"A polite euphemism would be it was 'extensively damaged.'" Kim Wallace, a
lithe, mustachioed ROPOS pilot-in-training and electrical technician, is
telling me about an accident with the remotely operated vehicle—actually, with the cage from which it is deployed on the seafloor. The
accident occurred during the robot's recent trip to the Indian Ocean.
"Torn to shreds is what it was," he says, smiling without much humor.
We're standing in the Thompson's laboratory, a few steps from the stern
deck, where the ROPOS and its cage lie as if in state. Members of the
eight-person ROPOS team keep sweeping through the lab, wielding
unidentifiable parts and concentrated looks. They're busily reassembling
the robot and its damaged cage for tomorrow's departure.
It seems that while ROPOS was "flying" up a slope 2,300 feet down on the
Southwest Indian Ridge, a spreading center near Madagascar, its sonar
suddenly "crapped out," as Wallace puts it. The vehicle stopped but the
cage to which it is tethered (and which in turn is tethered to the ship),
kept going, blind as a bat without echolocation. It slammed into a wall of
rock, mutilating its superstructure. I can see it out on the ship's fantail
right now, half of it spanking new, the other half still showing nasty
scars from the crash.
Loading the Thompson.
As if the crippled cage isn't enough to keep them busy, the ROPOS guys are
having tether problems. (The "tether" is the cable between the robot and
the cage, the "umbilical" the cable from the cage to the ship.) "It gets
abused," Wallace says of the tether. "It gets yanked, pulled, and wound
around features on the bottom." Conductors inside the cable nearest the
robot begin to part, causing the cable to heat up. ROPOS' handlers then
have to cut off the damaged portion. In the Indian Ocean, Wallace says, "it
just got shorter and shorter and shorter." By the end of the cruise, a
tether that was 1,000 feet long when new had shrunk to about 100 feet.
So from the middle of the Indian Ocean, Keith Shepherd phoned the
company that makes the tethers and ordered a new one. For which we're now
waiting. Not much time left; we're supposed to shove off tomorrow.
"You're expecting it today?" I ask Wallace.
"No, a week ago," he says, again with that mirthless smile. Turns out the
tether company is in England, and they're having trouble making a new one.
So it's decided—as if there is any choice—that the ROPOS crew will
have to rely on two old spares before the new tether arrives in
Seattle and can be shipped out on the Tully, the other ship on this
expedition. Even as I write, one of those old spares is being wound onto
a drum on the cage.
If these ROPOS guys are like so many worker ants, slaving away in the
nest, there are plenty of soldier ants streaming to and fro along the
gangway, bringing computers and boxes and luggage on board. All day long,
through the light rain we had earlier and in the pupil-pinching sun now in
mid-afternoon, scientists, students, filmmakers and crewmembers have been
passing one another on the narrow steel walkway, keeping one eye peeled for
the business end of a crane being used now and then by the ROPOS guys.