"The Perfect Storm": Leg 163 on the JOIDES Resolution

“The Perfect Storm”: Leg 163 on the JOIDES Resolution

My last blog post was regarding danger and disaster during a science expedition on Mount Everest. As promised this is the tale of the expedition that has been dubbed “The Perfect Storm”, Leg 163. In the case of Ulyana Horodyskyj, her scientific expedition was cut short by an avalanche, on April 18th, 2014, that took the lives of 16 men, and forced the mountain closed. This event has been dubbed “the single deadliest accident on Mount Everest.” Sometimes crucial data exists in extraordinarily hard to get to places on this Earth- under ice in Antarctica, far inside deep caves, in the upper atmosphere…etc. In deep sea drilling, the challenge is ever present. Perhaps it’s not as physically demanding to sail to a location as it would be to climb Mount Everest to collect data, but the technical challenges of drilling are truly magnificent.

As of right now, we have drilled and have finished casing down to 1,000 meters below (.62 miles) the seafloor. Casing is unbelievable. Think about it, in order to case, you must weld together casing tubes in descending diameter, then cement it to the walls of the drill hole, 1,000 meters below the seafloor, while you are sitting on top of 2,100 meters of water (1.3 miles). It’s bizarre. The machinery, staff, and crew that all have to work together are impressive. About 50 people on this 120-person cruise are drillers. It’s expensive as well, a multimillion, multinational effort. All this man-power, equipment, energy, for a comparatively small amount of rocks seems silly doesn’t it? Well, if it can help answer Earth’s secrets, then I think it’s more than a noble quest.

Earth is the only planet with two types of crust, dense sea floor basalts, and continental crust, and it’s still a mystery as to why that exactly is. Exp 350 is drilling into a volcanic arc (a rear arc), which is producing rock more closely related to the composition of continental crust, than sea floor basalts. This location in particular has been a long desired place to core, so we are indeed very fortunate to be here, for the valuable data and also for the experience of being part of the journey.

One such expedition, Leg 163 (referred to as “legs” in the early days of these expeditions) was set out to collect data near Greenland to help understand how oceans are formed. This location has a short window of opportunity (about two months) to drill in because of nasty storms that could sink ships without blinking an eye. Even with a professional meteorologist onboard, and with weather reports constantly coming in, no one ever predicted that the storm approaching would be dub this mission “the perfect storm”. The ship nearly sank in the Greenland Sea, facing winds over 100 knots and waves over 60 ft tall.

Two people onboard with us now, were on 163 from September to October in 1995, and were kind enough to share their accounts with me. Below you’ll meet Bill Mills, the Lab Officer onboard, originally from Bakersfield, California with a background in geology and climate science. Next blog post you’ll meet Wayne Malone who was also onboard 163.

Julia DeMarines: How did you come to have your job?

Bill Mills: I first stared as curator working at the West Coast Repository, which was the Deep Sea drilling program with the Glomar challenger. That was the predecessor project to this one here. I got the job through somebody through grad school, and I started to work there and I never left. I sailed a couple times as a staff scientist doing sediment work. When the program moved to Texas A & M, I moved over to the technical group and within a few years I was promoted up to a lab officer.

JD: I was told you were on the infamous 163, could you tell me in your own words why 163 was so infamous.

BM: I don’t know if that correct word.

JD: Famous?

BM: That’s also a difficult one, because, it was the first time we’ve been out here when we we’ve been on the edge. Everything was working on the ship and we were safe, but we were right on the edge of our safety envelope working…We took a big wave that took out the window, took out the radar system almost took out the DP system and so a bunch of the technicians with rig floor crew we went out and did repairs on the front of the ship while the ships crew was handling the ship. When you look back on it you say ‘Wow, people worked really well together’. You don’t want to ever do it again, but it makes for good stories.

JD: What was the scariest moment for you?

BM: … I woke up real early in the morning because the ship was moving so much. I think it was about 4 o’clock in the morning I finally woke up. I remember looking out my window in the fo’c’sle deck and I saw water halfway up the window. The waves were breaking on the ship the water was having a hard time draining. I remembered seeing a life jacking floating off the ship with the flashing light blinking as it disappeared over the side I decided “well I think it’s time to get up” and I went up that morning and found out what was going on and we were being blown back into shore.

We had no propulsion because the waves were so steep the propellers really couldn’t get any traction on the water to move us so we were slowly moving towards the shore of Greenland. And that continued on through most of the morning until the winds changed that was blowing us parallel. During that time everyone was kind of prepared for the worst. We were getting ready for the ship to hit the shore at that time. There were also icebergs around us at the same time. It was just about when the wind changed, I believe, I may be wrong, when we took the wave and I was sitting in the office behind the bridge, with a bunch of techs, and we were waiting things out and that’s when we heard glass break and we looked down the hallway. We saw all this water running down the hallway.

I remember [Gus, a technician since Leg 1] getting up and we all ran up to the bridge and found out what was going on. We saw that the window had been taken out; the second mate BARELY missed being injured by the window when it came through. He ducked just in time behind the radar system, which took the brunt and all the seawater came in. And that’s when we kind of got ourselves organized and there was nobody who said I’m going to be the leader, we talked real quickly. Me and a couple guys ran downstairs. We cut a sheet of plywood, we all met and went outside and we got the wood up and we covered the window up. You were busy, so you didn’t have a chance to be afraid of what was going on around you.

…I went up on top [of the bridge] and I had to lean over the window and then I grabbed the rope to tie the canvas up there. I remember just lying there… ‘cause you couldn’t stand on your feet, the wind was blowing so fast, so I just hung on the rails there on the deck and I remember watching the waves. You’d sit there and watch this wave tower over you and you’re going like ‘we’re going under this wave’ and then all of a sudden the ship would just rise up over it, just beautifully and just fall down the other side of the wave. I could have laid there a long time watching it. That was quite an experience.

JD: Did you have any apprehensions?

BM: No, no. Actually I have more confidence. There was a mate that was from Canada, he sailed in that kind of weather a lot, and he kinda looked at me and says, ‘you know people do this everyday’, (chuckles) WE don’t do this everyday.

And so, everyone was doing their jobs.

The head electrician’s down in the electrical rooms, we had transformers that were getting hot because there were getting saltwater in the motors, the thrusters were starting to short out. But everybody was calmly doing their jobs, the catering people were fixing meals, and everybody just did their work. I mean, I think we were kind of shocked afterwards when we were allowed to get outside on deck started looking at all the damage the lifeboats, part of them were crushed.

JD: Anything else you’d like to add about the journey

BM: You learn to appreciate and trust the people around you.

A great message to end on. Thanks Bill for sharing your experience on 163!