Life at Sea vs. Life in Bremen

Today was the last day of core description for Chicxulub Impact Crater scientists who have been working at the University of Bremen in Germany. You would assume that doing scientific work on land for four weeks would be a lot different than doing scientific work on the JR for eight weeks, but, surprisingly, the life you end up leading in both situations has a lot in common.

Though, on land, you are not as constrained by space as you are at sea (for instance, no one is going for a bike ride on the JOIDES Resolution), in both places everybody in the science party is constrained by time. This is because of the well established equation: time=money. It costs a lot of money to take a bunch of scientists, techs, engineers, drillers, ship’s crew, cooks, etc. out to sea for eight weeks. It also costs a lot of money to fly fifty-some people from around the world to live and work in Germany for four weeks. Since no scientific expedition has unlimited cash flow, in both situations, everyone’s time has to be maximized to keep things under budget. That means everyone works long hours with no days off.

On the JOIDES Resolution, part of maximizing the budget is making sure that drilling is occurring 24/7 (except, of course during the transit times). Because drilling is occurring all day and all night, the scientists need to work all day and all night too. So during JR expeditions, everyone is working either a noon to midnight shift or a midnight to noon shift.

The drilling was already done for the Chicxulub expedition, so there was no need to have people working all night. There was still a need to get as much work out of everyone as they could in a short amount of time. Since the project managers could plan in advance exactly how much time was likely to be needed to get all the core description and reporting done, we didn’t work twelve hour shifts in Bremen. We worked 10.75 hour shifts (with an extra hour off on Saturday and Sunday). Half of us worked from 7:30 am to 6:15 pm and the other half worked from 11:45 am to 10:30 pm.

I realized the similarities between the JR and Bremen pretty early on when one day it occurred to me I had just spent about eleven hours inside MARUM (the building that houses the Bremen Core Repository and where the majority of core description occurred) without ever going outside. It made me think, “This is like being on the boat.”


Of course the big difference between being on the JR and being in Bremen is after that 10.75 hour shift in Bremen, we could theoretically do whatever we wanted. But, after working that long and then getting back to my hotel room about 10:45 at night (I was on the late shift), generally what I wanted to do was go to sleep.

My hotel room was about the same size as my state room on the JR, with the big difference that I didn’t have to share the hotel room with anyone, and, even better, I didn’t have to share a bathroom with anyone either (on the JR you share that with three other people). Another thing the hotel room and the JR state room have in common is, in both places, you often want to wear earplugs to help you sleep, though on the JR it was the sound of the engine or thrusters that might wake you up. In the Bremen hotel room, it is the sound of drunk people yelling outside your window at 4:00 in the morning that wakes you up every night.

Even when I went to sleep as soon as I finished my shift and only a couple of people yelled in the street that night, that usually gave me a couple hours to myself in the morning after I woke up. I usually spent this time wandering around the neighborhoods near my hotel. Since our hotel was right near the historic district of Bremen, I didn’t have to walk too far to see sights like this:

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…or this…

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Though in Bremen, you don’t get an unobstructed view of this everyday:

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I didn’t get to venture too far in the limited time I had off from my work shift, though. Prior to learning my work schedule, I had  thought, “Maybe I could take a day trip to Amsterdam while I’m in Bremen,” but I didn’t get any farther than a few blocks from the tram-line between the airport, the hotel, and the university in Bremen the entire time I was there.

We did get to see more people in Bremen than you ever could on the JR. In both places you are basically talking to the same 40 or 50 people everyday, but in Bremen you were daily also seeing hundreds of unfamiliar faces. You even got to interact with some of them, like when you were ordering a sausage plate from a waiter wearing lederhosen in a tourist-oriented Bavarian restaurant, or when you were buying earplugs at a pharmacy.

The commute was definitely different. Everyday in Bremen the majority of us took a twenty-minute tram ride from the hotel to the university.

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On the JR, your commute was walking up the stairs from your stateroom to the labs.

Laundry is a little different too. On the JR, you could put your dirty clothes in a sack outside your room on any day and one of the crew would wash it for you. In Bremen, you waited until your dirty laundry reached critical mass, and then you went outside with it and walked down a long alley that led to the hotel’s laundry room that contained one washing machine and one dryer that were both small enough that they looked like they had been designed for elves and then you did your laundry in them.

Eating was similar in both situations as well, because, particularly for the night shift in Bremen, most of the meals were served cafeteria-style. The difference is on the JR, the chef tried to please an international clientele, while in Bremen, the food was generally made for a German palette…

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…which, though often delicious, occasionally led someone like yours truly who was brought up on Hamburger Helper, Steak-umms, and Big Macs to wonder why anyone would combine those flavors (yes, that is sushi on the left, so it wasn’t all Germanized).

One other thing life on the JR and life at MARUM have in common was the incessant availability of cookies.

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Which in theory sounds awesome, but generally doesn’t inspire large amounts of self-control.

Perhaps the biggest similarity is something I heard people say both on the JR and in Bremen. Having all of your focus taken up by basically one thing for weeks at a time simplifies your life in a way that rarely happens in modern times. You don’t have to juggle multiple responsibilities, don’t even have to think much about what to eat, at least for a little while. This simplification can be very enjoyable. Plus when you’re seeing evidence of one the biggest catastrophes in Earth’s history for the first time in human history with a group, of creative, enthusiastic, and generous people, it is actually one of the greatest experiences of your life.

Written by Kevin Kurtz

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