Monday, April 26, 2010

Nat Geo Expedition in Puerto Rico - 3/25/10

I woke up around 5am because I wanted to watch the sunrise. CK and Mike were up, but they both went to bed shortly after I arrived on deck. Eric joined me once Mike crashed. We watched the sunrise and took tons of pictures. It was absolutely stunning. I had seen plenty of sunsets on this trip but had not seen a sunrise. I loved it.

We spent the entire morning sailing back to Fajardo. I started reading my Bill Butler-signed book (I haven't finished it yet but it's quite fascinating). Around 1pm, we anchored in a reef off a small island about an hour from Fajardo, near the northeast point of Puerto Rico. It's a hot spot for snorkeling. CK wanted to show us a good time after all our work since we had gotten back so early. It was my first time snorkeling, and it was so much fun. I didn't see anything too crazy like a barracuda (apparently they are everywhere down there) or a manta ray or a shark, but I saw tons of beautiful fish. We grilled and ate some hot dogs while we dried out, and then took off for the marina around 3pm. On the way, we found calmer water, and Mike and I got in the dinghy so I could get a couple boat-t0-boat shots of CK and Eric sailing by us. Despite the calmer waters, the dinghy still rocked much easier than the sailboat, and it was hard to film but I think I got what we needed.

We arrived at the fuel dock around 4:10pm, filled up, and then docked Eugenie in her slip by 5pm. We took showers, which felt great, and then met up with CK and Bruny at a liquor store/bar. We had a couple beers and met a guy named Brad, who was my age and originally from Atlanta, Georgia. He's a dive master, and moved to Puerto Rico 5 years ago to teach scuba diving. He was getting ready to head back to the States to finish school though. After drinks, we all (including Bruny and Brad) went back to the boat. We cooked a nice steak dinner, had port and beer, and conversed until 11pm. Then we said goodnight, and Eric, Mike, and I conked out for what would be our last night on Eugenie, and my last night in Puerto Rico.

Nat Geo Expedition in Puerto Rico - 3/24/10

We spent the day just drifting within 30 miles of our drop point for Cam #2. I got a good bit of reading done, and actually finished my book, The Wastelands (Book 3 of 7 in the The Dark Tower Series by Stephen King). I was proud of myself considering I can be awful about finishing books. I also spent time listening to the ipod and chatting with the guys. Around 3 or 4pm, the guys got a second fix on the camera which confirmed that it had surfaced. We were surprised because we didn't expect it to surface until 1 or 2am the next morning. So, we set out for it, and picked it up just as the sun went down. It was pretty cool to get to pick this one up in the dark. You could see the bright strobes flashing in the swells every 5 seconds. I filmed the retrieval as well as I could in the dark. This pickup, like the drop, went much smoother. As soon as the camera was onboard, we popped open a bottle of wine, and set sail for Fajardo. CK and I rustled up some dinner. He prepped the burger meat which included mixing in chopped onions, montreal steak seasoning, pepper, salt, and mustard. I grilled them as such, and baked a couple batches of potato wedges. We were all quite satisfied.

I took an early watch with CK. Around 1am we saw some strange lights in the distance. It looked different than normal ship lighting we had seen so far, and we saw a helicopter lights flying circles around the other lights. CK thought it was maybe Coast Guard. I went down to monitor the radio, and a call came through in a French accent that said something along the lines of: "Sailing vessel at 19 degrees North (listed off our coordinates), this is French warship...," and I forget what else, but they basically wanted to communicate and see what we were up to. I thought to myself: "What in the world?! French warship!?" CK climbed down into the galley, and I looked at him and, in a shocked voice, said, "It's the French." He looked as puzzled as I did I'm sure. He picked up the radio and said, "This is the captain of National Geographic Research vessel, Eugenie I. What are your intentions? Over." Yes, CK loved the name drop. I missed the rest of the conversation because he sent me topside to keep an eye on things, but the name drop definitely worked. Apparently, he asked them if they read the magazine, and they said they did and that it was a great magazine. Then he said, "So do you want to cross starboard or port?" The French went on their marry way after that. CK joined me topside and said that it was the first time he ever felt any respect from a Frenchman. Feeling good about himself, he went to bed. Around 2am, not long after CK crashed, I had Mike take over for me. Crazy night.

