was an aircraft carrier.  Its deck was an obstacle course of hoists, hooks, tanks, cables, wires, dredges, bottles, flasks, pipettes, meters, floats, freezers, cores, rope, scuba gear, microscopes and sophisticated navigation equipment to support the multiple ongoing investigations.  There were bunks, well-fitted labs, and dining areas onboard.  A serious vessel.  If you looked close enough, you could spy the occasional, illicit fishing rod or two, smuggled on board for extracurricular activities and the freshest of meals.  The Thompson could venture out to sea for weeks.  The real sea. The sea where you couldn’t see anything but the sea. 

One year of landlocked studies, on all aspects of geologic, chemical, physical and biological oceanography was under my belt.  I claimed to understand the science behind tides, but I really didn’t.  Something to do with the moon. It was June, and loading the Thompson started at the university’s dock on Portage Bay.  We’d transit the Ballard locks, together with legions of salmon commuting from Puget Sound.  We were heading for the North Pacific; I couldn’t tell you where, but it seemed like a great, albeit undefined destination, in a big ocean. The voyage included more planning than the Skipper and Gilligan conducted on their ill-fated three-hour tour.  I left the navigation to the captain.  He seemed capable of reading all the dials.

Like all grad students, I was more or less surviving on canned tuna and PB&J sandwiches.  Our stipends, after deductions for tuition, housing and taxes, left little for food.  Food was a luxury and I was always hungry. You can imagine my excitement when I entered the galley.  There was a spread of cold cuts, rolls and pastries that I hadn’t seen since my cousin’s Bar Mitzvah years ago.  I couldn’t help but guzzle.  Turns out we had a prominent stowaway.  The chef, a navy vet, was the recently retired head chef at the Olympic Hotel, Seattle’s premier hotel, and quite coincidentally, the site of the original university.  He signed on to relive his younger days at sea and provide nutritional pleasure to the crew.  Even his coffee tasted better than anything I ever drank. Perhaps it was the Starbucks effect?  The upstart coffee house had just opened at the Pike Place Market, three years prior, and was developing a loyal following.  I felt like a Biafran refugee who lacked sufficient protein, but was instead given  his choice of limitless coconut cream pie or apple turnovers.  What to do? 

“Hold on there, son, “ chef cautioned.  “This is your first outing, isn’t it?  Pace yourself.  Everyone gets sea sick the first time out, and I’d rather you not barf my meatloaf over the side.  No sense feeding the fish.”

“Good advice,” I assured him, “but I’ve been doing oceanographic research for years in New York Harbor and Long Island Sound.  I think I have my sea legs.  Plus, I took some Dramamine, just in case.”

“Suit yourself,” he said with a knowing smile. “But don’t tell me I didn’t warn you.” I think I heard him utter under his breath, “Grad students. They’re all the same.”  He was right. We were all pompous.

By now we had passed the locks and were heading north, up the Puget Sound.  Seattle’s skyline was fading in the distance.  It was a rare, beautiful day in the Pacific Northwest.  Not a cloud in the sky. As we headed north, the Sound was increasingly choppy, as the protective barriers and islands opened more fully to the ocean, exposing us to wind, waves and currents. By the time we were nearing the coast of Vancouver Island, I realized this cruise was not my father’s Oldsmobile.  As we entered the Straits of Juan de Fuca, I started to feel the ocean beneath.  We were on the Pacific side of Vancouver Island now, on a bearing of 315 degrees, heading out to nowhere in the rough waters of the Pacific.  Not at all what I expected.

It was undeniable, I was sea sick and I made my way over to a secluded place where I could hide my embarrassment and expel, in projectile fashion, hardly digested chocolate chips over the side.  I’m guessing the fish enjoyed my sugary supplement to their otherwise bland and staple diet of plankton. 

There are only so many places where you can hide on board a ship. Chef was watching from a distance and came over.  He recognized the symptoms immediately. “Try to look at something that’s not moving.  Like the horizon,” he advised.

“Either I have vertigo, or the whole fucking world is moving.”  I felt no need to edit my speech.  Chef was navy and he’d heard worse than I knew.  “Hang in there.  You’ll be here for a while,” he encouraged while injecting reality simultaneously.  For sure, he was smiling when he turned back to the galley. It was an all-knowing smile.

I stayed outside for a long time.  Hours.  Days on end.  I couldn’t go inside; the air was stale and smelled of diesel only I could detect.  There wasn’t enough Dramamine onboard to ease my condition. The sight of food was a trigger; my apologies to the chef.  I wasn’t even hungry. I must have lost 10 pounds in seven days; it was better than Weight Watchers.  I was skinny then. But there was good news.  I became everyone’s favorite shipmate and learned to use most every piece of equipment on board.  Why?  Not because people felt sorry for me, but because I volunteered to take most every “watch.”  A watch being the time you were designated to take samples.  To the extent I didn’t have to go inside, I stayed outside.  It was only exhaustion that allowed me to periodically overcome the diesel fumes and get some shuteye, often wrapped in a blanket on deck.  They say the worst thing about being sea sick is that you know you’re not going to die. It’s true. I was drained as we headed back to port.  But I could proudly say that my name was associated with most every sample collected on that voyage.  I was hoping someone would name a submerged butte after me, at the very least.  No such luck.

We arrived back on land after about 10 days at sea.  We didn’t head all the way back to Seattle, but rather docked at the Neah Bay Indian Reservation, the far northwest corner of the state, where another crew replaced us.  I was the first to disembark.  Even the van ride back to Seattle remained uncomfortable, though increasingly comfortable after the last ferry ride out of Bremerton across the Sound.  Fortunately, chef never mocked me on the ride back; he remained on ship, preparing goodies for the next crew. Undoubtedly, he was scouting out the next newbie, who’d be wise to take his advice.

When we arrived back to Seattle, I thought long and hard about my future.  Oceanography was my life’s ambition.  How could I be an oceanographer if I got sea sick?  I transferred to the School of Forestry after several weeks on dry land and a new appreciation for PB&J.  I never saw chef again, though I often sat on the university dock on the bay to watch the Thompson sail on to its next adventure without me.  I visit the dock each time I return to Seattle.  It’s tradition.

I still cruise, but on ships with names like Ovation of the Seas or Norwegian Dawn, with 4,000 passengers, 1,000 crew, a pool, an endless buffet and onboard entertainment.  The ships are so big that you’re unaware that you’re riding on a buoyant, moving fluid.  If you do feel movement, you’re in deep fluid. Whenever I’m on such ships, I have an irresistible desire to throw a sample bottle over the side, retrieve a water sample, and bring one home as a souvenir from each port of call.  I still wonder what life would have been like had I been able to tolerate life at sea on a smaller vessel.  I’ll never know.

About the author
Paul Levine
is retired and is now filling his free time with combinations of day dreaming, telling fibs, and teaching an introductory class in sustainability at Middlesex College. Other hobbies include eating vanilla crème cookies from Aldi’s and pretending that he can do so as long as he attends spin class. He continues to be a regular at Nancy Demme’s writer’s group, exploring interests that have remained dormant for years. When not writing, he finds periodic solace in participating in current events and investment forums, demonstrating his lack of expertise in both. With the pandemic in the rear-view mirror, he will revisit and attend to his bucket list, so he can bring new stories to life.

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