The personal challenge of long research cruises

One aspect of fieldwork rarely mentioned in cruise blogs, or indeed at work, is the personal preparation we need to make when we are going to be away from home for several weeks.  Seagoing scientists and technicians are, of course, just ordinary people with the hopes, worries and attachments that we all have.  It can be mentally tough to spend a significant amount of time away from home, often under stressful conditions, without your personal support network around you.  When you are several days’ travel from home, worries about family or pets or friends can amplify in your mind, although equally, time away can give you a new sense of perspective and clarity about some situations.

I have two children, and an important part of preparation for a long cruise is bracing myself for being away from them, and getting things in place to help their dad manage while I’m at sea.  Having organised some extra childcare (which can be harder than it sounds) I am now feeling reasonably ready to go.  This time I’ll be away for significant events like a birthday, and an end-of-primary-school performance by my daughter’s class, and I will miss those early morning cuddles and evening bath times with the kids.  A couple of years ago I was unexpectedly too late for Christmas because a delay in the ship programme meant I got home 3 weeks later than planned.  But we cope with all of this because we send each other emails and photos, and they tell me about what they are doing on the phone, or sometimes in short voice recordings sent by email.

At their worst cruises can be very lonely times, but more often than not they are a lot of fun.  At the same time that we miss our families (or pets, or gardens, or friends) and find it hard to be away from them, we can also make enduring friendships with people we sail with.  You get to know people very well when you spend long hours at sea together and this can be very rewarding if you happen to get on well.  If you are lucky you can form a new support network around you, because you really are in the same boat.

Finally, I have discovered a slightly surprising personal benefit of being a sea-going parent; it turns out that my children feel pretty cool because their friends think that I am a cool Mum because of my job.  Me – cool! – something I spent many years failing to achieve in my younger days.  Who’d have thought it.

Where are we going?

Our first cruise on RRS James Clark Ross starts in St Johns, Newfoundland, Canada. The scientific party will be travelling to the port at the end of May, to meet the ship which has been sailing north after a season of Antarctic research and supply work. We will spend a few days mobilising, which means unpacking and stowing boxes, setting up equipment, exploring the ship, buying a supply of chocolate treats to help us survive 7 weeks at sea.

When we sail we will head straight out to the Labrador Sea, making a CTD survey across the shallow shelf, over the deep basin and up onto the shallow shelf of south west Greenland. From there we will travel around Cape Farewell and re-start the section off the south-east coast of Greenland. We will survey across the Irminger Sea, the Iceland Basin, the Rockall Trough, and finish our work off the coast of Scotland. The ship will then sail around the UK to finish in the port of Immingham, sometime in late July. Our route is basically the solid black line on the map. Our sister cruises on the Knorr will be deploying instrument arrays at the blue and white locations shown here too.

The end result will be a long section across the sub polar gyre: a vertical slice of the ocean cutting through the middle of this huge re-circulating feature. We will have collected data showing us the distribution of temperature, salinity, currents, carbon, nutrients and some chemical tracers. All of this will eventually allow us to understand the circulation of the region, how much heat the ocean is carrying, and how much carbon is being absorbed by the ocean.

Getting ready to go


At last the time has come to really get going on the practical work of UK OSNAP!  After a few years of planning, proposal writing, many meetings and a lot of money spent on equipment, we are packing our boxes and booking our flights ready for our first cruise.  During the coming spring and summer months there will be four research cruises taking place, one on a UK ship, the RRS James Clark Ross, and 3 more on the US ship R/V Knorr.  During these cruises we will be taking measurements of the ocean and deploying a huge array of instruments that will continuously record ocean temperature, salinity and currents across the subpolar gyre.

This blog will record our adventures at sea, starting with the first cruise on the JCR.  More information about UK OSNAP and what its all about can be found on our website