Nat Geo Expedition in Puerto Rico - 3/23/10

We sailed out of the harbor around 2:30am. Eric and Mike slept while CK and I stayed on deck. Mike joined me on watch about 40 minutes after CK had passed out, and then I crashed shortly after. I got a few hours of sleep before I was back on deck. We spent most of the day just hanging out on deck reading books, talking, snacking, etc. We reached our drop spot around 3pm, and dropped at 3:51pm. This drop went much smoother than the first. We attached the ship chain to the base as well as some sardines in hopes that we could attract some cool species of fish to come eat them, and get it on camera.

From there, we got a sat fix on Drop Cam #1, and we set sail for it. We retrieved it at 5:45pm. Eric and Mike had to go out in the dinghy and grab it in the midst of 5 ft swells (some maybe bigger). The mission was successful so far. The rest of the night, we ate hot dogs and chilled on deck. I went on watch around 8:30pm while the others watched Sukiyaki Western Djiango, which I had already seen. I sat on deck in my rain gear braving the wind and occasional splash while listening to worship music until about 1am. At that point, Eric took over, and I went to bed in the aft cabin. I had the best night of rest while sailing yet. It was a little cooler in that cabin, which helped tremendously.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Nat Geo Expedition in Puerto Rico - 3/22/10

I woke up feeling pretty rested. CK was already off running errands, finding new weights. Eric and Mike slept a little longer. Once they woke up, CK returned with some old iron ship chain from a ship junkyard -- perfect weights for the drop -- and then he ran off again. Eric, Mike and I went looking for coffee. Sizzler wasn't opened yet so we went to a little shop called Captain Mike's where CK was hanging out, and we got our coffee.

After we filled up, Mike went off to get some more ship chain. CK introduced Eric and me to a guy he had been telling us about. His name was Bill Butler, and back in 1989, he and his wife were shipwrecked in the Pacific. They spent 66 nights on the ocean in a 6-foot life raft. He wrote a book about it called Our Last Chance. We talked to him for a bit, and then both Eric and I bought a copy of Bill's book, and he signed them for us. I could've spent a few hours with this guy. You just know he's full of stories and wisdom. However, we had to keep going about our day.

Eric and I went to Sizzler once it opened, had coffee, and checked on the shipping status of the parts. Then we checked on our dinghy, which had deflated over night for some reason. We figured out the source of the leak, and then informed CK so he could pick up some patching for it. Mike returned with more ship chain, and then we all went back to Sizzler for lunch. Afterwards, Eric, Mike and I went shopping for extra groceries and medicine. I called Mom while we were out to let her know all was well. When we got back, we moved Eugenie to a new dock because we were in the fueling slip. Then we spent the afternoon cleaning her, fixing the dinghy, tidying up our storage, and waiting on our parts.

The parts came around 6pm. Bruny came to see CK and steal him for a bit because their anniversary had been the previous day, and they had both forgotten about it (hilarious!). Eric and I cooked up a nice Italian meal -- pasta with chicken. After dinner, Eric and Mike built Cam #2, and then we all crashed.

Nat Geo Expedition in Puerto Rico - 3/21/10

I awoke to find my face caked in sweat and whatever oils were left from sunscreen -- yuck! I freshened up and had some breakfast -- poptart, banana, and diet coke (too hard to make coffee). I went topside, and everyone else fell asleep because they had been up real late. ERic joined me shortly after though. The conditions were a little rougher. The wind had picked up and the swells were probably 4-5 feet. I handled it okay for most of the day though. We pretty much just sailed all morning, and reached the drop spot around 11:30am. Eric, Mike, and I were all feeling slightly seasick. Mike especially because he spent a lot of time in the galley putting the exteriors on Cam #1. Eric was probably not as bad as Mike or me. It's really hard to find motivation to work when you have motion sickness, but I pushed through.

