The Windward was built in the 1970s. Though it sits high in the water, Brendan, the captain, swears he wouldn’t want to be on another in heavy weather. It is tried and tested, and looks it too. Noisy, smelling of fuel and paint, to us it appears a rather alien piece of machinery—a chunk of steel that should contravene the rule of flotation. But it doesn’t. On this first night beyond the protected water of Majuro’s lagoon, as a sizable ocean swell slaps against the vessel’s port side—the beginning of what will turn out to be a constant volley all the way to Bikini—we begin to settle into our new home. Having picked out our bunks and unpacked our clothes, cameras, and dive gear, wobbling all the way, we begin to entertain the vessel’s merit: it’s a working boat and it has been around, which means that it does work.
Its broad aft deck is where the compressors, tanks, and dive gear are stowed. But the main feature of this area is a mean-looking hyperbaric chamber, hidden partially under a shroud of tarpaulin—a thick steel tube, like a torpedo, studded with bolts, a few gauges, and a little porthole. As far as we are aware, it is the only such piece of equipment in the Marshalls—save for one on the closed U.S. naval base at Kwajelein Atoll. Though it looks a bit rusty and primitive, it is a necessity: deco diving in the middle of nowhere should not be attempted without one. The dive profiles at Bikini will give you the bends, as a rule, unless you plan meticulously and successfully perform your decompression procedures. As we’re admiring the facility, John steps out from the galley to tell us that dinner is ready. But not before he approaches and asks if we like what we see. Yes, we say—and we never want to see its inside. We have to ask, though. He says of course he has had to operate the chamber a few times. People push their limits, especially with closed-circuit rebreather systems. A couple just weren’t good enough divers to be taking on the sites—basic mistakes, like losing control of their depth during the safety stop.
We head inside, where our inaugural meal awaits—steak. Over the course of dinner, we quiz John about what to expect and what can go wrong. Like many professional mariners, his style is laconic, leaning on anecdotes. Last year, he says, one guy got the bends, had a heart attack, and died underwater. The Windward was a three-and-a-half-days’ sail from Majuro, so they had to keep his body in the freezer, the same one from which our steaks emerged this afternoon. We’re sure he isn’t joking. Given all the vessels afloat, it stands to reason that something like this happens every day, somewhere. On dive boats it is especially common. The captain of one in the Galapagos told us a similar story, once: On the second day of a long charter someone croaked. Two of the deceased’s family members were also onboard, but they asked to continue with the itinerary instead of immediately heading back to port. Why not take the time to reflect on things for a few days, taking in sunsets and wildlife, they reasoned, before beginning the onerous logistics of arranging for a body to be shipped back to Europe? Talking about these things allays our apprehensions about the expedition a little, counterintuitive though it may seem. We raise our glasses and toast the voyage ahead, along with each other’s company. […]