Crew Introductions: Oiler

“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!


Photos from the Collaboration with Sproul and FLIP

The collaboration between research vessels Sally Ride and Sproul and research platform FLIP, all members of the Scripps fleet, wraps up in the next week. The three vehicles will return to port having run ~ 25 Remus missions, deployed and recovered wave buoys ~10 times, and completed many more operations with unmanned underwater vehicles (UUVs). Wave gliders and the moored wave buoy have been in the water throughout the trip. Sally Ride‘s small boat has been used for Remus operations, to conduct personnel transfers to FLIP, also bringing food and offloading trash, and to service the moored wave buoy.  

The Terrill group, led by Chief Scientist Sophia Merrifield, is maintaining three weather radar systems between FLIP and Sally Ride. Real-time radar data guides each day’s plans, with the UUVs programmed to sample relative to the wind and wave direction. The UUVs can move at speeds up to 4 knots and run coordinated missions sampling the water column to 100m. Data from the various instruments help scientists understand how the upper ocean evolves as conditions at the air-sea interface change. For more details, check out the previous post about this research cruise. For more on the Sproul‘s contribution, check out this post.

 


Working with R/V Sproul

R/V Sally Ride is out at sea studying surface waves and currents as part of a collaboration between scientists at Scripps Institution of Oceanography and the University of Washington (UW).

R/V Sproul as photographed from R/P FLIP during their collaborative operations
with R/V Sally Ride (not pictured). Photo by Randy Christian.

Other members of the Scripps fleet are in on the action as well, with R/V Sproul and R/P FLIP operating in the same area. Dr. Jim Thomson of UW, one of the investigators on this project, sums up the coordinated effort, “We want to know how winds and waves create turbulence in the ocean. We are looking for patterns in the turbulence, and that requires lots of instruments distributed spatially.”

R/V Robert Gordon Sproul is the smallest vessel in the fleet, at 125 feet long with a crew of five (compared to Sally Ride’s 238 feet and crew of 20), and generally keeps to the waters off Southern California. The ship’s first task was to assist with mooring the research platform FLIP in place (more on this in another post). Then science operations got underway, with autonomous floats built or modified by engineers at the Applied Physics Laboratory at UW being deployed from the ship.

Dr. Eric D’Asaro is chief scientist onboard, and the focus of study is on turbulence, the movement of the water itself. At the air-sea interface in the the upper 50 meters of the ocean, factors include the affects of temperature, wind, waves, currents, and mixing. While the FLIP and the instruments deployed from it remain in one place, the Sproul is deploying drifters, instruments without propulsion, that move with the water.

Scientists use a pole with a hook to snag
the float when it’s ready to be recovered.
Photo by Jeremiah Brower.

Dr. Tom Sanford describes the difference this way – “Consider a person measuring wind and temperature from a hot-air balloon. This is very different from what an observer sees on a fixed tower. For example, the former (hot air balloon) is more likely to observe turbulence without the confounding forces of the wind.”  

All of the floats on Sproul have a metal housing that holds batteries and electronics, with the usual temperature and salinity sensors mounted to it. Some of the floats sink into the water column to study processes over varying depths, and then resurface. Of these, one group has an instrument that measures the electric field due to the water’s motion through the Earth’s magnetic field and from this measures the water velocity. Another is able to be controlled on a fine scale, so its position in the water column can be dictated in order to profile currents using a mounted sonar. Other floats do not sink, and focus on measurements of wind and surface waves, along with the temperature of both the air and the sea.

Jeremiah, the restech in charge of all deck operations onboard Sproul, notes that the ship “is an ideal platform to launch drifters from because its back deck is lower to the water, allowing scientists and techs to simply hand

The floats (in high visibility yellow) are stored on the back deck of the Sproul.
Photo by restech Jeremiah Brower.

deploy many of the instruments.” Being a smaller ship, the higher seas associated with being outside the Channel Islands more often affects work onboard Sproul than it does for Sally Ride. A few times since they’ve been out, the outside decks have had to be secured, meaning everyone has to stay inside and no science operations can take place. The ship has even moved away from the working area in order to shelter behind Catalina Island, returning as soon as conditions allow. Each of the members of the Scripps fleet has its own capabilities, and this collaboration highlights how they are different but can all work in partnership to contribute to scientific goals. 


