Super Station, Super Techs – Part 2

Arrival: November 8

(Suggested background: A GEOTRACES Glossary, Super Station, Super Techs – Part 1)

5:00am – Wakeup

My alarm goes off and I claw my way out of sleep. In the windowless bunks below decks 5am is identical to high noon or 5pm. My circadian rhythms, thumping a cadence that might charitably be described as avant-garde, urge me to go back to sleep whether I’ve slept 2 hours or 12.

I stagger to the bow of the R/V Roger Revelle along with everyone else to watch the sunrise and commemorate GP15 crossing the equator—a significant nautical milestone. GTC Super Techs Laramie Jensen of Texas A&M University and Brent Summers of the University of South Florida look as though they’re uncertain the ceremony is worth the lost sleep.

equator bow
The GP15 team assembles on the bow of the R/V Roger Revelle at sunrise as the ship crosses the equator. Image: Alex Fox

A gang of clouds skulk across a band of creamsicle orange sky in the east. It’s not the finest sunrise any of us has seen on this trip, but the unfettered, 360 degree horizon is celestial—a spinning planet, orbiting a star in the midst of revealing itself one more time.

I am one of very few people on this ship who have not been to sea before. I wouldn’t have even known to put it that way. “Is this your first time going to sea?” Or, “Have you been to sea before?” I have been on boats, but that is not going to sea.

Going to sea means that for some period of weeks or months, your life takes place on the surface of the ocean. It sounds like a pilgrimage or a communion that must be taken, but it feels more like a pleasant illness or a vivid dream. Going to sea is being taken over, redrawing the boundaries of your life and submitting the traditional shape of your days for review before the great body of water you float upon, your shipmates and the task at hand.

B L Van
Laramie Jensen (left) and Brent Summers (right) are GTC Super Techs on this 67-day GEOTRACES GP15 expedition from Alaska to Tahiti. Image: Alex Fox

When the ceremony is through I follow Jensen and Summers aft to the GTC van—a clean lab built inside of a shipping container and bolted to the back deck of the Revelle. To prepare for our fast approaching 7am cast we need to load the GTC’s 24 GoFlo branded bottles in a ring around its white, powder coated frame.

I flutter the door to the van open and closed as Jensen and Summers alternate handing out the GoFlo bottles to GTC technician Kyle McQuiggan who loads them onto the rosette. Closing the door between each trip keeps commingling of the “dirty” outdoor air and the filtered “clean” air inside the van to a minimum.

When the last of the GoFlo’s leaves the van, Jensen and Summers don the hard hats and life vests (called “work vests” aboard the Revelle) required to work on deck and, along with McQuiggan, make sure each bottle is cocked and ready to fire. Among McQuiggan’s jobs is to snap the GTC’s bottles closed at predetermined depths with a computer linked to the instrument through a cable nearly 5 miles long.

B L GTC Clip
Laramie Jensen checks items off her list as Brent Summers inspects the GTC before a cast. Image: Alex Fox

Jensen patrols the perimeter of the GTC with a purple clipboard, checking boxes and conferring with Summers about GoFlo bottles that have leaked or otherwise misbehaved in the past.

7:00am – Shallow (1000 meters) GTC cast

We are ready to go. Jensen and Summers rip off shower caps used to protect the open ends of each bottle from contamination while on deck. Our ResTech is Drew Cole, he is one of two Scripps Institution of Oceanography employees on board to assist with and oversee deck operations. He clears a path for the GTC into the water by opening up a section of the ships railing.

Jensen controls the A-frame, a powder white arch of metal that can be angled toward the ocean or away from it with powerful hydraulics. At its apex is a pulley that the GTC’s cable rolls through.

Chief Scientist Greg Cutter of Old Dominion University drives the winch as he has for every single cast of the GTC on GP15 so far. On our deepest casts, this job requires him to sit on deck with one hand on the winch’s joystick for 4 hours.

Summers and I each hold tag lines, ropes looped through the frame of the GTC to keep it from swinging, as Jensen hoists it over the side with the A-frame. Summers and I pay out slack while keeping light tension on our lines with deck cleats.

