NOAA Teacher at Sea: Sue Zupko
NOAA Ship: Pisces
Mission: Extreme Corals 2011; Study deep water coral and its habitat off the east coast of FL
Geographical Area of Cruise: SE United States from off Jacksonville, FL to Biscayne Bay, FL
Date: June 24, 2011
If you are just beginning this blog, you might wish to go back to post #1 and start reading there.
Before reading this post further, take the quiz.
Life at Sea
Life at sea is things in miniature—except the view. The ocean seems to stretch on forever. It’s easy to see why people in ancient times thought you would fall off the edge if you got too close. Explorers ventured out to prove them wrong. Mathematicians and astronomers also studied it to try to discover the truth. We’ve come a long way in our understanding of the universe since then, but there is so much more to explore and learn. The ocean is just one of those unexplored and undiscovered places.
After the scientists disembarked in Ft. Lauderdale, I stayed aboard the Pisces to learn about the workings of the ship while it steamed back to its home port of Pascagoula, MS. After all, how often does one get an opportunity like this? I had a tour of engineering, discussions on the bridge, conversations with the crew in the mess, and a lesson on bandwidth. This post is an attempt to describe some everyday things you need to know about going to sea with NOAA.
Shortly after we boarded, we had a briefing in the conference room. This was mostly to cover safety issues and things to help us understand procedures. Of course, meal time hours were shared. I made a mental note of those hours since I knew I wouldn’t want to miss any meals. The stewards’ reputation for good meals preceded them.
ENS Michael Doig began our briefing by drawing the following on the white board.
_______ _________ _________
_____ _____ _____ _____ _____ _____ _____ __________________________________
I thought this was a clever way to introduce what he would later discuss—our alarm bell and whistle patterns. Mike, a former high school teacher, brought this method of capturing the class’s attention to his work on the Pisces. One of the first things we practiced after the briefing was the “fire” drill. Mike explained that one long bell and whistle meant either fire, collision (I figured we would feel that as well), or security alert. If we heard this, we were to bring our PFD (Personal Floatation Device—life preserver), located under our bunks, to the conference room, which was the mustering (gathering) station for the scientists. Our chief scientist, Andy David, would take a head count and call 101 on the phone to report to the bridge our headcount. Mike explained that fire is one of the big concerns on a ship. It really needs to be taken seriously. You can’t run out to the mailbox to gather as many families do for their emergency spot where everyone knows to go. So, they gather the scientists together since we are more like guests and wouldn’t know the correct procedures to fight a fire. Of course, for the first drill the alarm said the fire was near the conference room so we had to muster on the fantail (back-end of the ship). It was interesting to watch the crew quickly go to their duty stations in full gear to fight the fire.
During the course of our trip, I did hear alarms sound on the bridge from different locations. Often it was something someone needed to check on. None turned out to be real emergencies, but were alerts to the crew to check on something. Thank goodness. These were always attended to immediately—not just when the bridge crew finished what they were working on. ENS Doig happened to be on duty when one of these alarms went off and I was on the bridge. Knowing I was going to take a picture, he made a face full of alarm. It’s good to have a sense of humor, especially since they had checked out the possibility of a fire and determined the cause for the alarm wasn’t a fire.
After we finished our fire drill (by the way, when the alarm sounds they always announce whether it is a drill or not), we were told we’d be practicing our abandon ship drill. For this you must bring a hat, long-sleeved shirt, long pants, PFD, and your “Gumby suit” (survival suit) to your muster station. The Gumby suit probably has some long special name, but no one calls it that. It is located in one’s stateroom in an orange bag next to the door. It has handles and even pictures and directions explaining how to put it on. Those who hadn’t donned a suit recently, crew and scientists, had to put it on. Never having been at sea, I, of course, had to put it on. What a pain! One hopes never to have to abandon ship, but it would be difficult to put that on in the water. I am pretty sure I’d have it on within the required minute if we were doing the act of last resort and abandoning ship. Easier putting it on aboard the ship than in the water. The signal to abandon ship is 6 or more short bells and/or whistles followed by one long one.
The answer to the quiz is three short bells or whistles is the signal for man overboard. Our mustering station was the conference room for this activity so a head count could be taken.
When working with a crane or winch and lifting something over the side of the boat, you must wear a hard hat and PFD —even if you’re just watching. My first experience with this was when I stepped out by the door to take a picture of the ROV being launched. The fisherman standing nearby told me I had to get properly dressed. They were just getting ready to launch and I needed to be ready. Oops! I went right in and put on my hard hat and PFD. Stephanie Rogers captured that moment after I was properly attired. I later learned that when entering or leaving a port, you had to wear a hard hat on the bow. Lots of safety rules.
