Reflecting on the Gulf of Mexico from the North Sea

by Michelle Frey

August 19, 2010

SimSimran, from the US, who spent 3 weeks helping with clean-up operations for the Gulf of Mexico oil disaster – writes from on board the Esperanza…

I’ve been aboard the Esperanza for several days now. Having made it through the humbling experience of being utterly incapacitated by seasickness (not a pleasant experience lemme tell you) I’ve started to get my feet under me and am able to help out with the day to day workings of the ship. Loading and stowing the gear for our expedition, helping oil the cable on one of the ship’s three cranes, and getting into the rhythm of morning cleaning rotation have all given me a chance to get involved with the crew as well as our campaign team. As I’ve found most places, putting in your time cleaning seems central to making friends out here.

The experience of sailing with a crew from all over the world is exhilarating.  From enduring near constant heckling from the Captain and First Mate (Argentine and Panamanian respectively) for my terrible Spanish accent, to bumbling through my several sentences of Portuguese with Davison, a deck hand from Brazil, to proudly and loudly announcing in Urdu to Babu, our Indian cook (who is from Kerala and speaks Malayalam not Urdu), that his food is excellent, the incredible opportunity to live and work with such a diverse group of passionate people is still just beginning to set in. And of course it comes fraught with all the miscommunications and bumbling hilarity that one expects from working across so many languages. But that’s just part of the fun.


Having been at sea a few days now I still find myself surprised to look up and see coastlines in the distance or nothing but blue-grey swells as far as the eye can see. The simple beauty of the swells and the sense of space you get looking out from the bridge are feelings that I’ve long associated with mountains. Yet, as my seasickness subsides, I am increasingly drawn to this stark landscape. Really it still hasn’t quite sunk in that I’m actually participating in a journey of this magnitude, but there are miles and miles yet for that to sink in.

During our early passage north through the North Sea we passed more than a few large drilling platforms. It’s a startlingly dystopic image, looking at these dreary bits of rusting iron in the middle of the sea, going about their work in sullen silence. Spending nearly three weeks working in the Gulf of Mexico during the cleanup operation following the Deepwater Horizon disaster gave me an opportunity to see the dangers of this type of extraction. I’m struck once again, even here near shore, by the immense complications of running a cleanup operation at sea. I think of the orange oil containment boom in the Gulf, overwhelmed by waves a foot or two in height, and compare those to the three, four and five foot swells that made me miserable just a few hours earlier. And this was not even a storm; pretty standard weather really. How on earth would they contain an oil spill here with these conditions?

But enough doom and gloom. We passed through the Pentland Firth on the weekend. This is the straight at the far northern tip of Scotland. As we sailed between the Scottish coast to the south and the Orkney Islands to the north we had a brief moment to enjoy the truly inspiring nature of our voyage and the idyllic landscapes that await those willing to step out from city lights. We passed the Old Man of Hoy, a towering sea stack created over hundreds of years of harsh weather. Beginning as a cave at the waterline, the wind and waves slowly wore a hole through the sandstone sea cliffs creating a short-lived arch which eventually collapsed to create an angular stack that is climbed each year by a few intrepid climbers willing to come to what feels like the end of the world.

And now we’re settling into life on board. Each member of the crew is doing what is necessary to maintain the ship, navigate our passage, and prepare ourselves for the frontier. It seems I have surprisingly few moments to stop and simply enjoy this incredible opportunity, but I certainly won’t complain.

— Sim

Images: © Greenpeace/ Will Rose

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