Engine Room Tour

I find the engine room to be the most interesting place on any ship. It’s full of hundreds of valves, knobs, and buttons – none of which you’re allowed to touch. Chief Engineer Paul Beuren (referred to simply as Chief) was nice enough to show me around the R/V Sally Ride’s engine room. It’s so much more than the heart of the ship. If we’re going to continue with that metaphor, it’s also the mouth (various intakes), food (140,000 gallons of diesel), kidneys (filters), nerves (sensors and warning lights), and gut (waste treatment).

The engines create electricity that drive the propellers, moving the ship forward. They also run the systems that steer the ship, making it maneuverable. Electricity in the staterooms, offices, kitchen, labs – everywhere on board – is generated from the engines. Freshwater is made from seawater via reverse osmosis, also in the engine room. Seawater is also brought in to cool fresh water that is then sent through the engines to keep them from overheating. Gray water (from showers, laundry machines, and other drains) is sent here to be processed before being dumped overboard. The same goes for black water (sewage), which is processed separately with the help of microbes. If necessary, the ship could even be driven from a panel in the engine room.

It’s an easily overlooked place, by design it resides below the waterline in the bowels of the ship. Many crews provide engine room tours to scientists, an opportunity to see (but not touch!) all the equipment that’s been keeping you alive and on schedule for up to a few months at a time. Engine room crew members are much less visible than those that work on deck or the bridge, sometimes only coming up for meals. They are, however, usually easily identifiable, with their oil-stained jumpsuits and various hearing protection. If you see someone only occasionally and they have earplugs tucked behind their ears like a pencil – it’s an engineer. Fair enough, as it’s approximately 100 decibels in that space when the engines are running – roughly 8 times as loud as normal TV volume.

As I usually sail as a marine chemist, I’ve found that it is wise to keep up a good relationship with the engine room crew, as they’re in charge of providing distilled water to the labs, a necessity when making reagents for chemical analysis. It’s also nice to be able to bring your wet shoes to the always-warm engine room to dry after any particular rough seas experiences out on deck (no shoes allowed in the laundry room dryers!).

Moved in


Room FD-14 has its very first occupant! I even had to remove the plastic from the mattress, pillows, and blankets. The sheets are so crisp that I accidentally brought two sets to my room without realizing it. I am excited to spend my first night aboard R/V Sally Ride, even if we’re still just tied up to the shipyard pier in Anacortes.

Lab View

Lab looking forward
For now, a quiet lab

As of now, the laboratory space on the Sally Ride is bare-bones. The countertops are still wrapped to protect the surfaces, shelves and drawers lay empty. An area that will soon be covered with up to 15 computer monitors, showing readouts from every sensor onboard, is just another wall. This lab, and the “wet” lab next door, will house equipment and computers from as many as 24 scientists soon enough. It has likely seen its last quiet day. Here’s a 360 degree view of the main lab.

It's the Little Things

The focsle deck of R/V Sally Ride (one level up from the main deck) is home to the science party staterooms, where I will spend ten or so hours each day when I’m at sea. Generally, scientists work on the opposite watch from their roommate – twelve hours on, twelve hours off. That way you essentially have your own room, and you don’t have to worry about waking someone up or being woken up. There are lots of little details about the staterooms on the Ride that give me hope for many years of comfortable cruises to come. Click here for a 360 degree view of the Chief Scientist’s stateroom.

For one, the furniture is wood – which gives it a more home-like feel compared to metal. Plus, it doesn’t bang you up quite as much (or as loudly) when you inevitably run into a shelf corner or miscalculate your descent from the top bunk. I was recently on a ship with wood furniture that creaked. Incessantly. I quite liked the sound; it made me feel like I was below deck on an old sailing vessel, like a naturalist swinging in my hammock as we circumnavigated the globe. Then again, I can sleep through just about anything, and not everyone is that lucky – so there were some complaints.

Lower bunk
SIO employee Donna Shabkie demonstrates that snow angels
are in fact possible.
Upper bunk
Sitting up in bed is a downright luxury!

Another thing I noticed is that the mattresses are full-width twins! This is major. I’ve only been on one other ship with full-width mattresses. It’s downright fancy. Usually they’re noticeably narrower, probably by eight inches. Coupled with well-spaced bunks, the Ride is going to feel downright spacious in terms of sleeping quarters. Many bunks on other ships are not evenly spaced, so that either the top or bottom bunk are not very tall. I’ve been on bottom bunks where the bed above seemed ominously close. Ditto on top bunks, with the ceiling right there over your face. I’ve whacked my head many a time, and just generally felt quite claustrophobic. That is not going to happen on the Sally Ride. I look forward to doing snow angel-like acrobatics, or at least being able to sit up, turn over, and get in and out without stress or injury. Small conveniences, like I said.

Bunk light
Top bunk, complete with light, power outlet, shelf,
and bar to help you get in and out.

