Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Seal stomachs II: On Jan Mayen to Jan Mayen

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We were on Jan Mayen, the research ship, named after Jan Mayen, the island. Like Lance, she's ice-strengthened. She was originally a fishing boat – a stern trawler, catching Arctic shrimp. For some reason, after a couple of years fishing, the government bought her and handed her over to the University of Tromsø for marine research.

Because she's a trawler, Jan Mayen is mostly used for fisheries research. Stepping below decks for the first time, the smell – a decade's worth of leftover fish and shrimp, mixed with more than a hint of diesel – was enough to put my stomach on notice. And we were still at the dock. I had to walk through the steel cavern of fish-processing area to find my cabin, which was tucked along the hull, deep below the waterline. Sofie, along to say goodbye, was turning the same light green as the processing area's paint by the time we'd dumped my gear, traversed the fish processing area again, and emerged into breathable air..

“Ummm - well, this is going to be great, isn't it.”, she said, losing her green tinge with each breath. “I feel like puking and we're not even moving. Yeuckkk. Rather you than me.”.

“Thanks hon. That's all I need – like this'll be such fun.”.

“Oh sweet, you'll be okay. Just get through the first few days and you'll be fine.”.

“Yeah. It's not just seasickness tho'.”.

“I know. Almost a month. I'll miss you.”.

The crew were getting ready to cast off. It was time for Sofie to leave.

After I'd seen Sofie drive off, I joined the rest of the science crew, gathered on the bridge. We watched the hills and islands of Tromsø until it was time to file onto the trawl deck for our safety demonstration. We had the fire drill and lifeboat drill explained to us, well before we sailed out of the protection of islands, and into open water. Once we sailed out of shelter, conditions were rough. The Arctic in late winter.

After my ritual day of feeling seasick, I staggered to the bridge to see who'd found their sea legs and what was happening on the ocean. The bridge was over 30 feet across, with a 270 degree panorama of ocean through armoured windows. A central island of electronics – what looked like a game controller for steering the ship, plus a bank of gizmos for navigation and communication – with a well padded, swivelling armchair, was the nerve centre. The huge windows, blond wood trimmings, carpet, plush chairs – Jan Mayen's bridge was a world away from the dull greens and stench of the fish processing area.

Tore was already ensconced, sitting in a swivelling armchair on the port side, drinking coffee, looking like he hadn't felt a moment's illness, because he hadn't. Viking genetics, perhaps. Outside was rough, dark, rolling ocean. Someone had reported a sperm whale as we'd crossed the edge of Norway's continental shelf, but after that, nothing in the way of marine mammals.

I had a couple of hours of watching waves and avoiding coffee. I find that coffee's one of the best promoters of feeling seasick, and coffee on Norwegian ships is invariably extra-bitter, just to get that nausea-revival really happening. I'd planned on using some spare time on the cruise to teach myself a new computer language, so I trundled below – regaining a slight greenish tinge as I hustled through the fish processing area – and cranked up my laptop. Equipped with a newbie's guide to MatLab programming, I intended to while away the couple of days left to Jan Mayen with some serious geekiness.

It was not to be. The next day, we ran into a gale, and so the ship sat, trudging slowly into huge seas. Everything that wasn't tied down below decks found new and interesting ways to bounce. Holding my laptop still on the desk in my cabin, trying to think, and not falling off my chair became too much of a challenge. Before I broke something (either the laptop or me), I gave up, climbed into my bunk, braced myself and picked up a novel.

After a day's bashing, the storm eased and we could continue on our way to Jan Mayen. We anchored as close to Olonkin Town as possible, and a 14ft Zodiac inflatable was readied on the trawl deck - which, being almost 50 yards long and at least 10 yards wide, had plenty of room for the little inflatable. Despite being at a designated anchorage, and on a decent sized ship, we were rolling. The ship's crane, set on the starboard stern quarter, lifted the Zodiac off the trawl deck. Swung off the ship, hanging over the ocean, it started swaying, and crewman on board kicked it away from the ship's hull. Once it was tied off, Agneta, the nurse we'd brought along, was deposited by crane, along with some bags of post. Tore went too, to help handle the Zodiac.

We were running an errand for the Norwegian government. Julie, the nurse doing a tour on Jan Mayen (the island), had a sick relative and needed to return to Norway. She had to be replaced. No-one just pops out to Jan Mayen, and as we were heading out that way, Tore was asked to make a detour. The Zodiac met with Jan Mayen (the island's) small tender just off the beach.

The chop on the Zodiac's return from their rendezvous was even worse, the Zodiac-swaying even more impressive as it was lifted over, deposited on the trawl deck. Finally people and boat were safely aboard. Jan Mayen (the ship, obviously), upped anchor, steamed for a while, took shelter under Beerenberg, as far inshore as the skipper dared take her. The rough conditions were the prelude to a serious blow, predicted to come out of the west that evening. The volcano's mass would offer some protection.

And blow it did. I was in my cabin, struggling with MatLab, and could feel the ship jarring. I made my way up to the bridge, where there was a wind meter to put the view in context. Despite being in the most sheltered waters we could find, the seas were wild. The wind meter was vacillating around 50 metres per second – 100 knots.

I don't think that I was the only one who was grateful that we were hiding behind Beerenberg.

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