Crew Introductions: Senior Cook

“I have traveled all over the world. I get to work with a lot of interesting people. It’s what I do, it’s not only work for me, it’s part of my life.”

TGIS. A typical Sunday dinner menu,
plus a cheese plate and ginger beer.

Mark Smith has been a cook at UC San Diego for 22 years, first in a dining hall on the main campus and then onboard SIO’s research vessels. He’s cooked on Sproul, New HorizonMelville, Revelle, and is now senior cook on Sally Ride. Of working on the new ship, Mark says, “The pride factor is really high here, we want to keep this vessel looking good.”  I interviewed him during meal prep for Sunday dinner, which is the best night of the week thanks to him. It always includes surf and turf, plus special extras like a fancy dessert, cheese platter, and ginger beer. If there’s not scientists working on the fantail, the cooks or chief engineer often pull out the barbecue to grill steaks, filling the whole working deck and lab with the delicious smell. On this occasion, there were operations going on, and we got prime rib made in the galley instead (a worthy second choice). 

As senior cook, Mark is in charge of three meals a day, as well as placing the food orders. Generally every 2-3 weeks a truckload of fresh supplies pulls up to the ship in port. It’s an all hands on deck moment, with crew and science alike setting up a chain to get everything onboard (see the time-lapse video below from during the shipyard period last summer). On longer trips, the cooks have to make sure fresh food lasts as long as possible. I’ve had crisp lettuce a month in – meanwhile at home mine turns into brown sludge in the drawer after two weeks. “We have plenty of tricks for keeping food good that long,” says Mark. He also makes sure the mess is supplied with plenty of snacks for people working all hours of the day. At any time you can make a PB&J, heat up some leftovers, pour a bowl of cereal, grab a granola bar or handful of nuts, satisfy your sweet tooth with candy, or make popcorn. Stashes of tea, coffee, soda, water, and milk are also available.

Mark gets everything set just minutes before 5pm thanks to the galley clock
being set 8 minutes fast.

A second cook works with Mark, they trade off days being the primary cook: planning the menu and preparing the hot food like entrees and bread. The other person takes care of the salad bar, dessert, and cleaning the galley. To keep things fair, the primary person also gets to choose the music; you can tell it’s Mark’s day when you hear Prince getting funky as you walk down the hallway on the main deck. 

Mark has worked with a few other cooks on Sally Ride in its first year in service as the crew rotates their time off, or moves to other SIO ships. He gets along well with Nick, who was onboard the ship in November and again in March. “Sometimes you don’t know what to make. I like cooking with somebody like him, that’s different from me, who has their own thing.”  The cooks make sure to accommodate members of the crew and science party with specific diets – vegetarians, gluten free and other allergies, and I seem to detect slight changes under different captains as well.

Mark prepares 3 meals a day, keeping the crew and science party happy.

These are the hardest working guys on the ship from what I can tell, working 6am-6pm every day, no matter what the weather or other circumstances. Scientists often work a 12-hour shift, but get down time if seas are too high to deploy equipment. There is no autopilot function in the galley, and good food is as essential to a research cruise as any other factor. “I know that the food is a big part of morale on any trip. For most people, it’s work and eat and rest, that’s it, so if you have a bad meal, that’s not good for anybody.”

I’ve sailed with Mark numerous times since beginning my oceanographic career, and I’m always excited when I see him in the galley when I come aboard for a cruise. He’s friendly, and remembers people even if it’s been years since sailing with them. Recently I’ve developed an allergy to walnuts, and he’s always good about making sure I can easily avoid them. During my stretch onboard these last few months, pecans have been the go-to nut in cinnamon rolls, brownies, and other tasty treats, and I know he’s looking out for me. He’s a good guy to befriend, and makes sailing on R/V Sally Ride a great experience.

Check out this 360 degree view of the galley (kitchen) and mess (dining room).

