- Cheese and egg quesadilla
- Bacon and sausage
- Pulled pork and beef bbq sandwiches
- French fries
- Jamaican pumpkin soup
- Lentil and sausage soup
- Salad bar
- Prime rib
- Potatoes and onions
- Steamed vegetables
- Veggie lasagna
- Salad bar
- Fresh bread
- Phillipino pudding cake
We’ve had a lack of activity as of late, so my posts have been sparse…but hopefully this post makes up for it! Over the past few days, in some down time post-Jason dive and in transit to Cascade, I got to talk with Phil, our Captain, and get some information on the life of a sailor and the Thompson. Phil started in the Marine Corps, and got the sailor’s bug after spending some time in transit on Navy ships. Ever since then, he’s been on the sea. “I’ve been on it all, everything but fishing boats. Tankers, cargo ships, tugs, I was a pilot in Southeast Alaska on big ships.” It takes a lot of time and experience to work one’s way up the ranks as a sailor; Phil spent some time as an ordinary seaman after the Marine Corps, and then worked his way up to an AB, or Able-Bodied seaman. The ABs do a lot of work around the ship; everything from cleaning to helping with equipment and winches to actual steering. In fact, one of the main roles of an AB is as a helmsman when the ship is in manual steering mode (I’ll get into this later) – there is always an AB and mate at each watch on the bridge.
After spending three years as an AB, Phil worked his way up through the mate ranks – 3rd mate, second mate, chief mate, and finally captain – all of which have strict requirements and tests in order to progress to the next level. All levels require a total of 365 days at sea under that title, and a series of examinations, mostly administered by the Coast Guard. In terms of the hirearchy of the ship, the Captain has complete power over the ship: “There was no loftier or higher position back in the old days than to be captain of a ship – his position tended to be fairly autocratic.” Phil adds, “It’s toned down a lot since then,” and it’s definitely helped that a lot of the Thompson’s crew are loyal to the ship – Frank Spetla and Jerry Branovitch, both AB’s, and Tom Drake, the second mate, have been with the Thomspon since it was built in 1991. There is a stable core of crew on the ship, including permanent relief, which helps contribute to why many people tend to choose the Thompson as their favorite of the US’s oceanographic fleet. Phil, who has been with the Thompson since 2000, couldn’t agree more – “Everybody gets along…we’ve got a good bunch of people here, I like it. The mission of the ship I like, too, the oceanography’s pretty fascinating.” It certainly is a change of pace from running tankers and cargo ships – instead of transiting from point A to point B, the Captain gets much more flexibility in where he’s allowed to go, and how to get there – it’s much more of a balance between getting science done and not beating up the ship and the crew. This includes shifting ballast around to better balance the ship while on station or in transit, and even changing headings to take a different approach to a location. It also makes transit more pleasurable – in a cargo ship, the most efficient heading is taken and held until the destination is reached, but on the Thompson, we’ve changed headings several times to minimize the impact of heavy weather and seas.
Our ship is equipped with several anti-roll measures, including a roll tank specifically designed to counteract rolls. It’s basically a large tank at the fore of the ship filled with water; as the ship rolls in a given direction, the water in the tank rolls in the same direction, which lessens the effect of the roll. Additionally, there are several ballast tanks in the center and aft, and ballast can be shifted amongst these on a daily basis to help balance the ship. There are also multiple fuel tanks spread out around the vessel, and fuel can also be redistributed to help achieve balance. The bridge keeps written records of every ballast change, and the current ballast and fuel configuration is displayed both in the bridge and down in the engine control room.
The Thompson was built to last 60 days on the open ocean, although it is hard to find a science party or crew that is willing to spend such a long time at sea. There are two aft fresh water tanks, holding a total of 10,000 gallons. These tanks are replenished daily using a reverse osmosis system. The fuel tanks’ total capacity is 295,000 gallons of diesel fuel (!!!!!), and we started with about 180,000 gallons at the beginning of our cruise. As of yesterday, we’re down to 150,535 gallons; one engine online consumes 1,500 to 2,000 gallons a day, and with two main engines running the consumption jumps to about 4,000 gallons per day. The operating cost, minus scientific costs such as Jason or Alvin, is around $28,000 per day, and Jason pretty much doubles this number – that’s over $50,000 spent each day we’re out at sea – now you can see why everyone’s so bummed about this bad weather holding us back from diving with Jason – each day is at least $30,000 down the drain!!!
