Interviews: Chief Mate Eric Wakeman

wakemanEric climbs to the top of the communications mast.


When a monsoon started off the coast of Samoa one day in February, Eric Wakeman was along side the RV Melville, but none on board saw he had returned. He opened up the engines on the Boston Whaler full throttle and drove in circles near the ship. The speed kept the boat’s bow up, allowing the rain to drain out the stern. He didn’t have much time. The small boat was taking on water quickly. Then the engine died.

At 278 feet, the Melville needed to anchor at the deepest end of the Samoan harbor. Eric used one of the ship’s two smaller boats to travel between the ship and shore, about a 10-minute commute. Coral reefs outlining the bay protected the smaller boats from heavy ocean swells. Currents passing the mouth of the harbor brought nutrient rich water to the shallow marine life.

Eric plots our course on the maps of the Galápagos
Without the engine, Eric knew he was drifting away from Melville and toward the coral reef. He could hear the waves breaking, but the rain masked the view of anything beyond twenty feet. He didn’t panic - yet. He began thinking through what he had learned at the Maritime Academy. He started rowing with the oars, when one of them broke leaving him rowing Gondola-style. That didn’t work, so he looked around and found a pickle jar full of tools. He began to bail.

“I got the first bail of water in the jar. But, when I went to dump it out, I accidentally let go and the jar flew overboard.” He then tried to signal the ship. “I sent a flare out and accidentally shot it into the water instead of the air.”

He started walking back and forth in the small 15-foot boat with more than a foot of water trying to figure out what to do next. “I was debating whether to jump or stay with it, the boat was so full of water it almost tipped over. I realized no one was aware of what was happening to me and if I was separated from the boat they may not find me, or I would get cut up on the coral reef or eaten by sharks.” That’s when he began to panic. “Strangely enough, I had just bought a pocket survival guide for all sorts of situations, but it didn’t include the situation I was in.”

The chief mate must ensure all the scientists and crew know what to do in the event of an emergency. Here Eric talks to us about the abandon ship procedure after a weekly fire drill.
Just as the rain let up, he tried one more time to use the flare gun and succeeded. The crew on the ship saw the flare in the sky and rescued Eric using the other boat. “Those five minutes stranded at sea is the only time I’ve really been scared in the last 10 years,” Eric says.

Eric grew up skiing the slopes of Tahoe and the Sierra Nevadas a couple hours drive from his home near San Francisco. He is the oldest of three kids. In 1988, he joined the California Maritime Academy in Vallejo, Calif., for one reason: snow. “Someone told me a long time ago you could work for six months as a mariner and have six months free to ski in Switzerland. I have never skied in Switzerland. But I do have about four months on and two-and-a-half months off from work.”

After four years of training, Eric was able to leapfrog to the position of Third Mate. “The purpose of the Marine Academy is to quickly get a Third Mate’s license, something that would take about 10 years of working at sea starting as an Ordinary Seaman.” It took Eric another year of inquiring about a job as a deck hand at Scripps, before they hired him. “They kept telling me deckies are a dime a dozen and then finally they were worth a quarter.”

As part of his official duties, Eric meets the Ecuadorian customs official on our arrival at Santa Cruz.
He had persisted with Scripps, because he liked the idea of working on a research vessel rather than a tanker. For one reason, research vessels didn’t have a tendency to blow up. “I was leafing through Life magazine one day and saw a two-page picture of a 1,200 foot tanker exploding. The photograph was titled ’Tanker on Fire’ and was taken by a friend of mine who had graduated a year earlier. It was his first ship.” He was also enthralled with the potential travel opportunities on a research vessel. “I saw the list of places Scripps’ ships were going and half the time I didn’t recognize where the country was on the map. My friends who went to tankers travel up and down between the coasts of Alaska and California, and that’s all they’ve seen in the last 10 years.”

Eric began working as Chief Mate on Revelle two months ago. “We have a talented and self-sufficient crew, so my responsibilities are actually pretty minimal,” he says. Eric monitors the routine maintenance of the ship; takes a leadership role during emergencies, fire and boat drills; and administers any first aid or medical attention if needed. In the evening, he takes his turn standing watch in the bridge.

When asked his advice about a career as a mariner, Eric responds: “The marine industry comes and goes. Find something that you want to do and have as a job. I don’t think I could handle a daily job at shore, I have two commutes a year to and from the ship. My job is more a hobby I enjoy. Decide early what you want to do and have fun, and as someone once told me: ’do it while you’re young.’”

As Eric would say: “Rodger Doger.”