When Jensen has the GTC dangling over the side, Cutter lowers it into the Pacific. When Cole gives us the OK, Summers and I slip our lines from the cleats and pull the brine soaked ropes back on board.

Drew looking at it
Beneath the A-frame, ResTech Drew Cole monitors the GTC’s descent into the Pacific. Image: Alex Fox

This cast is only to 1,000 meters so it should be back on deck around 8am. We head to the bubble to distribute the empty sample bottles for this cast among a fleet of milk crates.

After finishing, we storm into the computer lab where the screen showing the GTC’s live data stream draws a crowd. Besides its rosette of GoFLo bottles, the GTC is loaded with a suite of instruments that measure things like the photosynthetic pigment chlorophyll, oxygen, salinity, temperature and depth.

As the GTC descends, Co-chief Scientists Karen Casciotti of Stanford University and Phoebe Lam of University of California, Santa Cruz watch green, red, blue and yellow lines drip down the monitor. Where certain lines peak or falter they make notes to sample water from the corresponding depths to investigate. Their expertise and experience allow them to pick the most interesting or unexpected hydrographic features out of the screen’s lineup.

We snag a fresh estimate for when the GTC will resurface and march down the main hallway, known as “Route 66.” I’m trailing Summers and catch up to him outside the bubble. Jensen emerges with her water bottle and looks confused to see us. “Did you guys just follow me here without knowing where I was going?” she asks.

We scratch our heads and Summers acknowledges he hadn’t thought about why he was following along. After a month and a half of spending close to 24 hours a day within an arm’s length of each other, their relationship is symbiotic. They seamlessly defer to whoever has the clearest idea of what to do next, like hemispheres of a single brain.

7:30am – Breakfast

We finish eating at 7:45am. There were eggs and something blurry I ate without looking closely at it. It felt less like eating and more like staving off discomfort. Not dissimilar from bottle prep, the idea is to take care of it as quickly as possible.

8:00am – Shallow GTC recovery

In hard hats and work vests they approach their stations. Jensen again controls the A-frame. Summers and I wield long yellow telescoping poles, each with a carabiner slipped into a notch at the end. The carabiners are attached to the ends of the tag lines.

GTC Tag
Telescoping poles are used by the Super Techs and others assisting with the GTC recovery to attach tag lines to the instrument and steady its return. Image: Alex Fox

Summers and I stand on either side of the gap in the railing, no barrier between us and the ocean below. The outline of the GTC appears at the surface and we swoop in with our poles, hooking the carabiners to loops of rope positioned around the GTC’s perimeter. Once the GTC is hooked we ditch the poles and wrap the tag lines around nearby cleats, pulling in slack as Cutter reels in the heavy instrument with the winch.

We strap the GTC to the deck and put shower caps back on the GoFlo’s. We retreat to the van to receive the GoFlo bottles, each one now laden with 12 liters of seawater. Before entering we slip off our deck shoes and into rubber clogs worn no place else on board. Like the GTC, the van’s interior is designed with contamination in mind. Hinges, screws and fixtures are all plastic.

The air inside is filtered and cool, and when everything is dripping and sodden it feels like a cave. Jensen and Summers are the van’s only daily visitors, in part to reduce the risk of contamination.

McQuiggan and Sveinn Einarsson of Old Dominion University carry the bottles to the threshold of the clean van. As the procession of GoFlo’s arrive, a familiar dynamic plays out.

Sv goflo Brent
Sveinn Einarsson of Old Dominion University carries a GoFlo bottle to the GTC van and an increasingly impatient Brent Summers. Image: Alex Fox

As with unloading the GoFlo’s, the door is closed between trips to minimize contamination. This allows Summers to gently berate McQuiggan and Einarsson with minimal opportunity for rebuttal.

The door opens and McQuiggan presents a bottle. Summers feigns disgust. “Oh no, it’s him again.” Summers grabs the GoFlo and retreats. On McQuiggan’s next trip Summers looks past him, asking no one in particular, “Hey, can we get someone else?”

