Geology & Geophysics GeoFIZZ

Tying Knots on a Research Vessel

Their marriage vows were immediately followed by 30 days of around-the-clock mapping and dredging of a mid-ocean ridge. On Sunday, these marine geochemists will celebrate their 30-year anniversary.

By and Rodey Batiza

The year was 1988. The R/V Thomas Washington, a gem in the Scripps Institution of Oceanography’s fleet, sat idle at the dock. Checking his watch, the chief scientist frowned and strode to the bridge to ask why they had not yet departed Acapulco.

“We are waiting for one more delivery,” Captain Tom Desjardins replied with a sly smile. Fifteen minutes later, a blue panel truck pulled onto the dock. A stocky man rolled up the back door to reveal the only cargo and cause of the delay: a white-frosted, three-tiered cake.

The chief scientist chuckled, incredulous at the sight. The cake, ordered by the ship’s cook, was for a shipboard wedding that would take place during the transit. His wedding.

Casting Off

They originally met through an introduction by her adviser, John Delaney, at the AGU Spring Meeting in Philadelphia in 1982. He was a professor at Washington University in St. Louis; she was a graduate student at the University of Washington in Seattle. They both studied mid-ocean ridge processes and seamount volcanism and tectonics—lives spent cruising the balmy, calm seas of the East Pacific Rise (him) and hanging on for dear life in the swell and squalls of the Juan de Fuca Ridge (her).

They met during simpler times: before GPS, when seafloor maps were hand contoured and interpolated and geological intuition was essential to the toolbox; when the most valued technologies brought on a research cruise were well-engineered 10-point dividers, parallel rulers, and a sharpened set of Prismacolor pencils. They both knew the thrill of a rock dredge ascending from the seafloor, the anticipation of glassy, black rocks that might reveal the mantle’s secrets, and the fear of a completely empty dredge.

For many years, their paths crossed only at the annual AGU Fall Meeting in San Francisco. Back then, the meeting was small enough to be held at the Jack Tar (later Cathedral Hill) Hotel on Van Ness Avenue and the nearby Holiday Inn Golden Gateway. The community studying mid-ocean ridges was small, so with few competing Volcanology, Geochemistry, and Petrology sessions of interest, everyone in the field could be found in the same room.

True to conference form, they heard about each other’s current research in 15-minute synopses, presented using overhead projectors and decks of 35-millimeter slides that occasionally arrived upside down. But she was a graduate student, so they rarely crossed paths during the after hours, when conversations and negotiations about proposals and manuscripts filled the voids around the technical program.

A Change of Course

As her Ph.D. neared completion and she began applying for academic jobs, she asked whether he would write a letter of recommendation on her behalf. He was familiar with her research, through AGU talks and reviews of her Journal of Geophysical Research publications; she thought that his stature as a leader in this subfield would lend credence to her application. 

Running into her at the next Fall Meeting ice breaker, he suggested they meet. He wanted to know more about her research plans, to better prepare for writing the recommendation.

After the recommendation was filed, they continued to correspond. Over time, conversation diverged onto more personal topics and mutual flirtation. It became clear that they were on the brink of charting a new course.

Romance blossomed quickly, despite the distance between Seattle and Northwestern University in Illinois, where he now held a position, and the limitations on communication posed by the pre-email era. Six months after their conversation at Fall Meeting and numerous, expensive phone calls and letters later, they found themselves together on the R/V Moana Wave, invited by Daniel Fornari of Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution to map volcanoes near the East Pacific Rise using the new SeaMARC II side-scan sonar imaging system.

The Wager

A month of proximity at sea served as a powerful catalyst for their long-distance relationship. By summer, he had declared his intention to propose.

But there were complications. She had already accepted a job at the University of Rhode Island (URI), to begin in the fall. So, he proposed a counteroffer, with plan A and plan B scenarios.

In plan A, she would gracefully withdraw from the URI position and marry him right away. Plan B provided her with a 2-year stint at URI, capitalizing on their offer of start-up funding, but presumed the same marital outcome. He felt pretty confident about where things were going to end up!

They solved the dilemma through wagering on different scenarios over a game of pool. He wins? Plan A. She wins? Plan B.

Technically, she lost. Thankfully, her URI colleagues were extremely understanding. There was some cheerful ribbing about the possibility of mobsters from Rhode Island showing up at his door one day in retaliation, however!

Fortunately, her career setback was short-lived. That October, after defending her dissertation, she moved to Evanston and earned an assistant research professorship at Northwestern University.

