30 June 2019

Prince Madog Cruise

After our trip offshore to take samples for our MSc project had been cancelled twice, we were finally confirmed to go. The ship was supposed to sail at about 6AM so I opted for boarding the night before. I knew I wouldn’t sleep much if I knew I would have to get up at stupid o’clock to get to the pier on time! I parked up and walked down; it all looked quiet. Generally you have to sign in in some way or another but now I just walked on and found my cabin. I was lucky; I had one for myself! This was the perk that came from being the only female on board. A bit silly that in 2019 you still get that kind of situation; 16 people on board and only one female. I was also one of only two vegetarians on board. (Yes I know, I am better described as a flexitarian, but I figured that a) it would be best to avoid confusion and b) it would be good for me to train my properly veggie muscle for a bit.) I also made my bed. And I had a quick look around. Where was what?

My hut

The Madog still at the pier

When I was done it was still early, and it was lovely outside, so I sat on a bench for a bit, reading a book. I did bump into my first people; Colin the chef, and Hubert the second engineer. I didn’t see a scientist at all that day! And I went to bed quite early. The hut was hot already so I kept a ventilator on all night.

The next morning I was woken by knocking. The cruise leader, Tim, checked I was on board. I was! And a bit later I got up, had a shower, and went to the deck. There it was already brimming with scientists. All of them except Joe, my student! And the first spanners in the works showed; it was too misty to have left yet (not enough radar on board) and a winch wasn’t working. But the first problem solved itself, and the technicians solved the other. We were ready to go!

Repairing the winch

Before anything else, Joe and I went through the safety briefing as we hadn’t sailed on the Madog before. Then it was time for breakfast. It was cooked! Not ideal, but I’ll manage for a few days. Then there was a fire drill and then I had some time to do some work in my cabin.

The cruise started with some geophysics around a wreck. This meant little to me. Things would get exciting for Joe and me when they started taking grab samples. This wreck wasn’t one of ours, in the original plan, but science tends to mean you need to constantly adapt and we decided we needed to get a bit of these samples. And as it was in the afternoon when that started, and Joe had been put in the night shift, it was me who started the actual work. And once it started it didn’t stop for a while!

Bringing a Shipek grab on board

In a team of three we were taking grab samples; they were for Irinios, a PhD student, and Tim the cruise leader (I’ll call him Tim CL from now on; the night shift had a Tim in it too) and me helped him out. And grabbing is a rather fast process. Water depth is only ~40 around the wreck, and getting the sample out takes seconds. And Irinios wanted four sub-samples per grab sample. So when a grab came up we needed to have five bags labelled up (including the time the actual grab touched the sea floor), and four additional labels; the labels go in the four small bags for in case the labelling on the outside rubs off, and then the four bags go into the bigger bag. And the whole thing then goes into a bucket to await delivery to a lab. And sometimes these grabs happened only two minutes apart! We were labelling like the clappers. And fairly often the grab sampler jammed, or it only got enough sediment for one or two bags, and then we needed to relabel them for a next sample, etc. It was hectic! And sometimes we found such cool stuff in the samples we wanted to take pictures. We even once caught a fish! It was a bit startled by the experience but seemed unhurt. We threw it back and I hope it lives happily ever after. When we found anything alive and not attached to the sediment we threw it back. Barnacles were doomed, though; Irinios wants to take grain size measurements, and pebbles are a part of that, so any barnacle living on a pebble went into the sampling bag. Poor sods! But we threw loads of crabs overboard (including a cool hermit crab, but mainly long-clawed porcelain crabs), and a brittle star, and various worms, and a small anemone. And an amazing colony of bryozoans was allowed to keep its pebbles.

A baby long-clawed porcelain crab

Sunset over a winch

Seaweed I first thought, but no! Bryozoans!

A scorpionfish in the grab

I also took a few subsamples for Joe. Maybe this wreck site was promising! If there was enough material and the sample was unlike what I already had I took some. I had five in the end.
We had done some 58 grab samples when it drew towards midnight. The end of our shifts! We were looking forward to that. Irinios would stay on to finish the grab sampling; there were only some three stations to go. Tim and I would go to bed. Joe would have to help Irinios as Tim was setting up his own kit for the next part of the cruise.

I slept OK and got up at 8. I checked out what was happening on deck. The taking video footage of worm reefs (yes they exist), was going well. Joe had checked the samples I had taken for him; they didn’t look promising. Too bad but at least we now know! And by then breakfast was over but I was actually quite happy to have some Weetabix and coffee with my Monday newspaper on my own. I’m not overly fond of cooked breakfasts!

The Wednesday was very quiet for me. I had some time before lunch, which I mainly spent working in the cabin again, and paradoxically I worked less hard when my shift started. We were mainly doing geophysics and camera work, and basically while your equipment is running you don’t need to do anything. So I spend a lot of the time reading my book near the back deck, and occasionally snapping into action when I was needed to either lower the camera frame overboard, or to haul it back in. But it was a slightly frustrating day. Losing an entire working day because once in a while you do some stuff that the men seem to be very reluctant to let you do in the first place (women and big machinery! Women and physical work!) is not very rewarding. At least I finished my book.

Holyhead mountain from the sea

The camera set-up on deck and South Stack in the background. On the left the unused boxcore

On Thursday we should have been coring, but the wind had picked up. The captain wasn’t having any use of machinery! So it was yet another quiet day. I put my laptop in a lab and did some work. The biggest excitement of the day came from the chief engineer declaring the toilet between my hut and that of Irinios and Joe to be broken. We would have to use different ones!

And I went to bed early; there was still a chance there would be coring on the Friday morning. So I had to make sure to be up and about at 5AM! And that’s best done by not going to bed after midnight. I was in bed by half past eight.

When I woke up at 3 because I had to go to the loo I found a note by Tim, having been shoved under the door; it said the decision would be taken at ~7, not 5. So I changed my alarm and went back to bed. And when I woke up for real I could immediately feel the situation had only got worse. The ship was rocking like a rodeo horse! So I went up but I already knew what was coming. And indeed; the conditions were, and were expected to stay, too bad for sampling of any kind. No mud for us! I was a bit disappointed but I know this is how it works on a ship. The weather is the boss! At least I was glad to see I didn't get seasick. I suppose the Madog is big enough to make it OK! I wouldn't want to face this kind of weather on the Macoma...

In the greater scheme of things, not very large waves. But too large for sampling! Point Lynas in the background. 

We finished a geophysical survey near Point Lynas and then we set sail for home. No reason to be out at sea if you can’t do anything! And we started discussing if we could get Joe on the next cruise. He will still need samples! But if he can, he will have to go alone. I can’t afford another week away from the office. And he is a MSc student; he should be able to stand on his own two feet!

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