See more from Mark at the R/V Sally Ride gallery at Birch Aquarium’s Explorations at Sea exhibit! Thanks to aquarium staff for the interview, taken for the “Meet the Crew” feature.


AUVs Studying Waves and Currents

Sunset recovery of a wave glider. The float portion is up near
the top of the crane arm, while the sub portion is at the rail.
Photo by Dr. Sophia Merrifield.

As you may recall, Dr. Eric Terrill’s group was onboard in December to test drones and a remote-controlled kayak for scientific purposes. They’re back aboard R/V Sally Ride, this time with a different set of autonomous vehicles. They have multiple instruments for measuring the air-sea interaction that occurs at the surface of the ocean and upper water column from the surface to 100 meters depth. 

Wave gliders have been deployed from the ship’s A-frame. For recoveries, the small crane, usually on the forward 01 deck of the ship to load food and other stores, has been moved to the back deck’s starboard rail. There’s two parts to these vehicles, one that floats at the surface and another submerged, connected by either a 4 or 8 meter tether. The sub has fins to harness wave motion into forward motion, moving the vehicle along at 1-3 knots depending on conditions – see the video below.  Sensors record data on the surface and subsurface portions of the platform. The floating platform includes wind, weather, and wave sensors, an ADCP for studying currents, and communications equipment to report its location back to the ship. Solar panels connected to battery packs means the wave glider can operate autonomously for weeks to months at a time. The two wave gliders are deployed from the Sally Ride and brought back onboard every 5-7 days to change sensors and download data.

Postdoc Megan unpacks a REMUS AUV onboard R/V Sally Ride.

The Terrill group also deployed three REMUS AUVs (Remote Environmental Monitoring UnitS Autonomous Underwater Vehicle), for studying subsurface features in the upper ocean. The REMUS is a propelled vehicle, allowing it to operate at speeds up to 5 knots, and down to 100 m depth.  Sensors integrated into the vehicles measure temperature, salinity, depth, chlorophyll, turbulence, currents, and acoustic backscatter.

A moored wave buoy was deployed within the study area to measure waves in one location. In addition, five drifting wave buoys have also been deployed that send real-time information about wave height via satellite.

Scientists and engineers from the Terrill lab track the AUVs and monitor
the WaMos radar from the main lab control center.

The Terrill group maintains a radar system mounted on the ship’s mast, called WaMoS (WAve Monitoring System), that collects information on wave height and surface currents. The data from this will be combined with that from the autonomous instruments. R/V Sally Ride is operating in the same area as the research vessel Sproul and research platform FLIP. Scientists onboard all three are collaborating to understand surface waves and currents using different approaches and technologies, which requires making measurements in rough seas. This marks the first time Sally Ride has teamed up with other members of the Scripps research fleet, and it definitely won’t be the last.


Trace Metals

Scientists set up to bring metal-free water onboard.

R/V Sally Ride has its first bubble! It consists of a fort of plastic sheeting with filtered air fed in through a flow hood to create positive pressure (see header photo). Dr. Kathy Barbeau and her graduate students set it up in the wet lab in order to keep their work area clean of contamination. Their experiments focus on such low levels of metals, in this case iron, that ambient levels and particles around the ship could interfere. In order to collect the seawater they needed, they rigged up an all-plastic system that was lowered into the ocean on the starboard side of the ship. Held a few meters away from the hull and a few meters below the surface, they pumped water into a carboy. The seawater that comes into the lab flows through metals pipes, which again would add contamination.

Inside the bubble, grad student Kiefer filters seawater to collect the
pellets to be studied.

They are studying the iron levels in fecal pellets of copepods and euphausiids (krill) in order to understand the cycle of trace metals in the ocean. This is part of a collaboration with Dr. Mark Ohman’s lab at Scripps. Both lab teams are onboard R/V Sally Ride collecting and processing samples. Bongo nets are towed over the starboard side of the ship, and the catch is rinsed down into cod ends, baskets at the end which can be brought right into the lab. In this case, copepods and euphausiids are separated out from other critters and kept in seawater rich in phytoplankton (their food source) in a walk-in cold room in the lab. 