A Special Union Session

He formally proposed, on bended knee, to the delight of her family. Her mother and her sister Tracey, who lived near San Francisco, were eager to celebrate the engagement.

Knowing that most of their friends were also colleagues who lived across the country and abroad, AGU Fall Meeting offered the perfect venue. They coconvened a “special session” focused on “Union business” with a reception at the Little City Antipasti Bar, a small Italian restaurant in North Beach. The evening of good wine, friendship, and tall tales from past cruises provided a delightful christening ceremony for their lives together.

As luck would have it, he was scheduled to lead another research cruise 2 months later. Having sailed with “Captain Tom” many times before, he felt comfortable posing the question: Can you marry us during the cruise?

“I’m afraid that’s not possible,” Captain Tom said. “You can only do that if you are licensed as a Justice of the Peace. The captains on the big cruise liners can do that, but not me.” “But,” he added spritely, “we can put on one heck of a ceremony, and even better, I can grant you a divorce at the end of the leg!”

Anchored Together

Karsten and Batiza exchange vows on the R/V Thomas Washington’s bow in a 1988 ceremony officiated by the ship’s caption. Credit: Ron Comer

And so the big event was planned for the third day at sea, in transit to the East Pacific Rise. On a glorious, sunny day, they stood on the bow of the R/V Thomas Washington, she in a pretty lace dress and he in a tie and sports coat. They both wore flip-flops. She carried a bouquet of yellow chrysanthemums still fresh from Acapulco.

Captain Tom read passages from Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet. Members of the scientific crew—with John Brodholt (University College London) and David Vanko (Towson University) fronting the band—performed a set of ribald songs that they had crafted together the night before. Most memorable was their rendition of “Dredging Woman,” sung to the tune of “Honky Tonk Women.”

The weekly Saturday “barbecue on the fantail” dinner doubled as the wedding reception. The now infamous three-tiered wedding cake—hastily repaired after suffering a blow in the refrigerator from a falling ham during transit—served as the centerpiece. Four hours later, the bridge called the main lab to announce that they had arrived at the first dredge station.

Newlywed Batiza kneels next to his wedding cake, which had survived a small smashup on its transit to the East Pacific Rise.
Newlywed Batiza kneels next to his wedding cake, which had survived a small smashup on its transit to the East Pacific Rise. Behind him are ocean bottom seismometer recorders. Credit: Ron Comer

For the next 30 days, the chief scientist, his new wife, and the rest of the crew mapped and dredged around the clock. The couple like to joke that they went on a cruise for their honeymoon!

New Voyages Charted

In June, a more formal and legally binding wedding was held at the Northwestern University chapel. Their honeymoon in Maui was briefly interrupted by a side trip to Oahu for her to have a job interview at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa (UH Manoa).

Six months later, they both joined the faculty at UH Manoa, he as a full professor in the Department of Geology and Geophysics, she as an assistant researcher in the Hawai‘i Institute of Geophysics. They stayed in paradise for 12 years before returning to the mainland to explore other career opportunities. Eventually, they both ended up working as long-time program directors at the National Science Foundation.

This year, Rodey Batiza and Jill Karsten celebrate their two 30th anniversaries: the 13 February R/V Thomas Washington ceremony and the formal 10 June wedding. A blended family, they have three grown sons (Eric, Rodey, and Travis), with the youngest being theirs.

Now retired, they relocated recently to Minnesota, putting them closer to the boys and their two young grandsons. Minnesota is about as far away as one can get from the ocean, but they remind themselves that it’s a problem easily cured by paying a little airfare, especially during the brutal winter months of the upper Midwest. And, after all, being close to family was always one of the most important things they had in common.

They’re retired now, but they still attend AGU Fall Meeting. AGU has been at the nexus of much of their professional and personal story, a touchstone throughout their intertwined careers and lives of adventure.

Fall Meeting offers a familiar place to see old friends and catch up with former colleagues, to hear about new science, and to reminisce about the days long ago: before GPS and email, when Union business and shipboard weddings were all the rage.

—Jill Karsten (email: [email protected]), Duck Lake Enterprises, Eden Prairie, Minn.; and Rodey Batiza, Department of Earth Sciences, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis

Citation: Karsten, J., and R. Batiza (2018), Tying knots on a research vessel, Eos, 99, Published on 08 June 2018.
Text © 2018. The authors. CC BY-NC-ND 3.0
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