Its really hard to explain what its like to be in a ship in the Southern Ocean in bad weather. There’s plenty of footage around of the Aurora Australis in heaving seas as it goes up and down, left and right, smashes into a big wave and the windows on the bridge get splashed with water. It looks pretty unpleasant but there’s so much more to the experience that pictures can’t capture.
As I sit at my desk the ship pitches and rolls, but not in any discernible pattern and with no regularity to how far we may lean in any direction. All of the surfaces on the ship are covered in anti-slip matting so that my tea cup and my computer stay put in the relentless back and forth. All of our instrumentation is strapped or screwed onto benches, floors and walls. I’m used to the motion of the ship now so I gently sway around, opposing the motion to keep my body upright. Every now and then we will crest a big wave and you brace yourself for the drop as the ship pitches forward (or sideways, depending on where the wave came from) and accelerates down. You reach the bottom and the ship slams into the next wave, causing shock waves to shake through the ship and you jolt back and forth.
Walking down the straight corridors is like navigating an invisible obstacle course. Three steps uphill, five steps down, lean onto the right wall, wait a second, lean over to the left and take a few more steps. One could be forgiven for mistaking us for a bunch of stumbling drunks. After nearly a week of this back and forth some people are trying to increase the difficulty of the obstacle course and try to see how far they can get without having to touch a wall or lean on something. We convince ourselves that the added core exercise involved in just being upright is justification for a generous helping from the desert bar after dinner.
The real downside to the rough weather, apart from our training sessions being stunted, is that its particularly difficult to focus on anything in the relentless rocking. Reading a novel isn’t too hard but doesn’t require much concentration. On the other hand, reading scientific papers and working on the computer has generally resulted in headaches or unintended naps. So productivity hasn’t been particularly high. For me this is a bit of a nuisance as I have some things I need to do and submit before I return. Persistence seems to be the key and progress, while painfully slow, is happening. I do look forward to reaching the ice for our first transect even if it is just a few days of calmer conditions before we had back out into open water again.