This is the latest dispatch in a series from Jeff Goodell, who is investigating the effect of climate change on Thwaites glacier.
Last Wednesday night, after much anticipation and hype, the finale of the 2019 Amundsen Sea International Ping Pong Tournament got underway on the Nathaniel B. Palmer, the icebreaker I’m aboard during a two-month journey to Antarctica. The finale had been delayed by a cold snap that had suddenly covered the sea with ice, slowing down operations for a few days and complicating life for the crew. But finally the quest to unravel the mysteries of rapid glacial collapse was put aside and the game was on.
The match-up pitted Jack Greenberg, a middle-aged, rough-and-tumble marine technician on the ship, in a WWE-worthy smackdown against Filip Stedt, a slight, long-haired 25-year-old grad student from Sweden who is part of the team operating the Hugin, a high-tech underwater robot. It was a classic matchup: Greenberg the gruff Antarctica veteran, a man who has spent a good part of his life at sea and can tell you stories about life on fishing boats in Alaska and treacherous storms he has weathered on lakes in Africa, versus Stedt, a shy, friendly college student who has never been to Antarctica before but who has proven himself highly skilled at fishing multi-million dollar devices like the Hugin out of icy seas.
The tournament had begun a week or so earlier, organized by Elizabeth Rush, author of the acclaimed book Rising: Dispatches from the New American Shore, who is aboard the ship. Sixteen members of the science team and crew signed up, representing 10 nations. We played on a sturdy blue German-made ping pong table strapped to the floor in the ship’s cargo hold, where pipes and hoses and 10-foot-high spare propellers line the walls. In big seas, the table pitches and rolls with the swell, giving players with steady sea legs a decided advantage (I’d like to blame my own loss to Filip in the semi-finals on a big swell, but the truth is he would have whipped me even if we’d been playing on the Kansas prairie).
One thing I’ve learned on this journey is that no matter how interested you are in collapsing glaciers, or how spectacular the view is out the window, living for two months at sea on a ship — even one as big as the Palmer, which is 308 feet long, with five decks, a gym, a sauna, a half-dozen well-equipped labs, a conference room, a lounge with a big screen TV — is not without its challenges. There are 56 people aboard and we sleep in narrow bunk beds and shower in little stalls with plastic mats and wear more or less the same clothes every day (yesterday, Lars Boehme, a German oceanographer on the trip, appeared in the mess hall in a sweater no one had seen before, and everyone reacted as if he’d turned up in a tux). We have profound conversations deep into the night but sometimes we get pissy about insignificant things. Alcohol is forbidden (that’s the official line, anyway). And if you decide you need a shot of tequila and want to get off the ship — well, too bad. You’re not going anywhere until the ship pulls into port in Punta Arenas, Chile, on March 25th.
So you invent ways to entertain yourself and blow off steam. Barry Bjork, an electronics tech on the ship, posts a giant New York Times crossword puzzle on the wall in one of the labs every day, which people gather around to solve. Several crew members and scientists brought guitars, which they play in their cabins or in the labs late at night. Others workout in the gym or watch movies in the lounge or read in their bunks. On afternoons when we’re in transit from one research location to another, scientists give talks about their work and crew members share videos of whitewater rafting trips and other adventures. I’ve learned to play bridge, of all things.
One of the toughest things about being at sea for so long is navigating connections with loved ones back home. Given that we’re at the bottom of the planet, it’s miraculous that we’re able to connect at all. Still, many of us are tortured by the ship’s slow and spotty satellite internet connection, especially when we’re in remote regions of Antarctica. Each person on the ship is limited to 80 MB of data per day, which means one Instagram pic and a tweet or two, if you’re lucky. The other night, Gui Bortolotto, a marine mammal ecologist who is aboard to help tag seals, lay in his bunk for three hours, waiting for a 15-second video of his two-year-old son in Brazil to download. “I couldn’t sleep until I saw him,” Bortolotto said, a little misty-eyed. “Every day I am away, I am missing something new he has learned.”
There’s a satellite phone on the ship, which is open for anyone to use. But the connection is static-y and has a time-lag, which can have the effect of making the person you’re talking with feel even more distant than they actually are. A number of crew members, especially those who spend a lot of time at sea, find it easier to totally disconnect from family and loved ones.
For homesick landlubbers, ping pong is the ideal distraction. It’s a game nearly everyone can play, and it brings up memories of home — of summer camps, family gatherings, home cooking. It’s also perfectly trivial, in a way that’s a welcome counterpoint to the end-of-the-world research on the ship.
During the early rounds of the tournament, both Greenberg and Stedt made quick work of their opponents. In the semi-finals, Greenberg had beat Bastien Queste, a researcher from the University of East Anglia in the U.K., playing left-handed — a move that some observers judged was staged to psyche out Stedt. If so, it seemed to work. At lunch a few days before the final, Stedt seemed rattled. “Jack’s strategy is to just wear me down and take advantage of my mistakes,” Stedt told me. “I need to play my own game.”
The finale was delayed for several nights because Greenberg was either working or too exhausted from working to play (it also may have been another way for Greenberg to mess with Stedt’s head). To keep himself sharp, Stedt asked Bortolotto to coach him. Bortolotto, who lost an early round to Greenberg, practiced for hours. “Filip has the skills,” Bortolotto told me frankly, “but he doesn’t have the strategy. So we’re working on that.”
On Wednesday afternoon, word spread on the ship that the finale was on. At 7 p.m., a crowd gathered in the cargo hold. Even the captain came down from the bridge to watch. Seas were calm, the table steady. The finale was best of three games to 21. Greenberg and Stedt entered together, shaking their fists in the air and high-fiving the crowd. Stedt wore rainbow-colored tights, a pair of boxers with Swedish lions on them, and a headband with a glittery, handmade Swedish flag dangling on the back. Greenberg wore no-nonsense work clothes.
Greenberg, hamming it up WWE-style, grabbed a paper with the name “Philip” written all over it that he had stashed in the cargo hold earlier. He waved it to the crowd, several of whom shouted, “We love you, Jack!” Then he ripped it up and shoved a piece into his mouth and ate it.
“Who is Philip?” Stedt laughed. “I spell my name with an F.”
After a short warm-up rally, the first game began. Stedt was jittery, missing easy shots. At the halfway point, the score was 10-10, and Greenberg’s game was strong. Then Stedt found his groove. He smashed Greenberg’s serves back at him at surprising angles, keeping Greenberg off balance. The game ended with a big slam from Stedt that Greenberg couldn’t touch. “He’s like a cobra,” Swedish scientist Anna Wåhlin quipped. Stedt won, 21-15.
Stedt started strong again in the second game, and for a few minutes, it looked like it might be a blowout. Then Greenberg started returning everything that Stedt hit across the table. Greenberg surged into the lead, 14-13. I wondered if Greenberg had just been toying with Stedt until now, upping the drama, and was now getting his game on.
But Stedt wasn’t done yet. He hit a couple of slams that whizzed right by Greenberg. Greenberg held his ground. His focus sharpened. The volleys between the two players grew long and intense — two non-athletes at the top of their game. But in the end, Stedt squeaked it out, 21-19.
In the awards ceremony, Joee Patterson, a marine tech on the ship, draped a bronze W, for winner, around Stedt’s neck. Greenberg got a metal too — a steel L, for loser. Everyone laughed — including Greenberg. Then we went back at work, looking for evidence of how fast our world is changing. The glaciers around us may be vanishing quickly, but for a moment, we all felt a little closer to home.