It would be dishonest to say that all you do on a research cruise is eat, sleep, and do science. (After all, this post was written when I was last at sea.) But those three activities do comprise around 95% of what you do. I’ve already talked about doing science, so I’ll start by discussing sleeping arrangements and then I’ll talk about my favorite subject, food.
Sleeping: Unless you’re the captain, first mate, or chief scientist, you can pretty much count on having to share a room. Rooms are, therefore, set up for two: two bunks, two closet spaces, two sets of drawers. There’s a sink in the room and a door to a head (bathroom, for you landlubbers) that’s shared with the adjoining stateroom.
Most UNOLS ships have staterooms down at water level, which means no portholes. This is annoying if you wake up and have no idea what time it is, but very useful if you need to sleep during the day. A lot of crews are on 12-hour shifts (3 am to 3 pm; 3 pm to 3 am or something like that) so sleeping during the day is actually quite common. My schedule is a bit more haphazard due to the nature of the science I do—I frequently alternate working for an hour or two with sleeping for an hour or two round the clock.
Being at water level also means you are down by the ballast tanks (loud sloshing) and engine room (occasional banging), so earplugs are an absolute must if you want to sleep. But other than that, I’ve found both ships I’ve been on to be reasonably comfortable.
Eating: Meals are served on a strict schedule. Exact schedule varies from ship to ship, but you can expect something like this: Breakfast, 0730 to 0815; Lunch, 1130 to 1215; Dinner, 1700 to 1800. (Everything on a ship is done in 24-hour time.) Leftovers are stored in a fridge for those who are asleep during meals, and there's always a selection of snacks, cereal, sandwich fixings, etc. for those who get hungry at non-standard times.
People always ask me what the food is like. The answer is: that depends on the cook. Most UNOLS crews are on for three months then off for three months, so you can get good grub on a ship one time and then mediocre chow the following cruise.
I’ve had food so good it would qualify for a four-star restaurant (if only it were properly plated, instead of served buffet style!) and I’ve also had pretty mundane cafeteria-style food.
One thing’s for sure though: there is lots of food. Which is good, because I always have a huge appetite at sea. I don’t know if it’s because I’m always going up and down ladders, or if it just burns a lot of calories to keep yourself stable on a rolling deck, or what. But it’s not just me—everyone I’ve talked to says they eat more at sea.
I usually have a big breakfast (fruit, eggs, potatoes, bacon, sausage, yogurt, juice, and sometimes oatmeal), and I’m still hungry by 11. I go up and eat lunch as soon as I can: salad from the salad bar, soup, and a couple of entrees (pasta, hamburgers, stuffed peppers, whatever). And then I’m hungry by 3:30 and say, “When will it be dinner time?!” At dinner, I usually take half a plate of vegetables plus a big hunk of meat, some pasta or potatoes. I add a couple of servings of dessert (cookies, pie, ice cream…depends what’s on the menu).
I should add that despite eating like a pig I also usually have to have at least one snack late at night or really early in the morning because of my crazy round-the-clock schedule with my research.
And I don’t gain weight. That’s pretty amazing.