Departing for Tristan / The contact lens I didn’t lose

I have Internet! But for how long? Here is a mail I prepared on the ship while travelling here:

I am writing this during the weeklong trip on the MV Edinburgh from Cape Town to Tristan da Cunha. Judging from my blog silence all week, there was no Internet service on board. I got the call to go down to the harbour on the night of Thursday, September 21 at 7:35 p.m. [Ms] Vourn Brophy, the manager of Tristan House, drove me, Martin and Iris Green and James Glass to the ship. I was quiet during the ride but very excited; I had the proverbial butterflies in my stomach in anticipation of a nighttime departure. After so many delays, with the original departure date of September 13, we were finally going to Tristan.

The Edinburgh is an older ship, a fishing vessel from 1970. There are no passenger comforts on board. Unlike the Agulhas II, itself a research vessel and not the Love Boat, which had two bars and lounges, a library, auditorium, small store, laundry room, gym and sauna (the Agulhas II was built in Finland, after all), the Edinburgh was purely functional for its main purpose: fishing.

After talking to the people on board it was clear that we were not going to be leaving for Tristan that evening. Why then did they call us to come down to the ship that evening? Couldn’t we have stayed at Tristan House till the next morning? As soon as I had boarded, even before I knew which cabin I was in, the ship’s chef, Howard, handed me my dinner and showed me the way upstairs to the non-crew dining area.

Most of the cabins had two bunks, and my cabinmate was Norman Teferle. Norman is a professor of geodesy in Luxembourg who is going to Tristan in order to install a permanent global navigation satellite system and two tide gauges for measuring water levels. I was pleased to meet him as I had already learned from Renée Green that he would be one of her visitor guests. We shook hands and I told him that we would also be sharing the same accommodation while on Tristan.

Bunk ceilings are low, and I had a difficult time getting into my lower bunk on my first night. I tried to get into bed the same way as I do at home, which involves some elaborate 360-degree rotations before I find my usual comfortable position. When I tried to do this, I got a painful cramp in my midsection that could only be stopped by finding my way out of my bunk and stretching. I have since learned how to get into and out of bed without doing myself any harm.

Departure was scheduled for Friday. At 9 a.m. I was driven to the immigration office at the pier to undergo departure formalities. I was leaving South Africa after all and entering a UK overseas territory. This immigration procedure was conducted aboard the Agulhas four years ago.

I watched the ship’s crane load cargo and realized that there was no way we were going to set off between noon and 2 p.m. The ship’s crane loaded two large container compartments, a container of fuel, an SUV for islander Carlene Glass-Green, two tractors, an orange fishing boat, crates of fruits and vegetables, and twelve crates each containing nine propane tanks. Sacks labelled 1000 kg of sugar were also loaded but I learned that they did not contain sugar. I believe it was sand.

As Norman and I watched the loading we saw a man on the ship toss a large set of keys to another man on the pier. We both looked at one another at the same time and I said it first: “I wouldn’t do that.” The man who caught the keys then dropped them and they fell in the water. I recall seeing a large light blue fob on the keyring and thought that the keys would float back to the surface, but no. They were gone. Everyone around stood looking into the water in dumbfounded shock. When I went to the immigration office I looked at the Edinburgh’s bow and noticed the water line was at 26. I am assuming that meant 26 feet and not metres. So the keys were (at least) 26 feet down. What was going to happen now? Were the keys so important that without them our departure would be delayed even longer? One crewman strung a powerful magnet onto the end of a long rope. He tested the magnet on his own set of keys and it was strong enough to pick them up. He lowered the rope into the water countless times yet could not find the keys.

When we were ready we called for a pilot to sail the ship out. This was at 6 p.m. Finally at 10 o’clock we saw two tugboats approach the ship. The pilot hopped from the tug to the Edinburgh as effortlessly as if he was hopping on solid ground. We finally set off for Tristan da Cunha at 10:30 p.m. Friday.

There are 45 on board: 41 men, one boy, two women and one newborn girl. Fourteen on board are not fishermen. Among these are seven returning Tristanians, three contractors, one carpenter, my cabinmate Norman, a fishery observer and me, the only passenger who is strictly going to Tristan as a nonworking visitor.