On a longer cruise, trace metal work would likely be done in a lab van stored on the ship’s back deck. A container van can be converted into a clean lab, allowing for a contamination-free environment for scientists to work. R/V Sally Ride is designed to accommodate countless setups in order to meet the scientists needs. 

 

 


Zooglider Science

The zooglider is deployed and recovered using a small boat launched
from the Scripps pier. It’s 6 feet long with a 4 foot wing span.
Zooglider photos thanks to grad student Ben Whitmore.

Leg 3 of this R/V Sally Ride cruise is underway after switching out the science party in Oceanside. Samples are being collected by a few different groups, including Scripps professor Mark Ohman and undergraduate and graduate students from his lab. We are operating in the vicinity of a zooglider that was launched recently from a small boat. The glider is an unmanned vehicle that carries oceanographic sensors onboard and can sink to a depth of 400 meters on command. When it surfaces, it sends location information to the lab via satellite. It can stay out to sea for a number of weeks and is then recovered and the data downloaded from its sensors.

Scientists are collecting biological samples using the MOCNESS (multiple opening/closing net environmental sampling system), which is deployed from the back deck of R/V Sally Ride. They have done tows to 400m around noon and midnight each day, to account for the fact that critters move shallower in the water column after dark. The samples will be compared to pictures taken from a camera system on the zooglider, in order to determine whether krill and other animals may be avoiding the glider. The camera takes a picture every 0.5 seconds, capturing images such as those below. The abundance of various species can then be inferred based on how many were spotted by the camera. But it may be that those calculations aren’t indicative of the actual population, if the animals move away from the zooglider as it approaches. The net tows, however, are harder for them to avoid. 

Images from the camera on a zooglider. On the left is a jelly, and on the right is a copepod, the main subject of study in Dr. Mark Ohman’s lab. 

The MOCNESS tows take a few hours each. You can read more about how the net system works in a previous post. Sensors are mounted to the net frame, including a CTD (conductivity, temperature, depth), oxygen, fluorometer, and transmissometer. Live readings from these sensors are monitored by scientists in the lab during the cast, who give directions via radio to a crew member running the winch. When the package is brought back onboard, the ten nets are washed down with seawater. This rinses all of the critters caught along the length of the net into the cod end, which is then removed and brought into the lab. More rinsing and filtering is done, and then each sample is preserved for further study. Check out this 360 degree view of a MOCNESS recovery on the ship’s fantail.

The nets provide data about animals found in each depth range; each collects a sample covering 20-100 vertical meters at a time. With the camera, that resolution will be narrowed down to 5 centimeters, giving much more useful information about whether specimens are interacting with each other. This is the first study to take place when the zooglider and net tows are operating at the same time and in the same area as each other. Testing that the camera system can be reliably used to make inferences about zooplankton populations is part of making it a valuable tool. 

On deck, each of the ten nets are rinsed (left), flushing the sample into the cod end.
In the wet lab, students filter and preserve the samples for study back on land (right).

Ground-Truthing

Onboard R/V Sally Ride, and in oceanography in general, a lot of sensors are used to collect information. In order to check that inferences made are backed up with data, ground-truthing is required.

Grad students deploy a hydrophone to listen for marine mammals,
while others scan the horizon for spouts and splashes.

On leg 1 of the current cruise, scientists used passive and active acoustic sensors to determine the density of animal populations. There are sensors attached to the bottom of the ship, as well as on lines that are anchored to the seafloor, with instruments throughout the water column. These moorings collect data for months at a time, and are more likely to observe “normal” animal behavior, as schools of fish and other animals may act differently when the ship is near them.

Observing actual specimens is needed to be sure that the conclusions made using sensor data are correct. Net tows are performed, including a MOCNESS that samples throughout the mid-water column and a manta net at the surface. Visual surveys were conducted during daylight hours, with a student outside watching for whale spouts and dolphin splashes. Meanwhile, another student was in the lab listening live to a hydrophone array being towed behind the ship. Matching up the sounds and visuals in this manner will help the team identify recordings from the hydrophones that are attached to the moorings. 