After this plays out around 22 more times in different combinations, the GoFlo’s line the walls of the van and are ready to be sampled. The process of divvying up the water typically takes around 4 hours, so we settle in.

8:10am – Processing in the van

Chief Scientist Cutter joins us in the van to take some samples of his own while Jensen and Summers work. Each GoFlo has a spigot at the bottom to release its water. Jensen and Summers each sit before a GoFlo on orange 5 gallon buckets. There is an almost religious solemnity to the reverence afforded to this water, the effort expended to ensure its purity.

Everyone is filling their bottles in a focused silence when the ship rolls and Cutter’s sampling hose breaks free of its spigot. The GoFlo’s seawater, pressurized with air to increase flow, explodes from the spigot directly across from Jensen. She recoils in shock as the cold ocean water soaks her back. Cutter shouts apologies as he scrambles to quell the geyser. Cutter apologizes profusely and Jensen sets back to work.

L splash back
GP15 Chief Scientist Greg Cutter (right), Brent Summers (middle) and Laramie Jensen (left) sampling inside the GTC van just after an errant stream of seawater doused Jensen’s back. Image: Alex Fox

We finish sampling at 11:40am—a fast turnaround I’m told.

Before heading up for lunch we perform the final inglorious step of sampling in the van: squeegeeing the floors. One might ask, “Why squeegee the floors? Is this a glass bottom van?” The squeegees are to herd the water sloshing about the van into a series of drains.

squeegee
Laramie Jensen and Brent Summers squeegee water into the drains of the GTC van. Their work is wet and the floors catch it all. Image: Alex Fox

“But, Alex,” one might say, “why doesn’t the water go down the drains on its own? Isn’t that, like, the point of drains?” The logic is sound, but again I must intercede: the drains actually sit just above the rest of the flooring. In the absence of any slope to sweeten the deal, gravitationally speaking, the water is content to slop around the van as the ship rocks from side to side. Ergo, we squeegee.

11:40am – Lunch

1:30pm – Bagging samples in the bubble

We are back in the bubble, bagging and packing the morning’s samples. Jensen and Summers slip by each other and switch places periodically. They bend over the crates of samples like farmers tending to their harvest—plucking the finest produce to bring to market. Everything is double bagged to keep it free of trace metals.

bubble crates
Brent Summers (left) and Laramie Jensen (right) organize bottles inside the bubble. Image: Alex Fox

They have an easy, constant banter. I am sometimes the target of good natured ridicule. When I appeared at 1:30pm, the time we had agreed to meet back at the bubble, they were already working. “Early is the new on time, Fox,” quipped Jensen.

3:30pm – Deep (4,347 meters) GTC cast

We play through the same routine that started our day. Despite the repetition, Jensen and Summers retain a keen eye for detail. They inspect mechanisms that must now be burned into their collective mind and scrutinize their functioning. If a GoFlo bottle fails to fire when McQuiggan triggers it, the loss totals around $10,000 when all the funding required to send it beneath the waves is taken into account.

3:30pm – Pigments, radium and thorium (PigRaTh) CTD rosette recovery

I am forced to break away from Jensen and Summers to do a little sampling of my own. When I signed on as the Outreach Ambassador for GP15 I was informed I would also have a small scientific assignment, if I was up for it. I agreed, and have been sampling the photosynthetic pigment chlorophyll along the length of our journey through the Pacific.

I fill six plastic two liter bottles from the non-trace metal clean CTD rosette and pump their contents through six filters designed to catch the chlorophyll. This measurement helps quantify biological productivity and makes me feel like part of the team. After the water finishes pumping I seal each filter inside a labelled plastic tube and send them into the minus 80oC freezer for storage.

5:30pm – Dinner

6:45pm – Deep GTC Recovery

We retrieve the GTC in the island of light created by the ship’s deck lights. A yawning darkness surrounds the Revelle in all directions. Today’s schedule is pretty tame. Jensen says we’ll be in bed before midnight.

