Ode to Cargo Straps

by srosengard

On a ship’s hallways, the shortest distance between two points is a zigzag. The Southern Ocean harbors the tallest waves of the open oceans; so here on the Revelle, it is common to walk into a wall when traveling its narrow hallways. One of the shipboard engineers told me that during the roughest conditions, they ballast the ship so that it stays upright instead of swinging 20 degrees side-to-side.


Beta detectors secured underneath hundreds of pounds of lead and tight ratchet straps.

On a turbulent vessel, there is a lot that goes into planning how to study chemistry, or almost any other precise science. Things that are normally harmless on static, level ground become dynamic actors on the chaotic drama of the ocean. Living on a ship means that you have to look at every object and think: can it roll? Can it pop? Can it fly out of control towards disaster?

Thankfully, years of experience and creativity have equipped vessel-borne scientists with trusty solutions to the risks of wave-action and gravity. Before leaving port in South Africa, we spent three days securing every glass bottle of corrosive liquid onto the walls and tables with Velcro or packing tape, fastening every instrument to its surroundings with rope and bungee cords. These labors come with peripheral rewards. I’ve taken away (1) the knowledge of two strong knots and (2) a new vocabulary of construction hardware.

My most essential research instruments tethered on board live beneath several hundred pounds of lead, and one strenuously tight ratchet strap. They are called beta detectors (see photo), and they measure the radioactivity of a natural element in seawater, thorium-234. My interests in ocean carbon have led me to the subfield of thorium chemistry, which uses these radiation measurements to trace sinking carbon in the sea. When measuring radiation in beta detectors, lead ensures that I get only the radiation I want. Just as lead vests block harmful X-rays at the dentist’s office, the lead brick house around my detectors blocks any outside radiation from interfering with what I measure inside. This way I know that the radiation I measure comes from seawater and not from the computer screens and light bulbs around me. This this lead tower is perhaps one of the most precarious constructs in this laboratory, but its sheer weight and strenuously tight ratchet straps makes these beta detectors the most secure as well.

Of course there is a lot more to living in constant motion, for not all aspects of life are science, even for field oceanographers. Every time you might ask how the Revelle could possibly hold itself together, there is almost always an answer. That answer could be small hooks behind every bathroom door, the anti-slide grip pads under warm pans of dessert in the mess hall, the small lock features on all things that open and close. Altogether these seemingly simple constructs are ingenious innovations that make the ship habitable, that make the culture of sea-travelers viable. One cannot take the subtle architecture of the Revelle for granted.