North to Northwest
In addition to the ocean awareness aspect of the voyage, the other missions aboard Ocean Watch address science and education. Seattle's Pacific Science Center, a co-sponsor of the voyage with Sailors for the Sea, has developed a full curriculum for kindergarten through grade eight addressing ocean acidification, coral-reef ecology, changes in sea levels, sustainable fisheries, and marine biodiversity. A rotating series of onboard educators will join the crew for stretches of the journey, the first of whom was scheduled to arrive in the Alaskan village of Barrow. (See "For More Information" below.)
Oceanographer Michael Reynolds was also the first of several scientists coming aboard for parts of the voyage. Before leaving Seattle, Reynolds and the crew installed a 25-pound array of instruments atop Ocean Watch's masthead. The "climate package" includes devices that record wind, temperature, relative humidity, barometric pressure, and so on. Combined with accurate sea-surface temperature information, Reynolds' goals are to measure the total heat energy going into the ocean, get a better grasp on how solar radiation is affected by clouds and aerosols; and gain greater insight into the dynamics of melting polar ice caps, among other related matters.
The Applied Physics Lab at the University of Washington was one of half a dozen scientific institutions and organizations that developed the Ocean Watch science program. In addition to Reynolds' package, the boat carries a diverse suite of instruments designed to record and monitor data for projects ranging in subject matter from polar science and weather to jellyfish populations and the reflection of solar energy. A custom A.P.L.-installed camera called the Ladybug, affixed to a sliding boom on the aft antenna arch, is actually comprised of six separate cameras in a single housing. The Ladybug daily records 86,000 individual images that are stitched together through a software program affording a 360-degree view of the horizon; the purpose is to monitor sea states and sea life atop the waters through which we sail.
Ocean Watch is also equipped with a SeaKeeper underwater sampling system that pumps seawater aboard and measures water temperature, sea salinity, pH levels, and dissolved oxygen concentrations. As Earth's atmosphere is exposed to ever-greater levels of carbon dioxide, more and more is absorbed into the ocean, where it's converted to carbonic acid. As we crossed the Gulf of Alaska, which is well known as a primary "sink" for atmospheric carbon, the pH levels dropped to a steady 7.58, down from 8.05, the average figure we'd been recording since we'd left Seattle. It's a small, slightly more acidic difference, but small increments are all that's required to inflict substantial changes to the sea life below.
After a four-day layover in the fishing port of Dutch Harbor-the number one U.S. fishing port in terms of pounds landed per year, not to mention the homeport for the TV crab stars on The Deadliest Catch and just an all-around bizarre place-Ocean Watch set a course almost exactly due north for the city of Nome. The relatively shallow Bering Sea has a reputation as a bearish stretch of water, and when we'd left Seattle several weeks before, none of us were looking forward to addressing it. But a ridge of a high pressure had settled over the sea, and once there, it wasn't going anywhere. With the exception of about five decent hours of sailing, the 680-nautical-mile voyage was a motorboat ride over placid seas. We couldn't believe our luck, and we're fervently hoping we haven't used it all up.
We arrived at Nome just after midnight, and the sun was still high in the western sky. The harbormaster said the local bars were open until 2 a.m., so we hoofed it into town. It was quiet, except for half a dozen watering holes doing a surprisingly brisk business. A patron, who appeared generously overserved, stumbled out of one and asked me the time.
"A little after 12," I said.
"Morning or afternoon?" he slurred.
Such was our welcome to Nome. We were on the doorstep of the Arctic. The voyage had well and truly begun.
Herb McCormick is an editor at large for Cruising World.