If there is a fire alarm, some doors automatically close and you must know about it so you won’t stand in the way if they start to close. I think the door would win in a battle for possession of that space. We have similar doors at the school which slam shut during fires. Watch out! In other words, on a ship, just as in school, safety is always on everyone’s mind.
On the bridge, someone is always assigned to watch. The captain pulled out his book, COMDTINST M16672.2D: Navigation Rules (COLREGS), to show me the regulation which he had just quoted. I’m telling you, there is a book for everything on the bridge and they use them. Reading makes life so much easier. The Inland Steering section, Rule 5, says the ship “must maintain proper look-out by sight and hearing”. The watch officer cannot risk a collision. There are two radar screens displayed prominently on the helm station. What do you need to watch for? Won’t the radar pick up the boats? Well, no. Large boats usually have a “black box” like airplanes, which have a transponder telling the ship’s name and what type of craft it is.
Small boats often don’t have this equipment and are a big threat. I found that out the day after we left port. Boaters don’t seem to realize that there might be someone besides them on the water. Even in deep water small fishing boats would cut in front of us. It often seemed like a game of “Chicken”. Victor, an able-bodied seaman (special certification for those with extra training and skill) pointed out that whenever the winds pick up to 15 or 20 knots there are more than a few incidents of boaters getting in trouble and the Coast Guard alerts all ships to be aware and possibly assist in rescue. Besides possibly tipping over, small boats cannot be seen in high swells until a large ship is almost upon them. Many don’t have transponders or radios to contact anyone to communicate problems or questions. Also, they often drink alcohol and drive. Dumb! I asked Victor what the Pisces would do if a small boat got too close. Run ‘em down was not the answer. Trying to radio them, calling to them with a loudspeaker, or blowing the horn usually gets their attention, he told me.
You must wear shoes enclosed on the toes and heels. It’s readily apparent why. The stairs can be treacherous when you are flopping around. In waves you could slide and hurt yourself, walk out of the shoes and twist an ankle, or slip on a wet deck. I found out several reasons for the deck being wet: rain (no kidding), humidity (it’s amazing how quickly water vapor condenses on the deck and makes a pond that sloshes around), swabbing (cleaning), and potable water runoff.
The ship makes its own fresh water. If there is too much in the potable (drinking) storage tank, the excess water will exit out a runoff valve onto the deck. I discovered this one morning toward the beginning of the trip. The engineer who explained it to me said that the people on the ship were conserving their water, most likely, and the excess from the tank drained off onto the deck. I heard the captain make the same comment a week later about how the people on this research expedition were doing a good job conserving. That made me feel really good. Those short showers paid off. Fun fact: it takes one gallon of diesel fuel to produce one gallon of fresh water on the ship.
“One hand for yourself, and one for the ship” is how you walk on a ship safely. There are railings everywhere for you to hang on to. It’s a challenge in choppy seas to carry something, such as a laptop, and successfully maneuver down the hall while holding on as well. When the seas were about seven feet high I found it more than a little challenging to stand let alone walk.
Let me explain how a ship is laid out. When I say there are a lot of stairs, I’m not kidding. Before I knew anything about the ship, we took a tour of most of the places we’d be “living” and a few extras. Of course it was all fascinating. We started in the conference room on the deck right across from my stateroom. That deck inside includes staterooms, the lounge and conference room, the dive locker (the ship has three divers who can inspect the propeller, rudder and underwater parts of the hull if there is a problem), and business office. Outside is the rescue boat, a couple of winches, and the bow.
We climbed some stairs and as we got there the guide told us that this was the O 2 deck. At first I thought he was kidding since right in front of me were two oxygen tanks. I asked for clarification and he said this is the deck with the staterooms of the NOAA officers, bosun, chief engineer, and chief scientist. Hmmm…still didn’t make any sense to me. What does that have to do with oxygen? I kept my thoughts to myself. Later I found a map of the ship. I slept on the O-1 deck, the officers were on the O-2 deck, and the bridge was on the O-3 deck. Hello! It was the level name of the deck and had nothing to do with oxygen. It was just a coincidence. Too funny.
Climbing above the bridge was the “flying bridge” (I wonder if that’s because the flags are there). It houses the radio towers and says, “Danger–Radiation Warning.” We were told to let the bridge know when we were going up there. It’s a great place to try to catch a cell phone signal or watch a sunrise.
On the Pisces, and I would assume on other ships, there are doors everywhere. I was surprised at how much strength I needed to operate them. When entering the lab from where the ROV was being piloted, which was the center of all the dive activity, I found that I had to “put my hip into it” to push it open. As a matter of fact, I noticed I have a few door-pushing bruises.