The surface buoys and moorings that were recovered and deployed on leg 2 housed dozens of instruments, which are calibrated before and after spending months in the ocean. Other sensors, either mounted on the ship itself or

A cage of instruments that will be attached below the buoy is first
sent down attached to the CTD frame in order to calibrate the sensors.

connected to the CTD rosette frame, are used. Knowing any offset between sensors is a start, but water samples from various depths were also collected on CTD casts. These will be analyzed back on land for salinity, dissolved oxygen, and nutrients in order to double-check the sensor data. 

Sensors mounted to and deployed from R/V Sally Ride are an invaluable tool for scientists, collecting data for long periods of time with little supervision. But the extra step of ensuring their accuracy is necessary. On this cruise, scientists who rely on sensor data spent hours confirming their data is the best it can be. The ship has the latest and greatest sensors and instrumentation, and the crew is practiced in safe and efficient deployments and recoveries, so it was a productive trip. 


Buoys in the California Current

Dr. Uwe Send’s lab group at Scripps Institution of Oceanography consists of grad students, scientists, technicians, and engineers that fabricate, maintain, deploy, and recover instruments all over the world. This week they’re on R/V Sally Ride recovering a mooring, and deploying a new one in its place. This one is attached to a surface buoy, unlike the other mooring operations done on the ship so far which have been completely underwater. Click here to see a 360 degree photo of the buoy recovery.

The buoy was hooked from the starboard side and then recovered over the A-frame. Hours later, instruments along the 770 meter long line were still being brought onboard.

During recovery, the instruments near the surface came up with a lot of marine life attached to them, called bio-fouling. They are coated with a paint designed to discourage growth, but it doesn’t stop it entirely. Over the course of a few hours, the entire string of instruments was brought onboard. Data was downloaded from the various sensors, and the replacements were fully tested before deployment. A CTD cast was done in the vicinity just before or after each operation. The data collected from sensors attached to the rosette frame will be used to calibrate the data coming in from similar sensors on the buoy and mooring.

An instrument cage before deployment (left), and after it’s been underwater for a year.

The mooring is at a strategic site in the zone studied as the California Current Ecosystem by the Long Term Ecological Research project. Dozens of sensors are attached, from the top of the buoy to near the seafloor 770 meters below. Some transmit data back to computers in the lab while others have to wait for recovery to have their data downloaded. There’s wind, rain, temperature, humidity, and light sensors on the buoy itself, along with a GPS beacon, AIS (automatic identification system, which shows up on ship radar), and a flashing light. Below the surface are sensors for dissolved oxygen, pH, salinity, temperature, nitrate, carbon dioxide, light, and water current, along with hydrophones and active acoustic devices that collect information on the density of animal life. 

Sensors are secured in the top ring of the buoy, as well as
through the cage and down into the water column.
The anchor is also visible in the bottom right.

The deployment takes place top to bottom, with the buoy first in the water. It is towed behind as the ship moves slowly (0.5-1.5 knots) and the other instruments are attached to the line. Last to be deployed is the anchor, in this case a stack of train wheels weighing 1700kg (~3700lb). 

These moorings are a joint effort between multiple groups at Scripps and NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association), an entity vital to studying the health of the planet. Each group contributes some of the instrumentation, manpower, ship time, and data processing in order to make the effort successful. The goal is to have long-term uninterrupted data about the condition of the ocean, from seafloor to just above the surface. All operations on this trip were a success, thanks to the crew and science party onboard R/V Sally Ride.

This project is made possible with funding from the NOAA Ocean
Acidification Program and the NOAA Climate Observation Division (COD),
as well as funding from the National Science Foundation (NSF) trough the
CCE-LTER program. Additional contributions are coming from U.Send’s lab,
the PMEL Carbon group, the NOAA Southwest Fisheries Science Center and
from all collaborators. The initial year of the mooring program was
supported also by the NOAA National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), the
UCSD Academic Senate and UC Ship Funds. Any findings expressed here are
those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the
funding entities.