When I travelled to the Icelandic island of Grímsey, I stated that that trip was the rockiest time at sea I had ever experienced. Most of the passengers were seasick during that three-hour trip. Let me tell you, that ride was smooth sailing compared to being on the Edinburgh. It feels like riding a roller coaster on water. I brought sea sickness pills, as I did four years ago when I boarded the Agulhas–yet didn’t take a pill prior to the trip to Grímsey–and have been taking them every eight hours since. I recall I only took one and only one pill before departing on the Agulhas. That vessel had a flat bottom, and it sometimes rocked me to sleep. That experience happens all the time on the Edinburgh. Imagine lying on one of those suspended chiropractic cots that swing you up and down: that’s what bedtime is like on the Edinburgh. I am thankful that the beds are aligned the way they are so that I am not constantly rolling out of my bunk.

On my first night on board I had a minor accident. I was walking to my cabin when the ship surged and threw me off balance. I fell backward and before I was aware what was happening I was on the floor. The ship must have surged again as I fell because the floor caught me at an angle and gently took me down with it. I lay flat on the floor and am thankful I didn’t hit my head on the stairs or I might have been knocked unconscious. I just got up and continued walking.

I have spent my time mostly reading. I deliberately chose a chunker novel to read while on board. I feel that I will finish this book before our arrival at Tristan. Good thing I went book shopping in Cape Town before departure as I now have a suitcase full of books to keep me occupied on the trip back. I don’t enjoy computer games except Minesweeper. My laptop had it already installed, as did the computers in the lab on the Agulhas. Now I know that computer games have evolved since this pedestrian mouse-clicker arrived over twenty years ago but it’s so freaking addictive.

Because the Edinburgh rocks so precariously it is an effort to get yourself settled into its tiny bathrooms or showers. Cabins have a sink but washroom and shower facilities are down the corridor. As I took out my contact lenses to clean them on Friday night, the night we set off, I prayed that I wouldn’t lose them. All I needed was for the ship to take a sudden roll at the very same time I was cleaning a lens. I could picture what would happen next: my hands would reach out reflexively for something to grab on to, and in the process my lens would go flying. Each morning and evening I anchor myself to the floor, wedging my shoes into the corner or under a pipe to brace myself against any upswells. Last night I removed a lens, cleaned it and put it into its compartment in my lens case. I brought my hand up to my right eye and flicked out the lens.

There was no lens.

I must have flicked it out and it went flying. Oh no, don’t do this to me. After all the care I had undertaken over the past three days not to lose my lenses, don’t tell me that I lost one anyway. I checked the sink and everywhere around the sink. I checked my face; this has happened before where my lens falls onto my cheek or maybe it was lodged in my beard. Sometimes my lens falls onto my chest or shoulder. Not there.

My heart sank. With only one lensed eye, I would not be able to see anything or take pictures. My right eye is my good eye; I only have peripheral vision in my left, so I would be struggling to see anything during the duration of this trip. My trip is ruined.

I had to find the lens. My lenses are not colour-tinted, so the glass would be even harder to find. I had locked the bathroom door so no one could come in, and was determined to find it even if it took all night. This occurred about 11:15 p.m., so there wasn’t a demand for the bathrooms on our deck and there was another toilet and shower room next door anyway. I would have to get on my hands and knees and look for it.

In order to get my face at floor level, I had to crouch down and get my nose to the floor. I balanced myself on the ridge between the toilet and the shower so that I wouldn’t accidently crush the lens in positioning myself to find it. (I checked the shower ridge first to make sure it hadn’t fallen there.) The bathroom floor was made up of square tiles so I looked and felt closely over each tile. It made it easy to cancel the tiles out that I had already checked. Thank goodness the bathrooms on the Edinburgh are clean. Nonetheless, it was not a pleasant experience nosing around the base of the toilet or under the sink or through every piece of garbage in the garbage can. I thought that I had found my lens and breathed a sigh of relief but had only found a long toenail clipping.

