Groundhog Day

2nd March 2017, RRS James Cook

There’s something rather odd about being on a ship whose aim it is to stop more often than it starts. Cruising, by definition, requires sailing to a destination. It certainly seems not to be the case on-board the RRS James Cook.

The only goal we have is in reaching the next waypoint, or point in a chart, to check the newest wave of scientific instruments. Yes, our final port of call will be Nassau in the Bahamas, but that’s not why we’re at sea.

Motor at night. Stop to retrieve oceanographic implements. Plonk instruments back in the drink. Repeat at least twice. Continue motoring.

Whilst I’ve only been on-board for two rather wobbly days, the ship’s routine now follows a predicable notion. Motor at night. Stop to retrieve oceanographic implements. Plonk instruments back in the drink. Repeat at least twice. Continue motoring. It’s like Groundhog Day with the addition of some pretty serious oceanographic toys.

Following the same route across the Atlantic at year-and-half long intervals since 2004, this RAPID cruise has become a very oiled machine. The scientists, sailors and engineers on-board becoming as highly polished in their work as the gleaming instruments that they drag from the depths.

At over a foot long, these titanium cylindrical bullets contain data on the salinity temperature and pressure at specific depths and locations across the Atlantic. The aim of the project is to understand more about a current called the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation, or AMOC. Bringing cold water from the North to the South, it is replaced warner surface water that flows back North. It the temperature difference that regulates are climate in the U.K and makes it so temperate.

Excited scientists in white coats and yellow hard-hats clutch clipboards expectantly, keen to plug this new cargo into their lab computers below deck.

As you’d expect, hauling in this delicate catch requires a huge amount of precision, experience and care. Winches screech and grind, whilst brightly covered plastic cable is wound around a huge wooden bobbin out on deck. Operated by a man who looks like a roadie/former member from the thrash rock band Motörhead, an orange crane delivers the silver instruments into the outstretched hands of men tied on to the stern. With the safety railings removed for retrieval, the last thing we want is a man-overboard.

Excited scientists in white coats and yellow hard-hats clutch clipboards expectantly, keen to plug this new cargo into their lab computers below deck. A staggering 98% of the CTDs recovered provide useable data, an incredible feat considering the battering they get below the waves.

– Laura

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