“I like the people at Scripps. It’s a tight knit family, which makes everything much more enjoyable, especially when you’re living here for two-thirds of your life, maybe more.” 

Willie Brown has been working in the engineering department of Scripps research vessels for 13 years. His dad worked with Captain Tom, master of R/V Sally Ride, and it was through that connection that Willie found out about an open job as wiper on the New Horizon. All three of his brothers followed in his footsteps, and two still work rotations at sea. A wiper works two 4-hour shifts per day in the engine room, assisting the engineer and oiler.

Willie (right) assists fellow oiler Dave in fixing a hydraulic fluid leak
on the ship’s A-frame. Though by this point he’d noticed the camera.

Willie has since moved up to be an oiler, working with third engineer Sarah during the 12-4’s shift (midnight to 4am and noon to 4pm) on Sally Ride. There are no wipers aboard the new ship, the trend towards automated equipment has led to less people being required to operate and maintain the engine room. Willie’s been learning everything he can on the job and watching online lectures in order to ensure he stays competitive in the narrowing job market, “before this AI takes over everything.” He says this is his usual deadpan seriousness, which can make it nearly impossible to determine if he’s joking or trolling you, both of which he does quite often. I’ve watched him humor people that are impossible to talk to, the kind of people I try to avoid sitting anywhere near at the dinner table. He’s also a master at finding people’s conversational triggers, and pokes them just to get a rant started. I’ve discovered over the years that he’s a nice guy, and it’s an excellent distraction in what can become monotonous interpersonal interactions at sea.

New Horizon’s ship track in a typical year.
Learn more at http://siogames.ucsd.edu/Ship_Tracks/

Willie worked on New Horizon for most of his Scripps career, ending with that ship’s retirement in 2014. It was an intermediate class research vessel that operated in the northeastern Pacific, often out of its home port of San Diego. Willie was born and raised in Southern California, and enjoys the “normal life” afforded by working out of San Diego. Many of the crew don’t have this luxury, choosing to live elsewhere and fly to meet the ship and live aboard it in port. Under these circumstances, working about 4 months straight and then taking 2 months off is the usual routine. Willie tries to work as long as the ship is in its home port, saying he’s “24/7/365. It’s very expensive to live in San Diego, other people come here on vacation, so I’m not taking vacations.”

In its first year since leaving the shipyard, all of Sally Ride’s research cruises have been in and out of San Diego. Willie has been onboard most of that time, meaning he’s often training the other oilers when they switch out for vacation or rotations on other ships. The oilers are assigned to run the winches when science operations require them for deployment and recovery of gear, so Willie often spends a few hours of his shift doing that and a few hours of overtime training newer crew members.

Willie (back) oversees O/S Daris’ training on the scientific winch controls.

He’s also been known to stop by the lab to check out what the scientists are doing, “especially if they’re pulling up something besides water and mud.” If you’ve been following along on the blog, you know that much of oceanography is collecting water and mud, and Willie isn’t the only one who only stops by the lab when something else is going on. Many people crowd in to check out biological samples, gathered with nets towed over the starboard side or stern. In typical engineer style, when Willie is seen above deck, he’s often in coveralls, though his colorful board shorts are becoming legendary. 

Willie has done a few cruises aboard the other SIO research vessels, Revelle and Melville, which is where I first met him in 2010. He’s a workout champion, and being in the gym at the same time as him is intimidating. I’ve been on research cruises where other crew members join his workouts and follow his meal plan, bucking the trend by coming away more fit after a research cruise. Having access to three hot meals a day and never-ending snacks, on top of not being able to walk more than 200 feet in any direction at a time, often leads to gaining a few pounds – but not if you’re around Willie. Though he says the 12-4 watch is cramping his usual habits, “I cannot get used to it, no matter what. It’s the Reese’s peanut butter watch, I get the munchies, it’s the worst time to be up.” Rumors of an intensified workout were spreading last time I was onboard, so perhaps he’s stepped up his game to compensate.

I’ve managed to get only a few candid pictures of him, as he’s a complete ham and usually notices me after a few seconds and begins to mug and flex. He even suggested a topless welding photo, and we joked about a “men of Sally Ride” calendar, but instead we kept it to a staged session in the machine shop. And while fellow oiler Buck got a case of the giggles, Willie managed to keep a straight face in every single shot, even when wearing a welding helmet and holding an enormous chain wrench for no apparent reason.

SIO crew members together at The Loma Club.

Like others I’ve interviewed, Willie enjoys being on the Sally Ride. A key selling point for the crew is that they each have their own room. “Privacy is huge, I love it, I value it,” he says, continuing in his deadpan, “I can listen to podcasts out loud. I can walk around in my underwear doing karate moves. That’s very important to me.” It’s the simple pleasures that really add up. The ship has been keeping a busy schedule, out to sea more often than not. In what little time off in port they have, many of the crew members golf together. Enjoying each other’s company outside of work, especially since this isn’t your normal 9-5 job, really speaks to the cohesion and general happiness of the Sally Ride‘s crew. And, as the saying goes – happy crew, happy ship!