While I was searching I considered what I would do in the meantime, being only partially sighted. There should be a visiting eye doctor on Tristan right now; maybe I could get a simple pair of reading glasses from her. Maybe she could make me a proper set of prescription glasses. I knew that she would not have the capacity to make me a new lens. Once on Tristan I would have to contact my lens fitter in Toronto and order a replacement, then pick it up the day after I arrive back home. I wear bifocal contacts, and they are not cheap. Great. Another $350 down the toilet.

The toilet. Was my lens in the toilet? The toilet in this bathroom had no lid; it was just an open bowl with seat. I had to get my head in there and look for a dime-shaped piece of clear glass. What have I gotten myself into? The answer: a toilet bowl.

Perhaps the lens fell in between my sweater and shirt. I took the sweater off slowly and looked for it in the lining, and listened for any clinky sound if the lens should fall to the floor. I took off my shoes and looked down my pants. The shower was to the right of the sink and it would have been a stretch for the lens to pop off that far, but I passed my hands and got my nose to the floor of the shower stall. Nothing.

All this time I was holding my lips tightly against my teeth for fear that the ship would surge and my face would go flying into a pipe or the base of the toilet. Last thing I wanted was to lose a tooth as well.

Maybe my lens was still in my eye. Yet I looked at my eye up close. I pulled back my eyelid to see if the lens was trapped on the top of my eyeball. (This has happened to me before, and I would know just by the sensation if the lens was trapped up there.) And then I looked at my left eye.

My lens was still on my left eye. Or was it? Huh? I stared into the mirror closely. There was a round object floating on the surface of my left eyeball! What was going on?

I have worn contact lenses for thirty-two years. I have a set habit in my procedure for taking them out, cleaning and storing them. Yet sometimes–rarely, in fact–I do what I just did this evening. The lens that I removed first was my right lens, yet I stored it mistakenly in the left lens case compartment. The left compartment was where my mind was last focussed. Without remembering that I had removed my right lens only moments ago, I reached up to my right eye to remove that lens. That’s when I panicked. I had not lost any lens. My right lens was in the left compartment and my left lens was still on my eye. Since I have such poor vision in my left eye, I did not notice since my more powerful right eye was lensless. Having a lens on my left eye makes little difference since my vision quality there is so poor anyway.

For forty minutes I was crestfallen, poking my face down at bathroom floor level. To think where my hands had just been… I washed my hands thoroughly before I switched the right lens into its proper compartment and then removed my left lens to clean it. I went to bed at midnight but could not sleep right away. I kept on reviewing the panic I had just undergone. What if I had given up and not found my right lens? I would have been unable to sleep, worrying about what I would do for the duration of my trip. I know however that I would have found the lens the following morning. If I didn’t realize that I had slept with my left lens still on, then I would have taken the lens stored in the left compartment of my case and tried to put it on over the lens that was still on my eyeball. I would have noticed then that there were now two lenses on the same eye. I have done this before, and it’s obvious. I would have had to take a fair while to carefully remove the two lenses from my eyeball and then separate them–which I have done before, and even when standing perfectly still it is not nice. The two lenses fuse together and it is painstakingly hard to separate them.

When walking on the Edinburgh is like walking through an amusement park funhouse, I know I have to take extra special care each time I remove or insert my contact lenses.

The only thing I do not like about this ship is the nauseating stench of cigarette smoke that permeates the cabins and dining hall whenever the crew–including the captain–light up. It can really turn my stomach whenever I detect the first whiffs of smoke. I was not feeling too hot on Thursday, September 28, waking up with a throat full of phlegm that would not go away. Every time I had to blow my nose felt like I was blowing out an ashtray. Cigarette smoke coating my nostrils and throat was not helping me any. I wish the Edinburgh had designated smoking areas like the Agulhas. The captain however does let you go onto the bridge and since the Edinburgh was initially an Icelandic ship (named Hekla) all the names for equipment and controls are in Icelandic. There are English translations affixed in Dymo label tape.

I managed to finish my 851-page novel on Thursday. We are scheduled to arrive at Tristan the following day, the Friday afternoon of September 29 and I want to be up on the bridge or the outside upper deck as I see the island appear over the horizon.

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