For forty-two days aboard the RVIB Nathaniel B. Palmer, we watched the engineers and oilers seem to magically emerge at mealtimes, only to disappear once more to places off-limits to us, knowing they were literally keeping things moving and safe. They were a quite a mystery to me, these quiet, busy men, as were the unseen places below where they toiled. Except for when they were doing the myriad other things they do such as unclogging sluggish plumbing, fixing door handles, and much more besides. As Becky told me, “They fix everything… They set the temperature on the walk-in incubators and are out and about quite a bit.”
When we were offered a tour of the engine room, we all jumped at the chance. But for patches of drifting fog, it was a bright sunny day, and we had been out on the bow for our group photo. We remained outside, gazing at the ever-nearing golden hills of New Zealand, the first land we’d seen in weeks and weeks. Seals bobbed on the calmest water we’d seen since our journey began, whales spouted in the middle distance, and huge whitish jellies floated by.
But despite how glorious it was outside, we were drawn in by the promise of the tour. We waited in the aft dry lab, until our engineer guide Kaleb arrived.We followed him downstairs to enter a narrow room, a grey wall of knobs, dials, and gauges to our left, and on the right, control panels and windows onto the engine room.
At his desk, JP, our chief engineer, warmly smiled and winked as we filed in. We had rarely seen him but for meals, sitting in his place across from the captain, telling stories in his resonant Deep South tones. He has worked on the Palmer since the ship was first commissioned in 1992, I was told. What a wealth of experience he must have.
“This is where we hide out. This is why you guys never see us,” said Kaleb. “This is the control room. We have basic control over the engines, we start and stop the generators from here, catch our alarms, and do all our paperwork. Here we have all our manuals and logs—this is the brains of the operation.” “I’ll tell you what we’re going to see briefly,” he continued, “because, once you get down there, you’re not going to be able to hear me.”
Following him out, we dutifully inserted earplugs. As we clumped down more metal stairs into the engine room, it was like entering a blast furnace. I marveled that these guys spend their working days (or nights—people are always on duty) in this heat. Despite the earplugs, the roar and throb of the engine room was tangible, reverberating throughout the space and our bodies. Surrounded by brightly colored and curiously shaped engines and twisting pipes, I felt I had stepped into a noisy, giant, complex Meccano or Lego creation.
“Out here we have our generator flat,” Kaleb had said.
“This is where the electrical generators are—we have four of those.”
“Back here is our machine shop, our workspace, where we spend a lot of our time.”
“Down below we have our bow thruster, our main engines, all our pumps and auxiliary stuff, and our water makers.”
“At the back end of the ship, you’ll see the shafts,” said Kaleb. “You can see them turning, they’re painted, so you’ll be, like, whoa! It’s going to be really cool.”