The first attempt to throw the cement buckets in the water failed epically. One of them broke off and sunk to Davy Jones' Locker. Fortunately, we still had bags of sand that Eric and I had filled on our prep day. So, after struggling to get the reflectors on and throwing up my breakfast, we finally tossed Cam #1 overboard. It was very stressful in the midst of the wind and swells but we got it off and I captured it, so in that sense, it was a success.

From there, we set sail for San Juan to get our part for Cam #2, and refill fuel and water tanks. The ride back was intense -- into the wind, 5-6 foot swells, and salty water splashing over us every 30 seconds. I set myself up in a nice reclined position, and dozed off most of the afternoon. We had sandwiches for dinner because it was too difficult to make anything else. They tasted great though, and I kept them down.

We arrived in San Juan around 2am. CK and I were the only ones awake at that point. We docked right next to a beautiful boat named the "Blue Guitar," which just so happened to be Eric Clapton's boat. Unfortunately, there were no sightings of Mr. Clapton himself. I assume he was in the city. Shortly after CK and I laid down to sleep on deck, we got kicked out of our spot by the La Rumba party boat. Apparently we were in their spot. So, we found a new spot and finally crashed.

Nat Geo Expedition in Puerto Rico - 3/20/10

We had an even earlier start (5:30am) this day. We grabbed coffee at Starbucks, and set out for the marina (we were staying San Juan, and it's an hour and a half drive to Fajardo). We spent most of the morning and early afternoon doing last minute prep work, which included making new weights for the drop cam. We bought two 50-lb Quickcrete buckets, mixed them up with some rocks and water, and loaded them on the boat.

The drop cam needs 50+ pounds to sink it to the bottom. The weight is attached by multiple magnesium links that dissolve after around 30 hours, and then the camera floats back to the surface. Once it reaches the surface, we get a satellite fix on it and pick it up.

Once we finally got everything loaded, we took a shot of the best rum I've had, Don Barrilito Rum, and set sail. Sunset on the ocean is absolutely stunning. It was a beautiful evening of sailing. We had dinner after dark-- pork chops with sauteed onions and peppers, and green beans. It was an amazing meal. I stayed up with CK for the first watch, but the motion sickness meds I took were knocking me out. Eventually, Mike came up, and I went back to bed in the bow cabin. It was very different sleeping there while sailing because the bow was bouncing on the waves, but I still slept pretty well.

Nat Geo Expedition in Puerto Rico - 3/19/10

We got an early start and spent the first half of the day finishing prepping for the trip. We had to assemble the cameras, and found out that one of them was missing a few parts from it's external ring frame which holds the reflectors (a strobe light flashes every 5-10 seconds and the reflectors pounce the light out so that the camera and pick up footage in the blackness of the trench). Eric and Mike got it worked out to have the parts shipped to San Juan, and we would pick them up after we dropped off Cam #1. We loaded up the boat in the early afternoon, and found that Jim (the owner of Sail Caribe) wanted CK to go with us for the expedition because he was worried about his boat going out beyond their typical charter boundaries. So, we added CK to the crew.

Once we loaded all the equipment onto the boat, we set sail for the Northeast side of a small island called Palomino. IT was a great ride out. We saw a sea turtle along the way. We connected with Adam, who had chartered a dive boat, and got to work. By the time we got to the spot, I wasn't feeling to well from prepping my EX-1 (HD camera for those of you who don't know) in the galley. But I filmed the guys from topside as Adam filmed underwater, and made it through without throwing up. Mike was in the water with the drop cam trying to assemble the exteriors in the current which we decided would not be a good idea once we're in the trench. He was struggling against the current just off the island in water that was 80 feet deep; there was no way he was going to be able to do that in 6 foot swells out in the deep. The reason he assembled in the water for this test was so Adam could get shots from underneath. After Mike finished assembly, he dropped it multiple times so Adam could film it dropping. Eric, CK, and I chilled topside during all of this. After about an hour, Adam's underwater housing unit for his EX-1 started to leak, so we called it a day, and departed for the marina. Along the way, I emptied my stomach off the stern into the bluest water I've ever seen. That was quite an experience. I definitely felt better after that though.

