Avery Marvin: Sound Off! From Noise to Nautical Charts, July 22, 2013

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Avery Marvin
Aboard NOAA Ship Rainier (NOAA Ship Tracker)
July 8 — 25, 2013 

Mission: Hydrographic Survey
Geographical Area of Cruise: Shumagin Islands, Alaska
Date: July 22, 2013

Current Location: 54° 55.6’ N, 160° 10.2’ W

Weather on board: Broken skies with a visibility of 14 nautical miles, variable wind at 22 knots, Air temperature: 14.65°C, Sea temperature: 6.7°C, 2 foot swell, sea level pressure: 1022.72 mb

Science and Technology log:

Teamwork, safety first

Rainier motto, painted in the stern of the ship above the fantail, the rear lower outside deck where we have our safety meetings.

“Teamwork, Safety First”, is inscribed boldly on the Rainier stern rafter and after being aboard for more than 2 weeks, it is evident this motto is the first priority of the crew and this complex survey operation at hand.

Rainier launch

This is one of the survey launches that we use to gather our survey data. In this case, the launch is shown approaching the Rainier, getting ready to tie up.

It’s a rainy overcast morning here in SW Alaska and we are circled around the officers on the fantail for the daily safety meeting. Weather conditions, possible hazards, and the daily assignment for each launch are discussed. Per the instructions on the POD (Plan of the Day), handed out the previous evening, the crew then disperse to their assigned launches. The launches are then one-at-a-time lowered into the water by the fancy davit machinery and driven away by the coxswain to their specific “polygon” or survey area for the day. A polygon surveyed by a launch on average takes 2-3 hours at 6-8 knots to survey and usually is an area that is inaccessible by the ship. Many polygons make up one large area called a “sheet” which is under the direction of the “sheet manager”. Several sheets make up an entire survey project. Our hydrographic project in the Shumagins has 8 sheets and makes up a total of 314 square nautical miles.

Safety meeting

The CO, XO, and FOO lead the safety meeting for the day, discussing weather conditions, water conditions, and the assignments for each launch.

Shumagin Islands

This is a chart of the Shumagin Islands showing the 8 sheets (highlighted in green) that we are surveying.


East side of Chernabura Island divided into survey “polygons”, each labeled with a letter or word. Notice how each polygon is a small subset of the larger sheet.

On board each launch we have a complex suite of computer systems: one manages the sonar, another manages the acquisition software, and the third records the inertial motion of the launch as it rocks around on the water (pitch, heave, roll). The acquisition system superimposes an image of the path of the launch and the swath of the sonar beam on top of a navigational chart within the polygon. Starting at one edge of the polygon, the coxswain drives in a straight a line (in a direction determined by the sheet manager), to the other end of the polygon, making sure there is some overlap at the boundaries of the swaths. He/she then works back in the other direction, once again making sure there is some overlap with the adjacent swath. We call this “mowing the lawn,” or “painting the floor” as these are visually analogous activities. Throughout the day, we pause to take CTD casts so that we have a sound velocity profile in each area that we are working.


Typical launch dispersal for a survey day. Launches are signified by “RA-number”. You can also see the location of our tide measurement station and GPS control station, both of which we use to correct our data for errors.

Mowing the lawn

This image shows the software tracking the path and swath of the launch (red boat shape) as it gathers data, driving back and forth in the polygon, or “mowing the lawn.” The darker blue shaded area shows overlap between the two swaths. The launch is approaching a “holiday”, or gap in the data, in an effort to fill it in.

You might be wondering, why the swath overlap? This is to correct for the outer sonar beams of the swath, which can scatter because of the increased distance between the sea floor and the sonar receiver below the hull of the boat. The swath overlap is just one of the many quality control checks built into the launch surveying process. Depending on the “ping rate”, or the number of signals we are able to send to the bottom each second, the speed of the boat can be adjusted.  The frequency of the sound wave can also be changed in accordance with the depth. Lower frequencies (200 khz) are used for deeper areas and higher frequencies (400 khz) are used for shallower areas.