Crew Introductions: Able Seaman

“It’s so awesome – the research, the science…you feel like you’re doing something good with your life. Just to know I’m part of it – loading the gear on, making sure everyone’s safe when they’re operating. It gives you that satisfaction of bettering the world. I wouldn’t get that from a 9-5 job. I’m incredibly grateful to be here.”

AB (able-bodied seaman) Aaron Putnam first came to work on R/V Sally Ride a year before the ship got underway to her home port of San Diego. In the Anacortes shipyard, the Scripps crew took the husk of the ship, which had been christened (floated) in August 2014, and made it into the functional working and living environment that it is. Being part of the crew when the ship was commissioned makes him a plank owner, an honor in the maritime profession. “It’s really rare to be a plank owner of a ship. It’s fantastic. Not too many people can say that they took out the newest research ship for the first time.”

Aaron is a bridge watch-stander, which involves helping the mate with navigation and keeping a lookout.

Onboard, bosun Dave Grimes assigns tasks to the deck crew (ABs and OS) based on their strengths and interests. When the ship is underway, Aaron works two 4-hour watches, the 8-12s (0800-noon and 2000-midnight). There’s one AB per shift. As part of the day watch, they are responsible for deck preservation and maintenance, which includes removing rust, wash downs, and making sure science and ship equipment is secure. Along with the OS (ordinary seaman – Elysia in this case), the ABs also keep the interior of the ship clean. This is key, as for the last few months, a cold has been traveling around the ship, from science party to crew and back. It finally seems to have ended, undoubtedly thanks to the deck crew’s vigilance. Aaron also stands watch on the bridge with the Third Mate, assisting with navigation and driving, as well as lookout duties. The AB also raises and lowers day shapes and flags, which are used to convey information about the ship’s status to nearby vessels. During the night shift, he make rounds of the ship in order to keep an eye on safety and security.

Aaron, in Ukraine, has hitchhiked all over the world.

In his down time Aaron is learning three new languages – Russian, Ukrainian, and Spanish. He’s also writing a book, a thriller novel he’s been working on for a year. And he’s always planning travel – next up is Thailand, and his goal is 30 countries in 2017. When I tell him that sounds like some seriously productive “down time,” he assures me that he has his lazy days too – playing video games or doing nothing but sleeping. “My goals are to study, to learn languages, to save money, and grow the hell out of this beard. You have to have one goal that doesn’t take any effort.” This last directive sounds like something we could all stand to learn.

A Navy man, Aaron enlisted right out of high school and spent seven years fighting piracy in Somalia. He left the service with 2,200 sea days. After a few months off, he was ready to be at sea again, so got his merchant mariner credentials. As part of this new civilian life, he began getting rid of possessions, including his car. Now, he says, “I can get off the ship with my backpack and my laptop, and I’m free, I can do whatever I want. I feel like an adventurer. That’s what brings me back.” He’s taken classes using the GI Bill, and plans to get qualified as a Third Mate, and eventually work his way up through the ranks. 

Aaron admits to being both interested and intimidated by the science happening onboard. “I love being engaged in it. I’m always interested, knowing about the CTDs and equipment we’re putting in the water – it’s thrilling. That buoy, out on deck, is one of the coolest things I’ve ever seen in my life.” For someone who’s been all over the world, this is strong praise and, for what it’s worth, I agree with the sentiment. (Check out the post on the surface buoy recovery and deployment done on this trip.)

Aaron checks out the surface buoy on the back deck.
His beard is coming in nicely.

After bringing R/V Sally Ride home, Aaron took a few months off and went home himself, which for him is with his girlfriend in Ukraine. He wasn’t sure initially if he’d be coming back to work at Scripps but says the tight-knit crew was key to him returning. “It’s really homey and feels like a big, happy family. I’ve never felt so welcomed back in my entire life, anywhere.” And though he’s got a plan B of going back to school, I get the feeling that the Scripps research fleet is where Aaron will be found for years to come. He may not have grown up near the ocean, but as a kid he read Robinson Crusoe and had treasure maps on his wall, so it seems this adventurous lifestyle fits his personality well.