WHILE most people are tuning into the Johnny Carson show, three women shake off sleep preparing to steer the 1,500 gross-ton M/V Greenpeace over the rough Drake Passage to the Antarctic. Americans Maggie McCaw and Vicky Carpenter, led by third mate Bernadette Clarke of Ireland, take over the helm every night at midnight for a four-hour wheel watch.
A watch entails one mate charting and following a course; monitoring and recording the weather; and directing the helmsman. There is also the hourly fire watch, whereby the crew member not on the wheel does a tour of the ship checking temperatures of equipment such as refrigerators and computers.
The writings of Conrad and Melville come alive here at the bottom of the world. But unlike the tales of these two great writers of the sea, this is not a maritime world devoid of women. The Greenpeace crew includes 10 women among its 31-member complement.
Third officer Clarke notes that ``it's rare to encounter women on commercial ships.'' She does occasional work for Greenpeace, and as a ticketed first mate, sails primarily on coasters around the United Kingdom. But then again, the Greenpeace is far from an ordinary ship.
As the aptly called ``12-to-4'' comes onto the bridge, the compass on the 30-year-old converted salvage ship glows red in the midnight darkness. The ship's bridge is an odd mix of old and new. On the port side of the traditional wooden ship's wheel, state-of-the-art satellite navigation equipment has been installed. On the starboard side sits an antiquated radar device that looks like something from a ``Flash Gordon'' episode.
Down below, the ship's d'ecor is like any suburban family room - that is, one where the family obsession is Antarctica. Charts of the Antarctic, posters of polar wildlife, a carved whale, and ships' drawings adorn the walls. The ship has been converted and refitted so many times that the wiring and plumbing diagrams have been made obsolete.
At midnight, the wheel of the ship is handed to able-bodied seaman Maggie McCaw, who hails from the Hudson Valley in New York State. McCaw has no desire for the 9-to-5 world. After two terms at the State University of New York at Purchase, she left to work with Greenpeace. Her first trip to sea was aboard the Rainbow Warrior off the East Coast of the United States. The Greenpeace is the eighth ship that McCaw has crewed on, and the fifth Greenpeace ship. Time at sea has been broken up by house restoration in Maine and work ashore in Amsterdam.
``I first heard about Greenpeace in 1975, and went to work in the Boston office in 1978. It was mainly the whale issue that attracted me, but I also wanted to go to sea,'' she remarks. Work with Greenpeace has taken the New Yorker all over the world; from the Pacific islands to the Antarctic. But her life does not strike her as particularly unconventional. ``I can't imagine living any differently.''
Also on the 12-to-4 is Vicky Carpenter of Orange County, Calif. Carpenter joined the expedition in Auckland, New Zealand, as a cook. For this second leg of the expedition, she is working on the deck. With a bachelor of science degree in recreation from California State, Fullerton, she has spent time administering youth programs for both the Girl Scouts and the United Way. Her last position in the US was as assistant director of a youth hostel near Honolulu.
``I have always been interested in the outdoors and in children. Administering youth programs was one way to combine both of these,'' Carpenter says. Long before hiking and adventure vacations came into vogue in the US, Carpenter was participating in trend-setting outdoor education with both Outward Bound and the National Outdoor Leadership School.
McCaw's and Carpenter's eclectic backgrounds are representative of the crew in general. It is a divergent group of people who have the skill level and the motivation to work for the low wages and long hours that Greenpeace offers.
The old ways of the sea are personified by skipper Jim Cottier, a gray-bearded, earringed seaman right out of central casting, and second officer Bob Graham, with more than 20 years at sea.
But even with women constituting a third of the crew, this is still the sea, and affirmative action isn't a priority. The cooks are both women and the engineers are all men. According to first mate Ken Ballard of Didcot, England, it is difficult to find women with the skills necessary for the Antarctic. ``Last year one of the engineers was a woman. We certainly try to balance things.''
McCaw, Carpenter, Clarke, close friends as well as associates, are brought together by a love of the sea and adventure - certainly the right stuff for any true tale of the sea.