There are doors for everything. The fire and watertight doors are to keep you safe from fire and flood. The refrigerator and freezer doors protect food from bacteria and keep them preserved until it’s time to eat. There are doors to the bathroom (yeah), doors for lockers, doors for closets, doors for equipment, medicine cabinet doors, stateroom doors, doors, doors, doors. Almost all doors have a latch at the ceiling behind them so they can be held open. A swinging door is a real safety issue. You either close it right after you use it or go through it, or you latch it open. I found it a pain to have to keep closing my locker door. It would swing with the waves and I didn’t want to have it wake anyone up. The noise bugged me as well. As you can see, I had a bit of trouble with the door leading to the exercise room down below the main deck. The engineers could close it with one hand. I was there for two weeks and, try as I might, it never got any easier.
Close all watertight doors and fire doors, all the time. Fire or flooding can lead to a rapid death. The engineers and NOAA Corps constantly monitor for this. Although it is a safety thing, opening and shutting doors was one of my biggest challenges on ship. Good thing I have been working out with weights. Opening those doors was often a very difficult—especially if there were a door or window open to the outside at the other end of the room. I brought home several bruises on my hip for throwing my body into the door to get it open. I once remarked that if someone ever opened the door to the ROV lab when I was pushing my way in from the other side, I’d go flying into the room. Not cool since there is a counter right inside the door. Think law of inertia. Push hard against something (heavy door), it moves out of the way (someone opens it), you’re no longer stopped and off you fly (until you run into something). Newton’s law of inertia….
Taking a walk on the ship for aerobic exercise isn’t easy. The whole ship is only 209 feet long. Well, you have to go through doors just about everywhere. The only place I could have done this for any real length was to start near the wet lab, travel around to the right, over the fantail, up the stairs, up to the bow (front of ship), climb stairs to the bridge and turn around. Can’t go farther since there are doors to enter the bridge. When I needed to go just about anywhere inside the ship there were a minimum of two doors to open. To get from my stateroom to the exercise room I had to go through three watertight or fire doors—and three to return. When tired I’d pray for the door to open and someone to step through.
At night, make sure someone knows you are on deck. ENS Doig told us to dial 101 and tell the bridge you’ll be outside in the dark. Even better, take a buddy. I also found it was good to carry a flashlight. If you turn the flashlight off when on deck when you get where you are going, your eyes adjust and it seems almost as bright as day. For this, you must extinguish (turn off) the flashlight.
Living on a ship means if you want to make/keep friends, you are nice. People are very close. You can’t even walk two abreast down the hall. If you enter a hallway and someone is half way down, wait for the other person to exit before entering yourself. Same goes for the stairs. If someone is coming down, or going up, don’t start until they pass you. Not only is it polite, it’s just good common sense.
I was fortunate to have the Queen of Politeness, Jana Thoma, as a roommate. She was always thinking of others and expressed thanks for everything they did–often several times. I have thought of myself as pretty polite, but I don’t think I can even compare to Jana. What a great example for me to follow. She was always a patient teacher as she tried to help me learn about cnidarians. Perhaps one of my students will work in her lab someday.
If someone drinks the last cup from a pot of coffee, he/she should make a fresh pot for the next folks. Although I am not a coffee drinker, from the way this was stressed by the officers and stewards, it must be very frustrating for someone coming for a warm drink to not have it readily available. They don’t have real long breaks. Remember, they have a lot of doors to slow them down. I think if they found out you took the last cup and didn’t refill the pot, you might be doing the Man Overboard drill as the victim (just kidding).
Clean up after yourself. Seems like common sense. The stewards are not your mother–they are busy working in the kitchen and cleaning. They shouldn’t have to come and bus (clean) the tables. You should take your dishes to the window, put the silverware in the water to soak, and put dishes, cups, bowls, and glasses in the plastic tub. There are two trash cans. One is for paper and plastic and a slop bucket for leftover food. At Tremont food you don’t eat on your plate is called food waste. If you take only what you’ll eat, this bucket has very little in it. They separate the food from the other trash so it won’t get smelly. They cover it with a lid and empty it when folks are all done eating for the day.
The ship runs 24 hours a day so someone is probably sleeping at any time. Loved the curtains around the beds. I could get up and not disturb Jana and vice versa. Don’t slam doors. This is not always easy, especially in rough seas. I know I mumbled a couple of times “sorry” when the door slipped from my hands. Locker doors and bathroom doors in staterooms also flop around and make a racket if left open. I got in the habit of keeping these closed so they wouldn’t make noise. Our bathroom door had a neat feature. It had an automatic stay open fixture on it. Unfortunately, it didn’t work in rough seas so we had to prop open. I know if we had told the engineers they would have fixed it, but we kept forgetting to mention it.