Once back at the Marina, we said goodbye to CK for the evening, and spent the night on the boat. We had steak (the boat has a little grill on the stern) with green beans and baked potatoes, drank wine and rum, and talked the night away. I eventually passed out in the bow cabin, and had a wonderful night's rest.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Nat Geo Expedition in Puerto Rico - 3/18/10

Eric was feeling much better, but still suffering the effects of a cold. We met the Nat Geo diver, Adam Geiger, who was only going to be with us for a couple days, and discussed logistics for the shallow water drop cam test, which we'd be doing the next day. Eric, Mike and I then shot off to Fajardo where our boat was docked at the Puerto del Rey Marina. No one was at the charter office, so we wandered around the marina for a bit. We eventually stumbled upon our boat, which was being cleaned by Captain Keith Lehman and his wife, Bruny.

Captain Keith, whom I will refer to as "CK" from now on, is originally from Canada, and moved to Puerto Rico in 1995. Soon after, he met and married Bruny, who is a native of the island. They both work for the charter company, Sail Caribe.

After we connected with our people and our 38 ft. Hunter sailboat named Eugenie, we spent the rest of the day running errands and prepping for the expedition. We had dinner that night at the hotel with Adam, and, knowing that we'd be getting an early start, made sure we got a good night's rest.

Nat Geo Expedition in Puerto Rico - 3/17/10

I flew to San Juan, Puerto Rico alone to connect with National Geographic Engineers, Eric Berkenpas and Mike Shepard. Mike met me at the airport because Eric had fallen ill with food poisoning. We dropped of my luggage, and then went down the street for some dinner and drinks. It felt nice to just chill and chat and get to know Mike better.

Nat Geo Expedition in Puerto Rico - Intro

Between India and Israel, I had 7 weeks to kill, so I defaulted to editing an India recap video, writing transcription for money, and finding ways to waste time. One day, Drew was chatting online with our friend Matt Berkenpas, and it turned out that Matt's brother, Eric, worked for National Geographic as a Lead Engineer. Matt was asking around to see if there was anyone who wanted to pay their own way to Puerto Rico to help document a Nat Geo expedition down there for his brother and his brother's partner. I immediately jumped at the opportunity. It cost me close to $500 to get myself there at the last second, but I did it. I saw it as a worthy investment into my future (Nat Geo? Resume enhancer anyone?).

The nature of the expedition was to sail 90 miles north of the island to the Puerto Rico trench, and do a couple test drops with a cheaper concept for deep sea cameras to prove that it works. The deepest part of the trench is called "Milwaukee Deep," and has a maximum depth of 28,231 ft (8605 meters). That is what we were aiming for. I went along as a volunteer videographer to obtain topside footage and interviews. I was excited and very nervous all at the same time because I hadn't really been a decent-sized sailboat, nor had I been on a boat out on the "deep blue" ever, and we were about to spend 5 days on one.

I have an entry for every day, which should come to a total of 8 posts. I hope you enjoy them and that they satisfy your questions about the trip. If not, comment and ask away. I'll be glad to answer what I can.


Finally updating my travel blog...

So, I've been lazy, but I'm finally getting around to posting about my last two trips: Puerto Rico and Israel. For Puerto Rico, I wrote about each day on one of the last days so most of it will probably not be in present tense. As for the Israel trip, I'm just now writing everything out (I was real lazy about writing on that trip unless something significant happened).

I know it's a lot of reading to catch up on everything, but I hope it's not too dull and that you enjoy it.