Experiencing Time or the lack of it while at sea

You never really think too much about time unless you are late, planning an event, or even setting your alarm clock. It generally is understood that it exists and we, as a society, keep track of it through clocks, watches, conversations, and agendas.

When you get accepted to sail on the JOIDES Resolution, you understand that you are going to work 12 hours under the time zone the ship is chosen to follow. However, time starts to become more and more relative the longer you are on the ship.

The first moment where you notice that the way you interact with time is different to the way you interact with it on land is when the only greeting you hear is “Good morning!”. The ship operates 24/7, which means that there are 4 different shifts for the 118 crew members to work. Your morning can be midnight, 6pm, 6am, or midday, and thus anytime you see someone for the first time that day you greet them with good morning.

Chang enjoying his cup of tea after waking up for his 6pm to 6am shift.

This is not initially detrimental to your concept of time, but compound it with the fact that your 12 hour shift isn’t wholly during daylight hours. While the midnight to midday or midday to midnight both are split almost in half by daytime and night time, the 6pm to 6am does not experience that. The 6pm to 6am shift wakes up to night as their morning, and works through their shift as it spans across two calendar days. Their today is tomorrow as well, and they go to bed after sunrise making their tomorrow start tonight. The most similar to land time is the 6am to 6pm shift, but very rarely do more than 4 people get to work that shift, but even then time is still a little wonky since you still interact with onshore colleagues that are not in the same timezone as you.

A table to show how four differen’t people’s shifts overlap. The grey indicates when the person is off shift, while their designated color shows when they are on shift. The time at the top is in military time.

Timezones become a regular part of how you think because you have onshore family, friends, and work colleagues that are in a different time zone from you. Plus, shipboard computers are always at UTC but shipboard clocks and watches are on the current timezone we are sailing in. For instance, we are sailing in the Italian time zone, UTC + 1. Add in the fact that as the outreach officer I have to schedule ship to shore broadcasts for a global audience, I have to discern what time zone the 3pm that someone wants to book an appointment is in compared to mine. The mental gymnastics become especially interesting when the time zone differences leads to it being my tomorrow but their evening.  For instance, 7 pm EST for someone in New York, USA on March 22 is the ship’s 12am March 23.

Tessa looking at the world clocks on her phone trying to determine if the time zones align with her waking hours for a ship to shore broadcast.

As our shifts extend into different days, being able to talk about what day it is becomes even harder. A lot of times we just say “two days from now” or “ when you wake up next” instead of identifying the actual day as Monday or Friday. This very likely is heightened by the fact that a lot of our day is monotonous, once described as ground hog day. Wake up – eat – work- eat- work – eat- social time- sleep- REPEAT. Give or take the sunset or sunrise.

The 3rd mate enjoying the sunshine and a book before he heads to bed

I am not the only one that experiences time as a weird social construct when on the ship, it is a shared by my crew members.

Brandon, one of the physical properties specialists on board, mentioned that the only way he knows it was the weekend was due to the fact that he gets less emails than usual. Tori, one of the Paleomagnetists on board, pointed out that the language we use to identify meal time is even lost. When trying to invite someone to take a break for lunch, it could be your first meal but their second meal and the kitchen’s third meal cooked that day, and thus you are left to say “Meal time?”. Don’t forget that the only crew members that get breakfast food like eggs or oatmeal  for their first meal is the 6am to 6pm shift, which is not ideal for Brandon who really enjoys some bacon in the morning. So you can’t really use the kind of food you have to develop an understanding of time passing.

As much as time, when on the ship, is endless or a black hole or far from reality, it is cherished by the crew members. We create unique bonds of friendship, and find ways to provide variability as the days drone on. During expedition 402 we had a hot wing competition, wellness wednesday movie night, a talent show, and more. We make do with time on the ship, even if we are confused about what day or time it is.

Everyone enjoying the outdoor barbecue at the start or end of their shifts.
Tessa Peixoto
Science enthusiast dedicated to making science more accessible to the public. She has worked in numerous informal educational spaces and believes that everyone does want to learn about their world but just needs help believing in themselves.
More articles by: Tessa Peixoto

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