Life on the boat has been great. What an experience it has been to spend a month out at sea doing coastal research with Rhodes University, and definitely something I would love to do again sometime. It’s absolutely beautiful out in the ocean, with stunning sunrises and sunsets, birds everywhere, and seals, whales and dolphins swimming around the ship. What a magical experience.
Being on the water is like living a different life on a different world, nothing about it resembles anything I’ve ever experienced before. Time loses meaning and days mush together, especially when working the midnight to noon shift, and it is nearly impossible to remember when you did what because you no longer have a regular night’s sleep to separate one day from the other. Instead, it is a constant struggle for an hour of sleep here or two hours there, with no regular schedule whatsoever to keep track of when you’ve done what or what day it is, or even what time it is. Waking up at 2am on the boat feels no different than waking up at 2pm, and rather than living day by day, I think the trip could best be summed up as a thirty day push during which time you have no idea when it is. This is not a bad thing by any means, but it does take some getting used to. We live our entire lives by the clock, waking up in the morning for school or work, going from one appointment to another, then sleeping at night, but that lifestyle does not apply at sea. It is therefore a complete shift from what I’ve been accustomed to for my entire life, and it’s not easy to jump right in to.
Not only do you rarely know when it is, but you often don’t know where you are either. Whether you’re 200 miles off-shore or 10 miles from the coast, there’s no way of knowing where you might be in this vast ocean. Only once was I slightly concerned by this notion, and it was when we were hit with a massive storm near the end of the cruise. With winds raging at 50 mph and 20 foot waves crashing down on us, I began to wonder just how far off the coast we were, hoping for closer rather than farther. What a crazy night that was though, even the windows up on the bridge (nearly 60 feet up) were getting sprayed by the vicious sea. The boat was literally smashing its way through the massive swells, with a twenty foot wave lifting the nose of the ship to nearly 45 degrees, then as it made its way to the back, the front end would smash down violently into the next oncoming wave. Everything was falling over, chairs in the mess, fire hydrants attached to the walls (one went off and sprayed the entire hallway white), dishes and silverware were everywhere, drawers came out flung equipment everywhere… it was mad! But for me, it was quite an exciting madness indeed. While it’s all fine and dandy being in calm waters, I must admit that life on the rough sea is where all the action’s at. That’s when you’re on edge, when you’re literally hanging on for dear life because if you let go of anything you will be thrown across the room or over the railing of the boat. Never is there a dull moment when the weather turns rough, not even if you have twelve hours of waiting around before your next shift starts. It was when we hit the storm that I enjoyed myself the most on the boat, not because it was dangerous (which I would not have enjoyed…in fact knowing that this boat can survive much worse is what kept me comforted) but because it was thrilling.
Sleeping on the boat also takes some serious getting used to. First of all, the walls creak like mad! Because the boat is always rocking, the walls are always creaking, and boy is it annoying. Right next to your head, all you hear is the incessantly loud creaking that manages to keep you awake even after two days of hard work without so much as an hour of sleep. And worse, if you do manage to fall asleep, you are sure to wake up after an hour or so from the annoying sound. The creaky walls are my only complaint on this month long boat trip, it was the only thing that constantly drove me crazy. I’m not sure if other boats are the same, but sheesh that’s one thing I could have lived without. Another difficulty in falling asleep is the fact that you are always moving, rolling left and right in your bed. Sleeping on your side doesn’t work, so it’s either your back or your stomach. When you lie on your back though, your head rolls left and right which is pretty irritating and manages to keep you awake. And to make life even more frustrating, it’s as if the beds onboard were designed by midgets. Maybe it’s just me, but I’ve found that everything in Africa runs a few sizes small. In fact, I havn’t been able to find shoes bigger than size 10 anywhere, beds have always been way too short, and even shower heads are never higher than chest height. But when sleeping is already as hard as it is on the ship, the last thing you need is a bed that’s only five feet long to make matters worse. Now I’m just lying flat on my stomach, arms and legs bent like a frog, trying to get one iota’s worth of sleep.
Anywho… what’s the strangest part of all about being out at sea you may ask? Funny as it may seem, I would have to say landsickness! Let me explain… when you first board the ship, the constant rocking back and forth takes a lot of getting used to, which is why people generally get sea sick for the first three days. It’s much like going on a ride at an amusement park. That thrill that you get, basically the head rush and butterflies in the stomach, come from the movement of the ride. But if you were to stay on that ride for hours and hours, or even days, eventually your body would begin to get used to the movement, and even compensate for it with subtle movements of its own. For example, here on board if you watch anybody you will see them moving back and forth ever so slightly to counter the movement of the ship. It comes naturally after a few days on board, it’s just the body’s reaction to the rocking of the boat. But it’s not actually the movement that makes you sick, it’s that head-rush/butterfly in the stomach feeling caused by moving up and down, back and forth - the same feeling that you experience on a ride. But once your body is accustomed to it, which usually takes one to three days, you lose those feelings altogether and are fine again. Yes you are still rocking and moving around with the boat, but your body has somehow countered the effects, and thus you no longer get sea sick. This is great when you are at sea, and best of all I have found that once you are used to the general movement of the boat, it no longer matters if the waves are three feet high or twenty feet high, you won’t get sea sick either way because your body knows the pattern of movement – the rocking motion. But this does cause problems when you get back to shore. This came as a shock to me because I had never been out to sea so I had no expectations, but I actually got land sick when we docked to refuel for a day. In fact, it was just as bad as when I boarded the ship and got sea sick for the first few hours and it actually made me anxious to get back on the boat and head out to sea where I would feel comfortable again! Funny huh!? Your body will get so used to the movement, that when you step off the boat onto solid ground, you actually feel unstable. You are still naturally trying to counteract the rocking motion (that no longer exists) and thus it makes you feel as if you are moving. It actually made me quite dizzy and nauseous because when I sat still, I knew I wasn’t moving and could even feel that I was sitting motionless, but my body still wanted to counteract the movement of the waves that I had gotten so used to, so my head felt like it was spinning (almost like how you would get dizzy after spinning around for a minute – only this was after being at sea for a month!). Quite an unexpected feeling, and a shocking one at that. Who knew you could get landsick right? It reminded me of a movie I watched as a kid – Waterworld with Kevin Costner. I thought it was so funny, and pretty ridiculous, when he finally found land and said he was heading back out to sea because it didn’t feel right and he was getting ‘landsick.’ Psh, I thought, something only Hollywood would make up for laughs. Well believe it or not, it’s true! Just as your first day out at sea can be quite miserable, so can your first day back on land!
Things to get used to at sea:
Constantly bumping your head on the 4-foot high steel ceiling
Everything falling over around you
Losing your balance as the boat rolls around in the sea, especially when you’re putting on clothes or shoes
Probably taking about 100 steps per day – after a month on a ship you’ve probably averaged the same number of steps as a typical day on land
Rolling in your sleep in a bed made for midgets
Getting soaked when you’re on deck and a rogue wave hits
Eating three times a day…and then another three times because you’re working the night shift
Averaging 2 hours of sleep a day
Losing all track of time
Long days stuck on board with absolutely nothing to do when you have to sit out bad weather
Drinking lots of coffee to keep you going
The incessantly loud creaking sounds the walls beside your bed make as the boat rocks in the water, nearly driving you mad as you try to get your two or so hours of sleep each day
The atrocious swampy smell wafting from the bathroom, which is always musky and damp from people showering
Listening to the sound of your food bounce around inside your stomach as you lay down and roll side to side with the boat
Getting sea sick (at first) and then land sick (later)