Science reporter Abby Olena was writing about researchers hunting microplastics in Lake Michigan. The Tribune photo desk separately sought to photograph a flotilla of tall ships inbound for Chicago.
As it happened, a group of collaborating scientists was aboard a masted ship that dates to the War of 1812.
The reporting efforts converged this week into an overnight adventure afloat for photographer Stacey Wescott -- and concerns that the U.S. Brig Niagara wouldn't be close enough to shore to beam back photographs in time to accompany a story tentatively berthed on the Chicago Tribune's front page.
The story -- and the first photographs -- indeed made it onto Wednesday's front page. But the story of how they got there illustrated how convenience and tradition can collide in the touch-and-go world of old-time sailing and modern journalism.
"We sailed and motored all night," Stacey reported Wednesday morning as the Niagara hove toward the Illinois coast. There were round-the-clock watches, even for photographers. ("Mine ended at 2200," Stacey wrote.)
"We slept in hammocks and woke at 0645 to put away our sleeping supplies and get breakfast of chorizos and eggs," Stacey said. "The early shift washed down the deck and hoisted sails for the parade into Navy pier.",
What turned into a behind-the-scenes sea story was grounded in serious science, said Abby, a graduate student in developmental biology. She's here for two months this summer as part of the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s Mass Media Fellows program.
"I found out about a team of researchers looking for tiny plastic pollution (called microplastics) in Lakes Superior, Huron and Erie from an April press release that [Watchdog editor] Kaarin Tisue saved for me.
"When I spoke to the researchers early in the summer, I was excited that they planned to sample Lake Michigan. Because they use the U.S. Brig Niagara, a War of 1812 Tall Ship, as their research vessel, their Lake Michigan trip coincides with the Tall Ships festival," Abby said.
Microplastics have been well studied in the world's oceans, but less is known about their impact on the lakes.
As Abby reported in Wednesday's story, one possible danger is that pollutants stick to these plastics, which means they might serve as reservoirs for dangerous chemicals. The researchers are sampling Lake Michigan to learn about the sources of microplastics, and eventually their effect on the health of the lake.
A parallel reporting effort was afoot, too.
Last week the photo assignment desk reached out to Navy Pier exploring possibilities for covering the Tall Ships Chicago festival as the ships arrived Wednesday, said photo director Todd Panagopoulos.
One possibility happened to pair with Abby’s science story about plastics in the Great Lakes.
"Reporter Abigail Olena had been waiting for the scientific research team, which included Sherri A. Mason from SUNY Fredonia, that was working on plastic pollution within the open waters of the Great Lakes," Todd said. "It turned out they were on the tall ship U.S. Brig Niagara."
Stacey was assigned to join the Niagara in Milwaukee on Monday afternoon, but received a call Saturday asking her to report at 6 a.m. Sunday instead. Late on Sunday, plans switched back to sailing out on Monday afternoon.
"Our logistical concerns included: 'Would Stacey have access to AC power to charge batteries. And, if the ship was far from shore, would her broadband card or phone have enough connectivity to send large photo and video files back into the newsroom? Would weather cooperate? Would Stacey get to see the research itself and not just be along for the ride? What about seasickness?'"
Then lake conditions pushed the ship’s departure to Tuesday.
"Departure would now be Tuesday morning -- plenty of time for the research team to head out and collect samples and return near enough to shore to transmit her images," Todd said.
Then battery issues developed aboard the Niagara and the ship didn’t sail until about 2 p.m.
"When offering a story for front page consideration, we like to have photos available by the 3 p.m. editorial meeting to showcase our work for top editors and designers. The Niagara’s late start was going to make that nearly impossible."
As the ship headed out into Lake Michigan, Stacey made photos and video of the crew while the researchers turned to their own work.
"Fortunately," Todd said, "she could connect with her broadband card and had images into the newsroom before the 3 p.m. meeting ended. The story made A-1."
Stacey is scheduled to stay with the ship through Wednesday as it collects samples and arrives in Chicago for the Tall Ships Chicago 2013 Parade of Sail event.
At last report, the Niagara would be among the last of the tall ships to pull in to Navy Pier. By Wednesday morning's Page One meeting, Stacey was sending back photos of tall ships in the haze, dwarfed by an even more towering Chicago skyline.
-- Abby Olena, Stacey Wescott and Todd Panagopoulos. Trib Nation manager James Janega contributed to this post.