Time

by Kieran Mulvaney

August 24, 2007

In the process of helping give a tour of the ship the other day to four youngsters from St. Paul–who, it turned out, had been on board a couple times earlier in the day, and whose interest seemed focused only on the snack area they had previously discovered in the mess room–I passed Penny, the bosun, cleaning paint brushes out on the poop deck.

"And here," I said to nobody in particular (because the children, aware that Penny was neither a snack food nor rich in trans fats, had little interest in her), "is an actual crew member doing actual work."

"Would you even know real work if you saw it, Kieran?" asked Penny, without looking up.

Ha ha. That Penny. She kids because she loves.

I think.

The truth is, there’s a very real difference in the rhythm and nature of work on board for crew and "guests"–campaigners, journalists, and the occasional weird hybrid such as myself. And no matter how much us passengers do our best to contribute, whether it be by cleaning toilets, standing watches, helping cook dinner, or just trying not to set the ship on fire, it is always the case.

For those of us who are occupying ourselves with nothing mnore arduous than tapping on our computer keyboards, the period between 12 noon and 6PM can seem a particularly long and trying spell, because it is the buffer between two of the most enjoyable and important times of a ship’s day: lunch and dinner. (And, with many thanks to Raymond and Sam, they are enjoyable indeed).

Today, horror of horrors, the gap between the two meals was longer than usual, because at 1300 (1PM) ship’s time, we turned the clock back an hour to come into line with our steady progression westward. We are now ten hours behind the United Kingdom, but realistically should be closer to twelve, as we are almost exactly on the opposite side of the world from the Greenwich Meridian. But, such is the occasional arbitrariness of time zone allocation. At least the International Date Line has the good manners to skirt the western edge of the Aleutian Islands, slicing between them and the Russian-ownd Commander Islands–where, incidentally, Vitus Bering, after whom this sea is named, became shipwrecked and died in 1741. (The Commander Islands were also the only home to the Steller’s sea cow and spectacled cormorant, both of which were driven to extinction within decades of their discovery).

Further north, in the Bering Strait, the date line passes between the twin islands of Big Diomede and Little Diomede–a division that would not have affected the related inhabitants of those two isles, only a couple of miles apart, except that during the Cold War, the Soviet Union forcibly evacuated Big Diomede, which fell on their side of the line. I remember one morning on the Arctic Sunrise in 1998, coming to the bridge and looking at the two islands on either side of us.

"See that?" said Lena, the thrd mate, pointing to Big Diomede off our port side. "That’s tomorrow."

Way to mess with my head, Lena. And before I’d even had any coffee.

Today, we anchored off the small village of Nikolski, population 31, on the southwest corner of Unmak Island. And while we are on the subject of time, Nikolski has witnessed the passage of a lot of it, as this area is reckoned to be the site of the longest continuous human habitation in the world. The region has been occupied for at least 8,000 years, and Nikolski for at least 4,000 of that. There were people living here before the Pyramids were built, before the Mayan calendar was invented, before the Chinese language was first written.

We are leaving Nikolski now, to head for Adak–temporarily bypassing Atka, originally planned as our next destination, which we will now visit on our way back. After Adak, we will reach, probably on Monday, Amchitka, where for Greenpeace it all began.

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