The Pisces has an entertainment room for when you or the crew is off duty. There is a selection of DVDs and home theatre chairs to lounge in. My stateroom was right across the hall from this lounge. I never noticed anyone playing the TV too loudly. Movies also would feed into the staterooms. You could put the DVD on a certain channel and go watch while lying in bed. If you put a movie in, the rule was to let it play to the end. Someone might be watching it in their room. I am not sure how many movies can be played at the same time, but it is several. I put one in one time and didn’t get to watch since I had to go do some work. I figure I can watch movies at home, but will probably only be in this situation once.
The walls are really thin between staterooms. Conversations can be heard as can loud TV. Jana and I found that it’s easy to have a not so quiet discussion, especially if telling jokes, and tried to whisper. We did have a lot of fun and had to think of any neighbors who might be sleeping. Laura had hours opposite us and was our neighbor. One rule of politeness is to use headphones when listening to music so as not to disturb others. I used to work the midnight shift and went to school in the morning. Only had a few hours to sleep before going back to work. My upstairs neighbor got a new sound system and literally rocked me awake . I had to go upstairs and remind them that I slept during the day. Headphones would have let me sleep in peace. On a ship this seems to be doubly important because walls are so thin. The one exception to the headphone and music rule is in engineering. When I was exercising it was nice to have some good music playing. This happened a couple of times and it made the walking on the treadmill more enjoyable. I’m glad they were there in the next room working with the music on.
Use paper if not eating during scheduled times. The stewards have to keep the dishes washed and if someone put dirty dishes in the bin, they would have to clean it. I noticed the crew was polite and used disposables after hours.
Remember to shut off the water when just lathering up in the shower. This limits water use to about two minutes. I learned to do this during the power outage we had for 5 days in north Alabama after the tornadoes on April 27. My husband and I limited the length of our showers and had warm water for many days. Jana and I both said we loved how the shower on the ship works—it makes short showers possible. It has a knob in the middle to turn the water on and off. The knob on the right adjusts the temperature. When you turn the shower back on after lathering, the temp is the same as when it was shut off. Very neat.
Reuse your cup. One of the scientists said that she loves to bring her coffee cup which has a lid. It’s her way of staying in touch with home when on a ship and she always has a drink nearby. The best part is she is reusing her cup and limiting waste. That’s very smart.
Besides limiting water use and reusing cups, the crew recycles their aluminum cans just as we do at our school. The money is put in a special fund for things such as deaths, births, and celebrations.
Jana learned on another ship that if you leave the heat lamp on in the head (bathroom), the water from the shower dries on the floor quicker. I would think it would also inhibit mold growth.
I learned that temperatures vary on a ship. The acoustics lab, filled with computers, is freezing. I used to work in a computer center on the midnight shift. I brought an afghan to wrap up in when sitting at my station and had to wear pants (women didn’t usually wear pants to work in this office back then). However, it wasn’t as cold as the chemical lab where the scientists photographed specimens, cataloged their data, and examined specimens under the microscope. Then, go outside and it would be 82° F (about 28° C). Jason Moeller writes in his blog that it is a lot colder. Check that out. He dresses in many layers–with good reason.
One thing I’ll remember is how bright the stars are. What is really cool about being on a ship at night is that there are no trees to get in the way when viewing the stars. There is very little light pollution too. If I ever get to go to sea again, I’d like an astronomer with me to point out all the constellations. I have a lot of trouble seeing them since there are so many stars which crowd out the major stars in constellations.
I didn’t see the engineers very often unless they were fixing something nearby or eating. They stayed below most of the time working on keeping the equipment purring or doing preventive maintenance. Often they were making something using the lathe or other tools. There is always something going on with them in their sauna-like work spaces. I did learn that they watched for a few bad things: squirting fluids, smoke, strange sounds, and changes in their gauges.
The engineers have to be able to fix just about anything. When you’re out at sea on a mission, you don’t just stop and run down to the boat repair shop to get things fixed. They bring the boat repair shop with them. In engineering there are milling machines, lathes, welding equipment, and so much more. I was impressed. At one point I saw Joe Jacovino making a frame to hold a light they were going to be adding outside. Another engineer, Steve Clement, was nominated for an award on the mission for making a part to repair a piece of scientific gear.
I was very interested in engineering. There was so much to learn there. I took more videos than I did photographs there since it was difficult to take notes and juggle all the stuff I had. My students can put together something with all the video I took. It was more as a reference to remind me of the facts that Chief Engineer, Brent Jones, was teaching me.
All in all, it was a fabulous experience. I hope more teachers will apply to learn about the work that NOAA is doing and pass this on to their students. I am looking forward to learning from the other Teachers at Sea. We will have lots of stories and lessons to share.
I took zillions of pictures (well, it seems like it). If you’d like to see some more, click here.