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Hemispherical Swim

As told by Amelia expedition First Mate Joe Litchfield, currently at sea (as usual) on a research vessel tending tsunami buoys in the far reaches of the Pacific Ocean…

I had an interesting day yesterday and I thought I’d share it with you guys as you’ve known me since Moby Dick was a guppy. Well, like most plans at sea (and I suspect on land as well – but I can’t really remember), our idea for the customary, mortifying and abusing ceremony of crossing the Equator (for the Pollywogs on board) and the transiting of the International Dateline (for the wannabe Dragons) did not work out.

Here’s what happened: Instead of the humiliating aforementioned ritual – which definitely puts most sailors off their feed for a day or so – we decided to go for a swim. Not just any swim but a swim for the record books! At least for our recorded ship’s log book. The “plan” was to station our research vessel exactly at the 180 degree line and the Equator; thus, a lap around the vessel would allow a swimmer to travel from the Eastern Hemisphere to the Western and from the Northern Hemisphere to the Southern. This would also take us from one day to the next (crossing the Dateline) and from winter to summer. We all thought this a capital idea and the timing was perfect as we were to be at this point at about 1200UTC to further add to the allure. This can only be done at two places on earth and we figured that not many sailors have ever done it.

The crew and clients were all mustered at the Baltic door (an opening in the hull to allow access to the sea for pilot boats) on the main deck located just abaft of the beam to starboard. We set up a shark watch – an important thing in these waters. Everyone had a swimsuit on, except me – I had only some cut off dungarees – and we were just awaiting 2nd Mate Steve at the helm to get the vessel into final position for the swim.

When Steve called over the radio saying we were “Here,” I, being senior man on deck, stood back a couple of fathoms from the opened Baltic door and paced briskly athwart ships and did (from what I was told later) an admirable dive for an ole sea dog into the Pacific Ocean. I was followed closely by R.W. (Rough Water) Watkins, one of our clients. He’s from Louisiana and he’s a good guy for a back deck bayou buoy boy; but I digress.

We surfaced from the dive and were immediately swept forward. The current was brutal. It looked like we were steaming at about 5 knots with an old Evinrude outboard with a bad carburetor attached to our backsides. We weren’t prepared for this. I was treading water, which I’ve been accused of before but it took on new meaning.

I hailed the gang at the Baltic door telling them not to go in the water. Thank goodness they didn’t but they did not react to a potential rescue situation either – it being after all a historic swim. The ship’s bo’s’n, Paulie, finally determined that R.W. and I were indeed somewhat in distress and fastened a line around himself, jumped in and swam after us. He looked like a large Mark Spitz in the water with his long hair streaming astern and we were some happy that he had taken action. Old Paulie got to R.W. and me just as the line he was towing came to the bitter end. I managed to tie a bowline and made it fast to my left wrist.  R.W. was ahead of me and he managed to hold on as the deck crew was now mobilized to haul us back to the Jacobs ladder.

All the while this scene was unfolding, deckhand Mikey was prattling on about life lines, buoys, radios, life jackets, etc. We call him Alligator Man – because he’s all mouth and no ears. I darn near let go of the line and set back adrift rather than listen to his drivel. It took a while and some hard work on the crew’s part, but we finally made it aboard, unceremoniously, I can assure you. The crew, except for Alligator Man, knew better than to say anything except “You O.K., Joe?”  “Finest-kind,” I would reply.

I proceeded to the wheelhouse and relieved Steve so he could go swimming after we turned the vessel side-to the current.  R.W. brought me a cup of coffee with a knowing smile, and I said “Good day to be at at sea, by golly!”

Cap'n Joe Litchfield at the Salty Dawg Saloon in Homer, AK
Cap’n Joe Litchfield at the Salty Dawg Saloon in Homer, AK