When University of Rhode Island oceanographers Rainer Lohmann and Rob Pockalny flew to Barbados in February to board the research ship Endeavor for the beginning of a 22-day expedition across the Atlantic, their only health concern was whether they needed a vaccination for yellow fever. COVID-19 wasn’t even on their mind.
But as they monitored the news during the ensuing weeks, they began to worry.
“We heard about the virus situation in northern Italy and then Spain, and then Trump issued the travel ban and URI canceled classes,” Lohmann said. “That’s when we realized that things were really in bad shape, and our anxiety started to rise about how we were going to get home.
“When we left, everything was normal,” he added, “and then we read about toilet paper hoarding and pasta flying off the shelves. It was like being in a strange film; you don’t know if it’s real.”
Despite what was going on around the world, the scientists completed their research as planned. They collected sediment samples at 10 locations across the Atlantic in an effort to establish an age for the black carbon found on the seafloor and determine whether any of it could be traced to recent African wildfires.
But as the research team arrived in Cape Verde on March 13 – one day before the harbor was closed to all arriving ships – they knew they were in trouble. All flights home were canceled.
“To keep the ship free of the virus, the decision was made that if anyone got off the ship in Cape Verde, they weren’t going to be allowed back on,” Lohmann said. “Two health officials came on board to take our temperature, and then they ran off. It was very surreal.”
With no other options, the URI researchers – including graduate student Sam Katz – remained onboard the ship, which departed Cape Verde the next day. Instead of going to Florida as originally planned to begin the next research cruise, the ship headed for its homeport at URI’s Narragansett Bay Campus.
“The ship’s officers took our temperature every day and logged them in so we could use the transit home as our official quarantine time,” Lohmann said. “With 21 people on board, we knew we were breaking the rules of social distancing, but we knew we were clean since no one got on in Cape Verde.”
“I was planning to stay on the ship back to Florida to prepare our samples anyway, so my schedule wasn’t disrupted much at all,” said Katz. “It was a nice cruise home, and we got some work done. The ship took a detour and sat offshore for a day to fulfill the 14-day quarantine period.”
The ship’s arrival at the dock in Narragansett was met with little of the usual fanfare, except for customs officials checking passports while wearing facemasks and gloves.
“We didn’t want anyone to come aboard that could potentially contaminate the ship, so we unloaded everything ourselves,” Lohmann said. “We knew we were virus-free when we left the ship, but as soon as we met someone on land, we weren’t so sure any more.”
The expedition, which ended up lasting 40 days, was particularly notable to Christopher Armanetti, who filled in at the last minute as the ship’s captain for the first time after earning his captain’s license only weeks before. He usually serves as the first mate.
“Chris had a saying that you’ll never forget your first time as captain,” Lohmann said, “and we all agreed he would never forget this one. Nor will the rest of us.”