This may seem a steep fee for oceanographic research, but compared to cruise ships, whose pure purpose is entertainment, this is a relatively tiny impact, both in terms of fuel consumption and operating cost. And compared to the amount of money we’ve poured into extraterrestrial research – such operating costs are miniscule. Indeed, the divide in research funds is startling, considering 2/3 of the globe consists of another world that is barely known to us – on our own planet no less!
A few of us also got a tour of the engine room from Paul, the head engineer on the Thompson. The Thompson is powered by electricity, generated from three main 1500 kW engines and three smaller 750 kW engines. These engines generate 600 volts of AC power, which is converted to DC to power the two Z-drives and the bow thruster. The Z-drives are named such because the configuration of their axles forms a Z-shape. Using 1 1/2 engines (that is, one main and one small engine), the Thompson can generate speeds around 10 1/2 knots, and a top speed with all engines around 12 knots – there are minimal gains with more engines, and a severe drop-off in fuel efficiency. What is special about Z-drives compared to other propulsion systems is a lack of a rudder – like an outboard motor, except that the prop can rotate 360 degrees, allowing for much more control when doing oceanographic work. This also means that the directions are reversed compared to rudder-controlled ships – if you want to go right, you have to turn the controls to the left. This made for a rather harrowing experience when, in transit from the ship’s birthplace in Mississippi to Washington, the crew had to pass through the Panama Canal while still getting used to the reverse controls!
The two Z-drives are around 3,000 horsepower, and the bow thruster has about 1100 horsepower. Apparently this is slightly underpowered, as Tom, the 2nd mate, and Phil have expressed, compared to the tripled horsepower of the Z-drives – but my room abuts the bow thruster room, and believe me, it is definitely not underpowered when it starts running at 3 in the morning when we’re trying to hold station!! Sleep interruptions aside, the bow thruster is a pretty amazing tool. It’s basically a big water jet – the motor powers a water pump that sucks in water and spits it out in a stream. This stream can be rotated full-circle, lending incredible control for docking and also holding station while doing CTDs or Jason work.
The Thompson is usually controlled in the bridge, using one of two systems – the manual control system operates using separate helms for each Z-drive, and a host of other equipment for speed and navigation, including GPS. The other mode of travel is the Dynamic Positioning System, which can be operated in manual or autopilot modes. This system is usually only used at small speeds, to minimize the stress on the engine room – it’s usually operated at around 1 1/2 knots. The system lends much more control and moving flexibility, including line moves (strafing) and is mainly used when holding station. In the case of GPS failure, the crew is also trained in the use of celestial charts and sextants.
While some oceanographic vessels are lower tonnage, the Thompson and her sister ships, the Atlantis, Roger Revelle, Melville, and Ron Brown, are all unlimited tonnage vessels – this means they’re in the same class as the cargo ships carrying tens of thousands of tons. Phil has captained such large vessels – the largest was 60,000 gross tons! Recently, though, he splits his time sailing Master of the Thompson or relief on University of Hawaii’s oceanographic flagship, the Kilo Moana. “I’ve been on ships…people don’t smile a lot on other ships a lot of the time; it’s their job, you know. These ships to me are a lot more laid back, [the people are] easy to get along with.” A good mission and pleasant people – certainly a good combination for a job where you spend 30 days at sea with a very small group. Phil works 6 months out of the year – 2 months on, 2 months off – and this seems to be fairly common for most of the sailors on the Thompson. “You could put up with anything for two months if you’ve got two months off,” Phil jokes. He spends his down time at home in Kitsaap County, Washington in a small town just South of Olympic Sound – “Off the beaten path, so to speak.” In his downtime, he does enjoy sailing and fishing – but strictly for pleasure.
Thanks so much to Phil for showing me around the bridge [and putting up with my lack of knowledge of seafaring] and to Paul for the tour of the engine room! It’s been fascinating exploring the Thompson and how it works.
Now that the weather’s clearing up, we’re back in the water with Jason – this time on the Cascade seamount, a large feature with lots of steep walls and faces – perfect for deep-sea coral collection. We’re diving down to around 2,500 meters, which is the deepest we’ll have gone yet, and hopefully we’ll find even more solitaries at these depths!