Don's Diary

November 18, 1994

Sunday. Car from Anglesey to Manchester, then to Nice via Brussels. At the airport study a 15-page Ministry of Agriculture form on which proposals must be submitted. Seems longer than some research papers.

Monday. Local train to San Remo. Go in search of Italian ship. Hotel manager sends me to the new port: eventually find the ship in the old port. Unpack equipment and set it up in the laboratory -- French colleagues have already taken 95 per cent of the space. We leave harbour for a short test, the ship rolls terribly. There are no berths or cooking facilities so we stay ashore overnight.

Tuesday. Early breakfast and join ship before 7am. My research assistant discovers that our data logger will not work with the ship's voltage supply. I receive a shock when I touch our temperature/salinity probe: something is very wrong with the ship's electrics. We go to a position 50 kilometres offshore and start acoustic transmission to a coastal listening station. Make vertical profiles with the Italians' instruments to determine the thickness of the warm well-mixed surface layer. The layer is about 60 metres thick and has a temperature of about 18 degrees centigrade, the underlying water is about four to five degrees cooler. Resolve not to put our probe on to the winch which does not have a wire cable or a proper spooling mechanism. All is going well until the captain decides that it is too rough to continue: arrive back in port at 3pm.

Wednesday. Ship sails at 6am and we immediately encounter rough seas: captain announces that there is a risk of sinking so return to port. The day's measurements are cancelled at 10:30am when the weather fails to improve. Take the train to Monaco and visit the Oceanographic Museum -- disappointing.

Thursday. Sail at 7am. We have put our probe in a tank through which water is pumped so that we can continuously monitor surface conditions. Go back to Tuesday's position and make further acoustic transmissions and vertical temperature/ salinity profiles. We are surprised to discover that the warm surface layer is now only about 40 metres thick. Yesterday's storm will have caused mixing that should have deepened the layer. Realise that there could be some interesting dynamics to investigate. Around noon we are buzzed by a low-flying aircraft. Receive a request to assist in a rescue. Race south at full speed. A smoke flare and green dye in the sea guide us to a life-raft containing three French sailors whose yacht sank during the night. We pick them up 30 miles from where they abandoned ship. They are cold and suffering from the effects of being in a dinghy in rough seas but otherwise unharmed. The ship returns to San Remo where a medical crew and the media are waiting.

The French co-ordinator of our project convinces the Italian captain that the ship must go back to sea to finish the experiments. Arrive on position at 5pm. Start four hours of acoustic transmission. There are some very hungry people on board and one of our French colleagues eats the emergency rations from the life raft recovered earlier. At 7.30pm the acoustic transducer fails and a fault in the amplifiers is suspected. The ship rolls violently, as the electronics engineer tries to trace a possible fault in the conducting cable used to lower the transducer into the sea. No success: the work is abandoned and the ship returns to port at 10pm and we are relieved to find that the restaurants are still open.

Friday. Weather is bad and the captain will not leave port. Spend a couple of hours making an intercomparison between the different probes that we have used. Collect harbour water samples for later analysis. Pack our equipment into boxes. There is a violent thunderstorm for most of the day and flood waters from the local river turn the harbour brown with sediment. I go off in search of the harbour master to find out more details of the yacht that sank. I am interested in oil and chemical spill problems and can use my computer models to simulate the trajectory of drifting objects. Search and rescue is one possible application and I am keen to hindcast the movement of the dinghy. He gives me copies of the telexes received during the air search and telephones the French coastguard to obtain details of the wind conditions during the night. Cannot fly home until Sunday because of restriction on air ticket so see a film.

Saturday. Travel back to Nice. Take two hours to find a soap shop that my daughter discovered when she accompanied me to the planning meeting in the spring. Buy her the requested eight-franc bar of soap -- I have missed her half-term.

Sunday. Spend a couple of hours sitting on the beach talking about the project and EC funding with a colleague from Dundee University. The EC is having a major impact on environmental research since it now funds a comparable amount of work to that supported by the national research agencies. Collaboration between northern and southern European countries is one condition of the funding. Reflect that life as an oceanographer is not all rough seas. Home after midnight.

Alan Elliott, Reader in ocean sciences at the University of Wales, Bangor.

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