Another detail is a light for each bunk, complete with an outlet for keeping your phone charged (oversleeping is frowned upon; after all someone else who’s been working for twelve hours is counting on you to show up!). On other ships I’ve been on, this is a trap. I often sleep with my head on the opposite side as the light, as it’s just one more thing to hit your head on. But not on the Ride. Here we’ve got a narrow shelf right under the light, perfect for keeping your phone, book, earplugs, whatever on – as well as providing a barrier so your head is not right under the light!

Side note: I read maritime books almost exclusively while I’m out at sea, and have little tolerance for them when I’m on land. I’ve been through Patrick O’Brian’s entire Master and Commander series (highly recommended), as well as some Jules Verne. Three years in, I’m still working on Moby Dick, again only when I’m at sea. It took me nearly an entire 60-day cruise to get through the first 200 pages, though I can say that I’ve never fallen asleep faster or slept better than I did that summer while crossing the Pacific. I think I enjoy maritime exploration books so much because they connect me to the parts of my job that are still similar to when they were written – traveling, the unknown, the adventure of it all. There is almost nowhere left on Earth that is the same as it was a few hundred years ago. But the middle of the ocean is still the middle of the ocean. Despite our GPS and myriad other instruments, we’re still explorers at the mercy of the sea. No rum rations anymore, but thank goodness for plumbing and refrigeration.


Speaking of which, the Sally Ride staterooms have mini-fridges! Fantastic! Despite the generally very good quantity of snacks onboard, it is so nice to be able to bring your own and have a place to stash them.

Heating and cooling!

Another modern convenience that can’t be overstated is climate control. Each stateroom on the Sally Ride has a thermostat that is connected to the heating and cooling system. I’ve been on ships where it seemed this dial was just there to make you feel like you had control. Some rooms were always hot, some were always cold, no matter what you set the dial to. Sometimes thermostats are shared across multiple rooms, and you’re at the mercy of whoever has it in their space. Not on the Ride! Chief Engineer Paul Bueren walked me through how the ship uses seawater to cool various systems onboard – look for more on that in a post next week about my engine room tour.

All in all, I cannot wait to sail aboard the Sally Ride. I’m sure there are many more details someone in the design process thought of that I’ll eventually notice – and many more that I won’t, but are there to make our trips better, safer, and more enjoyable.

First Impressions

On June 18, 1983, Dr. Sally Ride became the first American woman in space. On June 27, 2016, I walked the gangway onto R/V Sally Ride for the first time. It’s a research vessel being built in the Dakota Creek Industries (DCI) shipyard in Anacortes, Washington, and will be Scripps’ newest addition to its research fleet. A swell of emotion began to rise within me, but was quickly choked out by paint fumes – an unexpected first impression. A DCI employee named Rocky was busy on the back deck, painting some metal pipes a basic grey color. Turns out he’s been at it for four years – painting both the Sally Ride and its sister ship, WHOI’s R/V Neil Armstrong, from top to bottom, inside and out. His last day of work before moving to a different ship in the yard was the following day. He estimated that tens of thousands of gallons were used, and I believe it. Only eight different colors though, he mentioned a little glumly.

Rocky paints the very last section of R/V Sally Ride,
a starboard railing directly under the gangway.

Rocky told me that his favorite part of the job was the outside decks (floors), which have to be non-skid. A layer of small pellets are sprinkled across the entire surface, a process called feeding the chickens, and then painted over – again in grey. The result is a surface rough enough to keep us from slipping when there’s water on the deck, which is almost always. Even with calm seas and sunny skies, there are waves splashing or overflow from an on-deck experiment on the back deck (also called the fantail).

On my tour of the ship later that day, I noticed that most every surface was painted – and those were just the ones I could see. Painting metal walls, decks, pipes, and even bolts helps keep rust from forming and corroding parts of the ship. I’ve been on research cruises as short as two weeks where there’s painting going on; it’s a constant battle with the corrosive seawater. This often occurs in tandem with needle-gunning, a dreaded process that uses a pneumatic chiseling device that removes rust and old paint, leaving the surface ready to be painted again. This always seems to happen on the deck directly above my bunk just as I fall asleep.

Shiny new copper pipes in the engine room.

When I scoped out the engine room, the gleaming copper pipes made me realize that I’ve never been on a brand new ship before. I wonder how long it will be until oxidation takes over and dulls the shine. UPDATE: Chief Engineer Paul Bueren tells me these are a copper and nickel alloy and thus resist corrosion by seawater. I’ll report back if they’re still this shiny in a few years.

Making it up to the bridge was a real treat as well. Since the ship has yet to really experience the saltwater spray that will accompany it on most of its voyages, the windows are unmarked and so clean that it is hard to tell they are even there. The view is spectacular, especially with Mount Baker lurking in the distance.

Mount Baker
View from the bridge, across the shipyard.

We’re only a few weeks away from taking the ship out into the nearby straits and sounds to put it through its paces, testing out every system and piece of equipment. It’s going to take a lot of hard work from dozens of crew members in order to get the ship ready to head to San Diego and begin science operations, but the tour I took of the ship gave me a feel for how great it’s going to be to see the Sally Ride up and running.

I only counted five different colors of paint though – red, blue, white, beige, and grey. I’m on the lookout for the other three. UPDATE: I have since spotted both maroon and orange paint, so just one color left to find!