As the lines were cast off from our small, old research ship, the cook finished stowing fresh banana stalks and other fruit through the galley doorway.
Slowly, the tired old ship moved into the dark brown waters of the Amazon, slid past the town of Belem and made for the mouth of the great river.
The Beacon, as she was called, was chocked full of scientific instruments, computers and electronics although you would not really notice it because of her weathered, beaten exterior. Not large and spotted with surface rust the ship had seen many years on the seas.
By noon we were gliding out into the tropical Atlantic although the water was still dark with silt from the mighty Amazon. Brave fishermen in tiny wood canoes cast hand lines into the waters around us pulling large fish from this natural feeding ground. We turned toward our area of interest, soon finding deep blue salt water while baking under a boiling tropical afternoon. Instruments deployed the science and research commenced.
All was well until just before midnight. A sudden flash and hiss was followed by thick, black smoke pouring from the old engine room. The ship's lights flickered.
The entire ship went dark and the rumbling diesel engine fell silent. Flashlights quickly poked through the smoke filled rooms as we moved to see what had happened. We were dark, drifting across the Atlantic a hundred miles from shore. Fortunately, we were not in the shipping lines so our chances of being rammed while blacked out were slim. Our chances of being seen and assisted were also slim.
When something happens, no matter whether it be a ship fire or just a person falling at the grocery store, humans tend to fall into two groups. One group always steps forward. They offer help and lend a hand. The other group steps back. They watch, gripe, generate rumors and criticize.
The privately owned Beacon lacked the discipline of a crack Navy ship. The crew members broke into the two groups. An electrical panel fire had shut down everything on board. Myself, as chief science officer, and the captain found ourselves with a small dedicated team that stepped forward. The step-back crowd assembled in the galley to worry, drink coffee and develop rumors.
Down below we held flashlights, located spare parts and scavenged parts off less important equipment. Our confidence grew as we realized the initial damage was not so bad and that we were making true progress with repairs. Upstairs, the step-back group was sourcing life jackets, convinced we were doomed. All the while they generated ever greater rumors from any piece of news that emerged from below. One part of the ship was optimistic, while the other part collapsed further into despair.
Around 0300 that night we tested our repairs.
The lights barked out into the dark and even the A/C began to spew coldish air back into the hot smoky rooms. The step-forward team replaced the step-back crowd in the galley. We talked about further repairs to shore up what we had done. The step-back team went back to bed.
As a spectacular sunrise greeted me out on deck, I watched hundreds of flying fish flutter about, gliding just above the water as we continued our mission.
In every situation there would be a step-back group of people.
I reminded myself to always be assured that a step-forward team would be there as well.
Charlie Auvermann is a longtime Dawson County resident and former editor of the Dawson Community News. He is also the executive director of the local development authority.