Like ships passing in the night

by Geoff Stanley

This research cruise between Iceland and Scotland is my first time at sea, which makes me a bit of a rarity amongst the science team. What’s more, this cruise has nothing to do with my own research (which is theoretical work on the rather far away Southern Ocean); I’m here to help out with the physics team, and learn more about observational oceanography. I’ve quickly come to appreciate some of the challenges faced by physical oceanographers for which we theory types don’t often give much credit.

I’ll focus on the physical difficulties. Stefan and I are on the night watch, from midnight until 8am, plus four more hours of more flexible (not on official watch) work until noon. When we were told this we immediately began adjusting our sleep schedules to suit — but we did so in opposite directions. With great willpower, Stefan rigorously went to sleep earlier and earlier each day until the day before the watch started, he went to sleep at 3pm. (See the graph below.)

Initially I tried the same, forcing myself to wake early the next day, but a dash of seasickness caused me to retire to my bunk in the mid afternoon and take a nap. So much for that. Okay, new strategy: stay up late. That’s easier than falling asleep early when you’re not tired, right?

Maybe this would have worked, but after two late nights we ploughed into another storm as we left the Irish Sea and entered the North Atlantic (May 31). I woke just in time for lunch (what an entrance), then returned to my cabin where the uneasy pitching of the ship rocked me back to sleep. But the storm only got worse, and waking a few hours later after far too much sleep, my best defence against seasickness — horizontal unconsciousness — would no longer activate. Still, Gale Force 8 winds cut through my determination to stay up ridiculously late and I fell back asleep as soon as I could. Stefan, meanwhile, would cope with these horrendous calamities when he woke at 2am and forced his mind to swim miles through seasickness and wake-in-the-wee-hours delirium. Like two ships passing in the night, Stefan was travelling 8 time zones west around the Earth and I 16 hours east, and there were days when we almost never saw the other.

My second strategy tattered as well, I now planned more simply: sleep as much as possible in the next two days before my midnight shift began, and power through on reserve. It sort of worked, but the next few days I was on a see-saw between sleeping 3pm-11pm as I should, and being so exhausted at the end of the shift that I caved at 8:30am. Eventually though, I steadied out. All in all, I think Stefan was the wiser.

For all that, the night watch had some benefits, such as seeing the sun rise over Iceland (photo below). I was holding out on this blog post for a long-exposure photograph of magnificent light-pollution free stars (swaying drunkenly, you might say, by the motion of the ship), but alas we were clouded over every night.

The last week of the cruise has been fabulous, and I’ve felt like a normal human being. But now we’re at the end of the cruise and we face the opposite problem: how to get back 8 time zones east. In comparison, and with our calm seas, this should be a piece of cake.

Stefan and Geoff’s sleep schedules during their transformation to night-people.

Pulling up the CTD while the sun rises over Iceland, on June 3.


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