NOAA Teacher at Sea
Aboard NOAA Ship Rainier
May 6-16, 2013
Mission: Hydrographic surveys between Ketchikan and Petersburg, Alaska
Date: May 6, 2013
Weather Data from the Bridge
10.5 C (51 F)
Wind: 4 knots out of the south
Science and Technology Log
My iPhone will pinpoint my location on a highway map and lay out a course to get me wherever I need to go. Navigating by canoe from lake to lake within the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCAW) requires a map, compass, and discerning eye. The tools of navigation on board an ocean-going vessel requires far more than a phone or a map and compass, yet similarities do exist. As a guest on the bridge, I had the chance to witness the team effort put in to safely get us where we needed to be. Like canoeing, navigation begins with a map, compass, and a good plan.
A path (track) is drawn on the nautical charts with waypoints identifying track adjustments to be made. Compass headings to get from one waypoint to the next are written in. Progress along this track is regularly noted on the chart. While paper and pencil keeps the track grounded and secure, the primary navigation on the Rainier is electronic. Digital charts created by earlier surveyors are displayed along with our location pinpointed by GPS data accessed through high power receivers atop the ship – difficult at times in these remote portions of SE Alaska surrounded by the mountains. The track penciled on paper is plotted digitally and the journey begins. The Conn officer reads the map and calls out to the helmsman the heading to take.
The helmsman repeats it to assure it was heard correctly and turns the ship’s wheel to the new heading noting it with a dry erase marker on a small whiteboard on the helm station. The ship’s heading is indicated by an overhead digital compass display and held steady until the next waypoint is reached. Safe navigation requires a smoothly running team. The Conn officer and helmsman continue back and forth making any necessary adjustments while a third keeps a close eye on the radar. Another scans ahead with binoculars to note any floating debris to avoid.
Depth is continuously monitored along with notations of tide and currents. Weather conditions are recorded. All operations are carefully coordinated and monitored by the assigned Officer on the Deck.
Complicating navigation in this part of Alaska is the difference between the geographic north pole and magnetic north pole. Our compasses align with magnetic north – a different place from geographic north or “true north”. All charts and maps reference true north. Failure to account for this difference leads to getting lost. In Minnesota true north and geographic north are so close the difference is seldom noticed. In this area of Alaska the difference between true north and where a compass points is approximately 17 degrees. Fortunately, the ships gyrocompasses automatically account for this difference and report headings aligned with the true north of the charts.
Following our plan, we made it today from Ketchikan to Burroughs Bay in Behm Canal. Our work plan called for anchoring in the bay and getting to work in the morning. To anchor my canoe I simply throw out a small anchor attached to a rope and am set. Successfully anchoring the Rainier required the joint work of many. Within much of the bay the waters far enough from shore were too deep to gain a sufficient hold to keep the ship in position. With the ship’s Commander in charge, we maneuvered within the bay carefully monitoring the depths to identify a suitable location finally finding a shelf that appeared would work. The drop anchor command was given and 16+ fathoms (one fathom equals 6 feet) of chain held within the confines of the ship for six months quickly reeled out raising clouds of dust. It held.
Life at sea
There is a palpable pulse to the floating community that must exist to live and work together on a ship at sea. The quarters are close with minimal space to roam. The ongoing work lies amidst the everyday tasks of living causing leisure time to mix with work time. The functions of the ship go on 24 hours a day. On the ship Rainier, distinct, but united groups work side by side: NOAA Corps officers, survey technicians, the maritime crew, stewards, the ship’s engineers, and the occasional Teacher at Sea. To successfully collect the terabytes of data going into the making of new and revised nautical charts, all members of the ship’s personnel must work as a cohesive whole.
I have been blessed with a warm reception from each of these groups. The ship’s Commander and an Ensign welcomed me at the airport ferry and escorted me to the ship. The Ensign helped begin to unravel the labyrinth of passageways that eventually brought me to my state room. A conversation with my roommate gave me a glimpse into the role of the NOAA Corps. A crewman caught me in my roaming and offered a guided tour of the bridge and small boats. I was given an introduction to the personal side of life at sea by another over coffee. Yet another provided an extensive introduction to the complexities of modern navigation found on the bridge. An engineer provided a close up tour into the bowels of the engine room. These expressions of welcome were offered freely. It was evident that each of these people are proud members of this Rainier community, living and working side-by-side on a daily basis. Life at sea isn’t for the partially committed. Each of these people give up extended months at a time away from their loved ones in their commitment to this task. I was struck by a conversation with the engineer shared over breakfast. After a break from sea life, he found he had to return to sea to satisfy the salt water coursing in his blood.
I made it. I am officially a teacher at sea. Life is good.