The creepiest part was the shoes, pairs of them, strewn along the ocean floor where the Titanic sank.

The owners' bodies had long since been lost when Bruce Cowden saw the robot camera images. For some reason, deep sea creatures wouldn't eat the leather.

In 1985, Cowden of Mount Pleasant was a younger Navy rigging specialist aboard a ship that accompanied explorer Bob Ballard when the oceanographer found and probed the wreck of the legendary "unsinkable" liner sunk by an iceberg.

The Titanic expedition could easily have been a capstone for Cowden, 62, who has gone to sea since he was 17. But it's just another yarn to spin in a seafaring life that had spanned all five oceans, both poles and nearly every country in the world by the time the retiring chief boatswain stepped off the NOAA research ship Ronald H. Brown for good in March.

That ship had just cruised the Arctic, Antarctica, the Atlantic and the Pacific on a three-year research trip that traveled nearly 130,000 miles. The ports of call were all exotic: Iceland, Madeira, Barbados, Recipe, Chili, Hawaii, Tahiti, Capetown — you get the idea. The trip was epic by itself.

Cowden is the grizzled old seaman you'd expect, gruff and sometimes as coarse as his scraggly gray beard. His right leg is tattooed with South Sea totems such as a row of shark teeth; his left with Viking images such as an Icelandic compass. The two sets of markings wrap his calves like gaiters.

He jokes about telling first-timers awed by Arctic icebergs, "That's not an iceberg. That's cocktail ice." When they reached the Antarctic they saw exactly what he meant — bergs 10 miles long, jutting 200 feet out of the water.

But at times his voice quiets and he becomes more introspective. He has sculpted, drawn and painted his whole career, and his depictions of crews working aboard ship have been used for children's environmental education books. They have the graphic novel quality of being at the same time almost cartoon simple, intricately detailed and expressive.

"The books are science that is fun," he said. "I'll put a couple of pirates in them." 

He ran cable rigging for minesweepers, spooled out four miles of lines at a time for National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration research. The rigging can be wound as tight as high-tension lines. A line snapping is as lethal as a sword blade swinging, he said.

"There's tremendous amount of danger in this kind of work."

Among other jobs, he squeezed into the bubble of a one-person submersible to search artifacts on Grays Reef off the coast of Georgia because the archaeologist himself was too claustrophobic. Cowden was down for a record three-and-a-half hours in 90 degree ocean. He froze water in liter bottles and set them against the breathing air recycling filter to cool off.

"All you see is this bubble. Everything was distorted in a way that made it hard to judge size," he said.

The oddest things he came across were camels' teeth on the sea floor and a loggerhead turtle floating sound asleep.

He's rigged searches for shipwrecks, sailed in typhoon winds and 60-foot seas where the swells rose as high as the ship's forecastle and engulfed the front deck as they broke.

He scoured uninhabited atolls for flotsam and stumbled on artifacts including a rusting tank with an ammo pile alongside. People would ask him how he could spends months at sea and he'd tell them a beachcomber like him could happily live on an islet.

The Ron Brown, as its crew likes to call it, returns to sea in the next week, heading through the Panama Canal to do ocean climate studies in the Pacific. For the first time in a long time, Cowden won't be aboard to work the lines.

After a life in which he spent more nights in bunks than beds, it won't bother him, he said as he walked the decks recently. He has a cottage on Lake Moultrie that needs work. He wants to convert part of it into a studio.

"I accept change coming. I learned a long time ago don't fight change," he said.

Capt. Robert Kamphaus has good boatswains aboard, trained by Cowden. But he won't have Cowden.

"You don't replace him. They just don't make bo'suns like this anymore. People just don't stick around like that. You can't ever replace that kind of experience," Kamphaus said.

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Reach Bo Petersen Reporter at Facebook, @bopete on Twitter or 1-843-937-5744.

Science and environment reporter. Author of Washing Our Hands in the Clouds.

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