NOAA Teacher at Sea
Aboard NOAA Ship Rainier
May 6-16, 2013
Mission: Hydrographic surveys between Ketchikan and Petersburg, Alaska
Date: May 15, 2013
Weather on board. Taken at 1600 (4:00 in the afternoon)
Latitude: 56° 03.43 N
Longitude: 131° 6.8 W
Overcast skies with a visibility of 8 nautical miles
Wind variable at 1 knot
Air temperature 10° C
Sea temperature 7.8° C
Log: What did you learn?
I am often asked some variation of the question, “So, what have you learned?” The short answer is “it depends”. The nature of the response lapses into a definition of learning and just what learning entails. If it means gaining sufficient proficiency at a task to independently take it on, I’m not sure I “learned” anything. If rather, learning were to include sufficient exposure to new ideas to be able to have an appreciation for a world previously unexplored; or the ability to carry on a conversation about the work being done on board a hydrographic survey vessel; or the ability to transfer new ideas to the world as I knew it two weeks ago… then I’d have to say I “learned” a tremendous amount.
As my leg of the Rainier’s 2013 fieldwork season begins to wrap up, I find myself reflecting on this learning. Captured below is a list of some of the key learnings I will carry away with me.
- Leadership. NOAA Corps is one of the nation’s uniformed services. There is a clear command structure on board and everyone on board knows just what it is. Proper clearance must be had before anything goes forward. To accomplish the detail of this work acquiring terabytes of data while keeping all crew members’ safety as top priority requires effective leadership. It has been a pleasure to witness the leadership on board the Rainier effectively finding that delicate balance between maintaining a clear hand on the big ideas of the work and allowing those under them do that work they are charged with and responsible for. Trust is a construct that travels both ways. The crew trusts the leadership to lead, and the leadership trusts the crew to do their work.
- Pedagogy of the ship. A significant activity on this ship is focused on teaching. In part due to a frequent turn around in human resource, in part to the technical features within all aspects of the ship, in part to a commitment to help all crew members advance their skill level and qualifications, and in part because that is simply a part of what they do as members of the Rainier community. I watched as a new crewmember was mentored one-on-one by more senior members in how to manage the anchor, operate the davits, launch the boats, etc. I watched as another crewmember gained skills to qualify as a coxswain – that critical role of assuming responsibility for all maritime aspects of a launch working away from the ship. The NOAA Corps officers are continually being mentored to direct all functions of the ship – dropping and raising the anchor – working with the helm to control the speed and direction of the ship – managing control central for all away parties – etc. The survey techs go back and forth with each other on how to better handle some aspect of data collection or processing. The day begins with a morning meeting to clarify the objectives for the day and review safety concerns. Throughout the day, people come together for collaborative problem solving. The pedagogy I witnessed was one of hands-on; specific, instant, clear and direct feedback; one-on-one; calm; and patient. The community on board is committed to one another. The more skill the individual is able to gain, the smoother sailing for the whole ship.
- Science is messy. The Rainier is noted as one of the premier hydrographic vessels afloat. Coming in, I carried the misconception that that meant all would proceed according to carefully articulated plans. Turns out variables such as tide, heave, roll, pitch, salinity, temperature, GPS, waves, weather, software, hardware, expertise, knowledge, skill, and all variants of the human condition all work together to create a dynamic environment that necessitates continually fine tuning, tweaking, and responding. The past several days we have been wrestling with the tide gauge not reading what was expected potentially jeopardizing the week’s data. Seems the gauge reads 5 cm off the expected. – we are currently on the way to seek a resolution. What is truly remarkable is that despite all the issues that arise, this project will be successful. The people involved embody the persistence and fortitude to hang in there until everything fits within the prescribed limits of accuracy. We will continue to survey every square meter in the Behm Canal project area, assemble terabytes of data, and confidently submit a Descriptive Report to the Pacific Hydrographic Branch. Meanwhile the Rainier and its crew will be off to begin another project after leaving Petersburg and I head home to finish off the semester and get grades submitted.
- The ocean is important. I have also carried a misconception that the ocean is so far away from the prairies and woods of Minnesota that it lacked in importance to our lives. I have come to realize the increasing importance of thinking globally with global considerations directly including the ocean that wraps 75% of our planet. Our climate is directly influenced by the impact of the sea. Our economy is dependent on the commercial vessels that carry goods to their destinations. The safety of those vessels are reliant on accurate navigational charts. The waters off Alaska rely on NOAA’s Ships Rainier and Fairweather to conduct hydrographic surveys of the ocean bottom for the creation of those charts.
- Appreciation of beauty. No matter how common this landscape has become to the mariners on board, how advanced their level of experience, their station on the ship, the amount of salt coursing through the blood, etc., etc., all take time to stop and gaze at the grandeur of Walker Cove, Wrangell Narrows, Punchbowl Cove, spouting of whales, play of the porpoises, sunset, sunrise, misty clouds, etc. etc. It is a majestic world, one that can quickly take away your breath, bring everything to a standstill – to simply gaze. “How would you like this for your office?” the CO had asked me. There is little question it beats the “window” overlooking the BWCAW I made for myself in my otherwise windowless office. Mine has beauty, but lacks life. The loss of this majestic backdrop will dearly be missed.
- Propellers. The ship’s engine runs at a steady rpm. The speed of the ship is governed by the pitch of the propellers. Thank you Bernoulli.
- Sea language. There is language that exists on board that I have slowly come to know. A holiday is missing data. A “head” is a toilet. A Cox’n (coxswain) is in charge of the boat and a Bo’sun (boatswain) is in charge of the ship’s equipment and crew. People in charge are Chief – Chief of Engineering, Chief Boatswain, Chief Steward, Chief Hydrographer – they are all called “Chief”. FOO (Field Operations Officer), XO (Executive Officer) and CO (Commanding Officer) are titles. Right now the Rainier even has FOO 1 and FOO 2; XO1 and XO2. The repeat of “Very well” means “Yes, I heard you” and “Aye” – agreed. We eat at 1700 hours instead of 5:00. You might say “Happy hydro” to someone heading out to survey. The list goes on.
- Food. So many had asked, “What will you eat at sea?” with images of canned rations or space food in mind. This community eats well – steak tonight, ribs last night It’s hard to picture going back to my lunchtime staple of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.
- Hard work. Being a mariner is hard work. The labor, confines of the ship, and separation from family bring challenge and sacrifice.
- Salty dawgs. I have a new appreciation of what “salty” means as it applies to the mariner community. Living and working together for extended periods, at times in harsh conditions, and at others with lapses into long contemplative stretches, the conversation and actions aboard the ship, is for lack of any better definition, “salty” indeed.
- Sharing the salt. While perhaps not quite certain of the role a Teacher at Sea visitor plays within this tight-knit community, all members on board have graciously taken the time to share with me their work – work of which they are deeply invested – and of their life at sea with the salt that flows within their blood.
Tomorrow we arrive in Petersburg, Alaska. I will post again of my experience of the “Little Norway” cultural festival going full steam during our time there. Then it is a departure for home and return to my office at Hamline University. Until then it remains, “Happy hydro.”