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How to stay sane on a ship in the middle of the ocean

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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The Knorr is a big ship as far as research vessels go – but there’s still no getting around the fact that you’re in a little metal box in the middle of the ocean with 49 other people for a month. Add to that the fact that most people are doing highly repetitive experiments all day (and I do mean all day, people get up at 5 am and work until 11 pm) and you’ve got a recipe for madness.

For the first week or so, everyone was calm and collected. They got up, they did the CTD casts, they worked, filtered, sequenced and experimented. There was chatter and laughter, but it always came in between long periods of intense science-doing late into the night. But the times, they are a changin’, and people are starting to loosen up (or perhaps go nuts, I don’t know).

As we hovered around the mid point of the cruise, you could see people starting to mentally count the days before they head home. Without a big bloom of Ehux, people were concentrating their samples and trudging about the lab doing their experiments. You could feel the nagging frustration, the exhaustion of long days and the disappointment of not finding a bloom.

So last night, when someone nearly shouted, “The water is FULL of Ehux!” everyone was pretty excited. Turns out, we’d hit a bloom, and everyone crowded into the tiny microscope room to take a look at these teensy little dots.

It was just what everyone needed to keep them going for the next few days. But if an Ehux bloom isn’t enough for you, here’s a handy dandy guide to staying sane on the ship:

1. Write poetry / sing

One of the things that scientists do is filter. They filter a lot. Pretty much all day. That’s because seawater is full of phytoplankton, but it’s also full of all sorts of other stuff too. To separate the goodies from the gunk, they run the water through filters that catch their precious biomass. But filtering itself is, well, boring. You pour water into a cup, and wait for it to run through the filter. Then you do it again. And again. And again. How do you stay sane while filtering? Write a poem! One of the scientists here, Daniella Schatz, wrote a Dr. Seuss style poem about filtering.

Another scientist here, Rachel, sings to her filters little songs she makes up on the spot.

2. Take naps / bask

This is what Peter Lee calls “steel beach.” It’s the very back of the ship and it’s somewhat protected from the cold northern wind that generally moves across the ship. For a while, if you found the right spot, you could get a really good, sunny nap in. Or a game of backgammon.

Even if you don’t nap, steel beach is a great place to hangout and gaze out onto the ocean. As Daniella says, “There are three things you can watch forever: fire, water, and other people working.” Steel beach has two of those three!

3. Exercise

This is the gym on board. It’s no Manhattan fitness club, but it gets the job done, and it’s been keeping me sane for the past week. I haven’t mastered the treadmill on board. (Have you ever tried running while on a rocking ship? Let me tell you, it is not easy).  I do use the spinning bike (stuck underneath the stairs) and the weight machine though. It’s not going to get me into marathon shape, but it will keep me from running up and down the main lab. For now at least.

4. Read

Everyone here seems to be reading. I just finished Witches on the Road Tonight and a book from the library here called The Fabulous Fibonacci Numbers. I’m half way through Tiger’s Wife and Emperor of all Maladies. Liti is reading Chocolat. Anton is reading Something’s Alive on the Titanic.

5. Play jokes on one another

The crew likes to try and convince us of things that aren’t true. Someone told Cherel that the stairs near the kitchen were up only. Another person told Jacob that a blinking buoy was a giant squid, communicating with the boat. Someone else added out chief scientist, Kay Bidle (who sports an intense beard) to a game of “Professor or Hobo.”

6. Games

I have a confession to make. I don’t really know any card games. It’s always kind of embarrassing, when everyone wants to play something and I’m the only one who has no idea how to play. But I’ve learned several already here – backgammon, cribbage, rummy, some game called French Tarot (okay, I confess, I still have no idea how to play that one).

7. What else should we do? Got any ideas to pass the time? We’re (okay maybe just I’m) always looking for things to do.


During this trip, I’ll be answering your questions about the science, this ship, and life onboard. Want to know how we search for plankton, why we’re here, or what the food is like? Just ask me! And if you’re wondering how I got here, check out the groups that made this adventure possible: Mind Open Media and COSEE NOW.

Previously in this series:

All Aboard: how you can be a part of our research blog
You wanted to know: what are these phytoplankton?
You wanted to know: what am I bringing to sea?
Greetings from Ponta Delgada! We set sail tomorrow.
Steaming North: how the scientists are trying to find plankton
The superstar sensor: what is a CTD?
Status Update: Day 3 at the Cyclonic Eddy
You wanted to know: what is this virus that infects the phytoplankton (Part One)
You wanted to know: what is this virus that infects the phytoplankton (Part Two)
Plankton hunting: Part art, Part science
You wanted to know: what’s the food like on board?
Wildlife watch!
Jumborizing: a brief history of the R/V Knorr
On the importance of names. Or, “are we at the hump or the hole?”
Arts and crafts day on the Knorr
On the importance of names, part two. What’s the difference between a boat and a ship?

Rose Eveleth About the Author: Rose Eveleth is a producer, designer, writer and animator based in Brooklyn. She's got a degree in ecology from U.C. San Diego, and a masters in journalism from NYU. Now, she makes sciencey stuff for places like The New York Times, Scientific American, Story Collider and OnEarth. Follow on Twitter @roseveleth.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. humb.amp123 2:35 pm 07/2/2012

    Do you have a bunch of paper? There’s a game, (has different names, it’s the nonverbal version of telephone) where you give vertically spilt pieces of paper to everybody in the group, fold all of the pieces of paper in half 3 times (to get 8 sections). Everybody then writes a sentence in the top section (the more creative the better) and then passes the paper to the right (if your group is in a circle). Now draw what the sentences says or means to you, once you are done fold section you looked at back and pass it to the right. Continue until all of the sections are filled then, once EVERYBODY is finished, you can look at the results.

    Card games: Spoons, Crazy Eights (uno), Egyptian Ratscrew/Egyptian War/Egyptian Rat Slap. Google it, if no one there knows how to play. Spoons is the easiest to play.

    The bag game: find a paper bag(or make something that works). Set the paper bag on the ground and try and pick it up with your mouth with only one foot on the ground. Once everybody has been given a chance of two, lower the lip of the bag. Continue until everybody gives up, there is only one person that can reach the bag or there’s a likely accident of a face hitting the ground. If the bag is lifted off the ground before the person touches the ground, then that is considered successful. I’m not sure how playing a ship will be, but it should no doubt be interesting.

    Link to this
  2. 2. geojellyroll 9:11 am 07/3/2012

    I was twice on ships in the Arctic in the early 1980′s. No electronic radio reception except ‘iffy’ shortwave.

    Thank heaven’s it wasn’t with today’s individuals under 40 who have the attention span of an amoeba.

    Link to this

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