7:00pm – Processing in the van

Jensen and Summers fill bottles large and small, each labelled with a numbered GEOTRACES sticker that encodes the sample’s provenance—GPS coordinates, time, depth, bottle number and corresponding hydrological features.

Summers casts a sideways eye at some of the plastic bag lined milk crates in the van. He’s worried they were left outside for too long. After shuffling thousands of liters of seawater from the ocean, to GoFlo bottles, to smaller bottles and, finally, into crates or freezers, Jensen and Summers remain exacting.

I ask if they find it hard to drink enough water, spending so much of the day in constant motion. Jensen says she makes a point to consume at least two liters a day. She worries aloud Summers might not drink enough water.

“I’ve always been an intermittent chugger,” bristles Summers. “I drink enough water,”

Between the silences, the jokes and the work, they look out for each other.

van buds
Super Techs Brent Summers (left) and Laramie Jensen (right) sampling inside the GTC van. Image: Alex Fox

Jensen grew up in landlocked Vermont, while Summers spent his boyhood by the beach fishing and diving in Florida. Each of them took a similar path to chemical oceanography, thinking they would be off to medical school after their undergraduate educations concluded. But they were seduced by field work at sea and the application of chemistry, a subject they each found fascinating, to the ocean’s depths.

On her first oceanographic expedition, Jensen got violently seasick. After five days in the lake-flat Chesapeake Bay, the vessel headed out to the North Atlantic. Jensen was feeling invigorated doing chemistry at sea, but as the waves got bigger things took a turn. Not sure what to expect she ate some ice cream and settled in for a movie.

She spent the following 27 hours evacuating the contents of her stomach on deck. The crew outfitted her with a harness to ensure she couldn’t bounce overboard and colleagues brought her saltines and some headphones.

“I was miserable,” recalls Jensen. “I didn’t do any more science on that trip, and I had to really think about whether this was still what I wanted to do.” But, in a testament to her grit and capability, Jensen wasn’t dissuaded and applied a shotgun approach to seasickness prevention on her next expedition.

She had everything from Dramamine to Scopolamine to strange music claiming to recalibrate the inner ear. She even brought acupressure wristbands. With so many remedies it’s hard to know which did the trick, but she avoided a repeat episode and is now rock solid at sea.

10:30pm – Done processing in the van

10:56pm – Done bagging samples from Deep GTC cast in bubble

We reward ourselves with a snack in the ship’s mess hall.

Jensen and Summers crush huge bowls of cereal. I follow suit. Summers has one bowl of Frosted Flakes, then switches to granola for his second bowl. Jensen opts for Lucky Charms, then floats some Frosted Flakes on the leftover milk.

cereal killers
Super Techs Laramie Jensen and Brent Summers take cereal very seriously. Image: Alex Fox

In the midst of our spiritual communion with milk and processed grains, we see our colleague Vinicius Amaral of the University of California, Santa Cruz. He is part of the pump team.

The pumps push seawater through filters for four hours at a time to capture ocean particles for study. During Super Stations the pump team’s schedule is hellacious—a 50 hour marathon with just four hours of unscheduled time for sleep.

Amaral is a shell of himself. He mutters something by way of greeting us, but his gaze drifts to some far off shore of liminal consciousness. We see him put what looked like an empty plate in the microwave and then disappear into the bowels of the ship without another word.

Jensen, Summers and I start chatting and forget that we need to get to sleep. Finally, we dislodge ourselves and put back the five kinds of cereal that rescued us in our time of need.

11:38pm – In bed

My berthing is close to the front of the ship, and when we’re on station the Revelle’s bow thrusters are constantly chugging to maintain our position—keeping the cables we string down to the bottom straight.

I have a slight headache. My feet are pruned from standing in seawater in the van. Tomorrow is likely to be an even longer day and my 6am alarm will come faster than I want it to.

