A monthlong seaward expedition in search of Amelia Earhart's missing aircraft became a study in meditation, though not stillness, for a Chicago photographer widely esteemed for her visual accounting of artifacts.
The search, the subject of Discovery Channel's "Finding Amelia Earhart: Mystery Solved?" airing at 9 p.m. Sunday, had Laurie Rubin living for 26 days on a vessel that rocked with such force and consistency that hair-washing, typing and eating were all done one-handed. The other hand was committed to steadying herself and her accouterments.
The endeavor was a muse, though, for the mindful awareness that comes from being submerged in a single task 24 hours a day, seven days a week, day after day after day.
With no email.
"You leave your life on hold," says Rubin, who gladly did just that to join The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery's mission to uninhabited Nikumaroro in the southwestern Pacific's Republic of Kiribati. "It was total immersion in something, which is really nice in these days of complete multitasking and always having several balls in the air."
Rubin, nationally known for her still-life photography and film direction, spent her childhood admiring Earhart, who in 1932 became the first woman (and second person) to fly solo across the Atlantic Ocean. Earhart and navigator Fred Noonan disappeared in 1937 while trying to fly around the world, setting into motion the largest air and sea search in naval history and inspiring decades of theories about their fate.
In more recent years, Rubin has admired the work of Ric Gillespie, founder and executive director of the nonprofit TIGHAR (pronounced "tiger") and author of "Finding Amelia: The True Story of the Earhart Disappearance" (U.S. Naval Institute Press). Gillespie led the 18-person research crew that spent last month seeking wreckage from Earhart's aircraft.
Rubin caught wind of the excursion shortly before its launch, tracked Gillespie down and invited herself along.
"It was very unusual," Gillespie says, laughing. "A couple weeks before we were about to depart, Laurie calls me up and says, 'I've been following what you do, and I think it's really great. I shoot photos of artifacts that have historic significance and I'd like to shoot your artifacts.' "
He liked her work and warmed quickly to the idea of having a professional still photographer on board, as opposed to relying on the 15,000 or so amateur images he and his crew members typically shoot with their phones or point-and-shoots.
"I said, 'Laurie, it's two weeks away, and you've never met me,' " Gillespie says. "And she said, 'Yeah, well. I'm flexible.'
" 'You can be away for a month with a shipload of people you've never met?' " he asked. " 'Yeah, I can do that.' "
And they were off.
"It started out like a blind date where you're going to this place, and you can't get off or decide, 'I don't like this' or 'I'm leaving early,' " says Rubin, who recounted her tale recently in the serene backyard of her Wicker Park home. "But the group was fascinating. It really was a fabulous adventure."
Rubin and her shipmates were limited to sending four kilobytes a day — about one text message — and bunked in rooms that were smaller, Rubin noted, than the ship's walk-in freezer. And there was that constant rocking. ("We are all walking down the narrow corridor looking like drunks," Rubin wrote in her journal on July 4, the first day at sea.)
"It was definitely not posh," she says. "It was definitely not a cruise ship."
But it was an enterprise she won't soon forget, from the fresh-caught yellow fin sushi dinners to the 110-degree, on-the-equator, lens-fogging heat to the unparalleled access to history in the making.
The objective of the expedition, as described on TIGHAR's website (tighar.org), was to locate, identify and photograph any surviving aircraft wreckage from Earhart's Lockheed Electra using high-frequency side-scan sonar equipment mounted on an unmanned underwater vehicle. Gillespie's extensive research leads him to believe Earhart and Noonan made a forced landing on the island's flat coral reef.
Rubin and Gillespie are tight-lipped about what they found on this most recent expedition, pointing to the Discovery Channel special for a complete rendering of the mission. Numerous post-mission accounts report that the search was largely inconclusive. At the end of July, Gillespie told National Public Radio: "We saw no objects that we recognized as aircraft debris. We have volumes of sonar data and many hours of high-definition video to review before we'll know the results of this expedition definitively."
Nonetheless, Rubin's experience, and the attendant documentary, offer a detailed glimpse at a destination widely believed to be the final resting place for a pioneer in aviation history. And the trip was not without its share of surprises, Gillespie told us with a laugh. "It was an adventure —adventure being what happens when things go wrong."
Rubin, for her part, returned to Chicago in early August with a new appreciation for solid ground. And for the mission that aims to assign answers to a story she grew up contemplating.
"I'd love to go again," she says of Gillespie's future endeavors. "If he'll have me, I'll be there."
Notes from the sea
Chicago photographer Laurie Rubin shared with us portions of her journal from her voyage aboard the ship searching for wreckage from Amelia Earhart's Lockheed Electra. Some excerpts:
July 4: There is a full breakfast laid out. Bacon, eggs, sausages and fruit, yogurt, pancakes. Starbucks coffee! I am not worried one bit about the food. (The chef) has had fresh baked cookies or banana bread or some other dangerous item out everyday. This could end up the most dangerous part of the trip. It is all a bit too accessible.
July 24: Today is Amelia Earhart's birthday. If Ric is correct and she survived the landing, she would have celebrated her 40th birthday on Niku.
July 26: Books I have read so far: Amelia Earhart Biography (two times); Steve Jobs Biography; "Freedom" by Jonathan Franzen; at least 10 Travel magazines dating from 1990-2000; at least 10 New Yorker magazines from 2000-2010; 2 Macworlds; 1 Wired; copious other old and dated magazines and several videos.