August 22, 2008
The weather turns quickly in the Arctic. As sunny and mild as yesterday was, today we woke up to a chilly stiff wind, grey skies, and a thin dusting of snow on the deck (which makes for pretty slippery walking and I have traded in my sneakers today for work boots to get around). The ice is much thinner today, and we are seeing more open water than we've seen in the last five days. We have been heading south for most of the last twelve hours. We will likely continue in this direction for the better part of the next day, before heading east and then north again, and finally following a path back to Barrow. Last night's watch crew told me that they found a couple of good possibilities for dredge sites, which we will hopefully be able to do on our way back south and pull up some rocks from the seafloor.
The grey wet weather dampens my mood today, and I wonder how the crew handles long periods of this for months on end. After asking around, most of the Coast Guard folks I talk to tell me that they are out at sea for four to six month stretches, and I can imagine that a certain amount of monotony settles in after awhile. I suspect that one of the keys to keeping the crew's morale positive over the long haul is meal times. There are three square meals served daily, breakfast from 7-8 am, lunch from 11 to noon, and dinner from 5 to 6 pm. There is also a late meal called "midrats" from 11-11:30 pm if you missed diner or want more to eat. The meals are enormous, with at least two or three main selections, salad bar, fresh fruit, soda-milk-tea-coffee, dessert, soft ice cream machine, and more (I've discovered a bin of malted milk balls that are quickly becoming an addition). We eat cafeteria style, taking what we want and eating what we take. The cooks that make all this happen work very hard to keep the crew well fed and happy. The cooks work in two crews, so when one crew is serving a meal the other crew is prepping the next one. They work solid from 5am until 7pm. Two of these cooks, SNFS Tysin Alley and FS2 Steven Dull, were kind enough to give me a behind the scenes tour and show me around. The selections are very diverse, and menus are signed off by the Captain before being served. Still, there is plenty of improvising on the part of the cooks, and they have to be creative when they run out of certain ingredients. The "galley" space is small but efficient, and the cooks move about the area with the ease of those who have intuitively learned where everything is and where everything goes. The cooks look forward to Saturdays, when they get a break from serving dinner while others on the ship's crew cook (sometimes from a giant BBQ in the helicopter hanger) and everyone gathers for what is called "morale dinner." With about 100 folks to feed on this ship day in and day out, the work these cooks do is nothing short of heroic. I've very much appreciated these meal times, when I get a chance to see everyone and chat about our days and socialize a bit (hmm, I'm sounding like my middle school students!). Thanks for all the great eats, cooks; you guys work hard and make a real difference!