Another one – November 9

5:45am – Wakeup

I wake up like my home is being burglarized. The lights are on and Jensen and Summers are standing in the doorway. My roommate Sveinn Einarsson and I bolt up. The GTC cast we went to sleep thinking was scheduled for 7am is now going in at 6am.

This occurs pretty regularly. One sampling system finishes early due to unforeseen ease or efficiency, and the next item on the schedule slides up. This effect compounds if there are multiple casts between the present and your instrument’s time slot.

McQuiggan saved us this morning. He always goes the extra mile to make sure we are ready on time by waking up an hour and half before the GTC is scheduled to deploy.

We hustle above deck and throw on our safety gear. My face feels like a mask of mashed potatoes beginning to slide off.

6:10 am – First Intermediate (2,200 meters)  GTC cast

morning science
GTC technician Kyle McQuiggan prepares the GTC for a cast in the early morning light. Image: Alex Fox

McQuiggan calls out GoFlo bottle numbers to Jensen and her clipboard as he cocks each bottle. Summers and I secure our tag lines. Shower caps off. A-frame out. Splash.

The GTC disappears underwater as the sun is coming over the horizon. The sea is a little rougher than we have become accustomed to in the tropics. The same winds that drive the upwelling at the equator are pushing up waves. The Revelle occasionally pitches and rolls just enough to remind me to keep my balance.

6:15am – Bubble prep

Jensen and Summers intone the names of scientists for whom they are collecting samples as they check off bottles for each crate.

Summers: “Conway?”

Jensen: “Conway.”

Summers: “Shiller?”

Jensen: “Shiller.”

The bubble is hot today. Beads of sweat form on Jensen and Summers’ foreheads.

We finish at 6:57am.

7:30am – Breakfast

After eating, we sit with McQuiggan in the computer lab waiting for the GTC to come up. Summers looks at his right hand. He points out a red slice in the webbing between his index finger and thumb. He shakes his head at the injury. “Almost everything I do involves salt water and this part of my hand.” And then, in faux dismay, “I shouldn’t have to live like this.”

7:45am – First Intermediate GTC retrieval

8:00am – Processing in van

The morning sun is coming in one of the small rectangular windows of the van, illuminating Summers’ right shoulder. He squirms. “It’s warm.”

Without looking up, Jensen empathizes, “I just want one day where I’m not constantly physically uncomfortable—not dripping in sweat inside the bubble or something.”

I notice something strange about their bottle filling technique—every 10 seconds or so they intentionally miss the mouth of their respective bottles in a very controlled looking way.

I ask them about it. The practice has nothing to do with staying trace metal clean. Jensen derives some small satisfaction from eliminating condensation on the sides of her bottles, while Summers detests droplets at the rim of his bottles and hunts them down with extreme prejudice.

I marvel that they both plucked nearly the same irrational compulsion from the ether. The practice has no real consequences, they seldom run out of water for samples and when they do it’s due to leaking bottles.

GEOTRACES numbers
The GEOTRACES numbers attached to each GoFlo bottle will be stuck to each sample to let scientists know where it came from. Image: Alex Fox

They avoid touching things like the milk crates so they won’t have to change gloves. During GP15’s first leg, from Seattle to Alaska to Hawaii, they went through a package of 2,500. Now they’re running low and looking to conserve. When I’m not available to move crates for them, Summers kicks them towards the door with short chops of his feet.

The two of them are well matched. I watch Summers remove GEOTRACES stickers from the right side of the paper they’re stuck to, Jensen from the left.

There seems to be no end to their interlocking preferences: Jensen likes filling small bottles, while Summers prefers filling big ones.

When they moved into the same room they shared a moment of panic. Each of them indicated that they had strong feelings about which bunk they inhabited. Separately, they dreaded the other’s answer might deprive them of their preferred sleeping arrangement. But the truth was more harmonious than their imagination: Summers prefers the top bunk while Jensen craves the quick getaway of the bottom.

I ask each of them what their counterpart brings to their joint enterprise. After muddying the waters with jokes, Summers admits that Jensen works hard and is unfailingly kind.

