July 21, 2008 – Monday – The Motion of the Ocean

By Ronnie Veerkamp

I’m sitting on the fly bridge of the TC Explorer II, writing notes for the Trouvadore documentary. The ship swings at anchor just outside a reef off East Caicos. Last night I slept like a baby in a gently rocking cradle. From my vantage point, the blue-green water inside the reef is serenely beautiful, but I know its smooth surface belies the sometimes treacherous currents that lie beneath.

Small boat in 12-ft breakers (under arrow)

Taking stock of all the minor injuries I have accumulated since coming on board, I’m reminded that it’s not always this calm, nor this benign. My right ankle is swollen from balancing aboard the constantly moving ship. A band-aid covers a sore on my finger caused by a heaving line. I have numerous bruises and contusions, including a wrist-to-elbow hematoma from a spill during a bumpy ride to South Caicos in a small boat. Then there is the gash in my left big toe from a collision with a rock on shore; I’d been on the boat so long I still felt the ground moving beneath me. Maybe I am just a big klutz, but I prefer to blame it on the motion of the ocean.

For the last two and a half weeks, we have been in constant motion. Not a minute goes by that we are not reminded that the ocean is a liquid on a moving planet…never still. We felt it during the passage here from Grand Turk as we plowed through the swells from a far-off hurricane, observed it from a distance as our small boat went vertical while negotiating the resulting 12-foot breakers at the reef.

The motion affects everything we do; magnetic survey teams end up with crooked tracks and inaccurate readings; sensitive electronic equipment gets swamped by errant waves. At the wrecksite, divers are shoved back and forth as if by an invisible hand, making the jobs of dredging, measuring, and drawing difficult at best, sometimes nearly impossible.

Aboard the livaboard vessel, our base of operation, everyday chores turn into thorny problems; cooking pots slide on the hot stove, and housekeeping becomes a game of chasing flying objects. The swinging and rocking affect satellite communication, holding a signal requires someone to act as a human gimbal. Simple tasks like reading, drawing site plans, or working on the computer require the brain to compensate for the inner-ear’s confusion. And always, even with two anchors set, the ships position must be monitored to prevent us from dragging too close to the reef.

Transferring gear in rough seas

Sometimes the movement of the heaving ship is a source of real danger. Loading or unloading people and equipment off the back deck, climbing steep ladders, working in the engine room, all involve the risk of serious injury. In rougher conditions, seasickness is inevitable, even for some seasoned veterans. Thank god we have a medical officer on our team!

In any condition, motion makes the job of the documentary team extremely challenging. The videographer must work in the same environment as everyone else, while balancing a 35-lb camera with one hand and holding on for dear life with the other! On the boat or underwater, he’s shoved and pushed and bounced and jostled…it’s a minor miracle we get any good images at all. Still photography is not so problematic, but I’ve yet to see a picture with a level horizon. Beyond that, we have to be on constant guard against the cameras getting wet and the delicate video tape getting damaged or we’re completely out of business.

Videotaping at wrecksite aboard TT Anwar

Mind you, I’m not complaining…at this moment I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else. I’m just explaining to those of you who are landlocked how every aspect of this expedition, from marine archeology to filmmaking, is impacted by the motion of the ocean.