“Even when we have only gotten a few hours of sleep and we have to rack GoFlo bottles or whatever—nobody cares if it’s hard,” says Summers. “Things just have to get done, and we both understand that.”

Jensen chimes in: “It must be very difficult to predict that two people will get along and work well together. We got lucky—this is a friendship.”

Summers scoots close to Jensen and stares as she tries to stop laughing and produce some of his finer qualities as a co-worker. “He’s efficient, organized and, even though it’s clichéd, he’s a hard worker.”

B L scowl
Super Techs Laramie Jensen (left) and Brent Summers (right) take a breather to enjoy the sunset. Image: Alex Fox

The two are together almost every waking moment, but have established clear and honest communication that allows them to work through the inevitable moments of friction.

“When there is tension it’s not usually personal,” says Jensen. “We’re often just tired or frustrated, and so we’ve learned to keep things in perspective.”

At this point, they’ve developed a sixth sense for issues that need to be addressed and when the best medicine is to shake it off or take time alone to reset.

They’re quick to remind me that it’s all in the service of something larger.

“All these little, basic tasks we have to deal with are important if you want solid data,” says Jensen. “We are doing our small part in this huge enterprise to learn more about the ocean.”

11:19am – Done processing

11:30am – Lunch

12:00pm – Back in the bubble

We are done at 1:33pm.

4:15pm – Nap until 5:30pm

5:30pm – Dinner

I show up a little late and the night’s main entrée, corned beef, has run out. I eat a mound of fried clam strips. I am less than satisfied.

7:10pm – Bubble prep

We finish at 7:45pm.

8:33pm – Second Intermediate (600 meters) GTC cast

night cast
Laramie Jensen (left) and Brent Summers (right) prepare for a night cast of the GTC. Image: Alex Fox

9:30pm – Second Intermediate GTC recovery

9:45pm – Processing in van

Cutter joins us in the van to sample once again. I quiz him about the Super Techs.

“The Super Techs are a huge part of the success of what we’re doing out here,” says Cutter. “Hundreds of people are counting on these guys, and there is no way we could get the quality of data we do without the Super Techs.”

I hope that I’ve solicited an effective pep talk for Jensen and Summers in the name of telling their story.

It’s 11pm and I’m hitting a bit of a wall. The clam strips have not stood me in good stead.  I am hungry and tired. Jensen and Summers seem cheerful and awake.

The home stretch – November 10

1:08am – Done processing

1:28am – Done eating cereal

1:40am – In the bubble bagging samples

Super Twins thank you
Notes of appreciation for Super Techs Laramie Jensen and Brent Summers stick to the plastic walls of the bubble. Images: Alex Fox

Soon I will say goodbye to this world of piecemeal sleep and near constant work.

Remaining just outside of most of their tasks makes the whole experience sleepier, less engaging. I imagine they are pulled along by the thought of finishing, knowing that they will finish faster if they work faster. I have trouble seeing our current task with fresh eyes any longer. I am just enduring a car ride to a place I’ve never been, not sure how long I must wait but knowing it’s not over yet.

When this station is finished, they will begin preparing for the next one, not a Super Station but more densely packed. Their break will be measured in hours, not days.

I ask them if there are parts of this process they’ve repeated so many times that they find satisfying.

“Itʼs satisfying to finish a station,” says Summers without hesitation. “We get to sleep and eat cereal.”

“But then you have to get ready for the next one,” I say, concerned.

Jensen and Summers raise their eyebrows and nod gravely.

2:11am – Finished bagging samples

2:15am – “That’s a wrap,” says Jensen

2:35am – In bed

7:00am – The phone rings 

Our room gets a wakeup call for Sveinn because we are ahead of schedule again. Traumatized, I fall out of bed and answer because I sleep on the lower bunk.

10:45am – Wakeup

I wake up in earnest and thank my lucky stars I don’t have to keep following the Super Twins.

 

GP15 blog posts written by Alex Fox unless otherwise stated.

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GEOTRACES GP15 is supported by the National Science Foundation. Any opinions, findings and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.

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