Rosalind working the surveying computers in the launch

Rosalind working the surveying computers in the launch

Despite what might seem like mundane tasks, a day on board the launch is exhausting, given the extreme attention to detail by all crew members, troubleshooting various equipment malfunctions, and the often harsh weather conditions (i.e. fog, swells, cool temperatures) that are typical of southwest Alaska. The success of the ship’s mission depends on excellent communication and teamwork between the surveyors and the coxswain, who work closely together to maximize quality and efficiency of data collection. Rain or shine, work must get done.  But it doesn’t end there. When the launches arrive back at the ship, (usually around 4:30 pm), the crew will have a debrief of the day’s work with the FOO (field operations officer) and XO (executive officer). After dinner, the survey techs plunge head first (with a safety helmet of course) into the biggest mountain of data I have EVER witnessed in my life, otherwise known as “night processing”. We are talking gigabytes of data from each launch just for a days work.  It begins with the transferring of launch data from a portable hard drive to the computers in the plot room. This data is meticulously organized into various folders and files, all which adhere to a specific naming format. Once the transferring of data has finished, the “correction” process begins. That’s right, the data is not yet perfect and that’s because like any good science experiment, we must control for extraneous factors that could skew the depth data. These factors include tides, GPS location error, motion of the launch itself, and the sound velocity in the water column.

Plot room

Our chief surveyor works in the plot room cleaning and correcting data.

Data cleaning.

Data showing the consequences of the tide changing. The orange disjointed surface shows the data before it was adjusted for the tide changing. You can see how the edges between swaths (i.e. red and olive green) do not match up, even though they should be the same depth.

Sound speed artifact

This image shows the edge effects of changing sound speed in the water column. The edges of each swath “frown” because of refraction owing to changing density in the water column. This effect goes away once we factor in our CTD data and the sound speed profile.

In previous posts, I discussed how we correct for tides and the sound velocity. We also correct for the GPS location of the launch during a survey day, so that any specific data point is as precisely located as possible. Although GPS is fairly accurate, usually to within a few meters, we can get even more precise (within a few centimeters) by accounting for small satellite errors throughout the day. We do this by determining the location of a nearby object (our Horizontal Control, HorCon, Station) very precisely, and then tracking the reported position of this object throughout the day. Any error that is recorded for this station is likely also relevant for our launch locations, so we use this as the corrector. For example, if on July 21, 2013, at 3pm, the GPS location of our Bird Island HorCon station was reported 3cm north of its actual location, then our launches are also probably getting GPS locations 3cm too far north, so we will adjust all of our data accordingly. This is one of the many times we are thankful for our software. We also account for pitch, heave, and roll of the launch using the data from the inertial motion unit. That way, if the launch rolled sideways, and the center beam records a depth of 30 meters, we know to adjust this for the sideways tilt of the launch.

HorCon station

This shows the set up of our Horizontal Control and tide gauge station. The elevated rock position was chosen to maximize satellite visibility.

After all correctors have been applied (and a few software crashes weathered), the survey technicians then sort through all the data and clean out any “noise.” This noise represents sound reflections on sea life, air bubbles, or other items that are not part of the seafloor.  Refraction of sound waves, as mentioned in the last post, is caused by density changes in the water due to changes in the temperature, pressure, or salinity.

Dirty data

This shows sonar data with “noise”. The noise is the seemingly random dots above and below the primary surface. On the surface itself, you can see data from four different swaths, each in a different color. Notice the overlap between swaths and how well it appears to be matching up.

Cleaned surface

This shows sonar data after the “noise” has been cleaned out. Notice how all data now appears to match a sea floor contour.

Many of the above correctors are applied the same day the data is collected, so the sheet manager can have an up-to-date record of the project’s progress before doing final planning for data collection the next day. After a sheet has been fully surveyed and ALL correctors applied, the sheet manager will complete a “descriptive report”, which accompanies the data and explains any gaps in the sonar data (“holidays”) and/or other errors present. This report, along with the data, is sent to the Pacific Hydrographic Branch for post-processing, and in 1-2 years, we will have a corrected and updated navigational chart. During this time the data is reviewed for quality and adherence to hydrographic specifications and then is distilled into a cartographic product (nautical chart) consisting of points, lines, and areas.

Personal Log:

So I am going to hold off in talking about an animal that has recently fascinated me and instead devote this personal log to some cool things I have been doing on the ship.

Most recently I got to be the helmsman and steer the ship. This involved me following orders from the “conning officer” who told me various steering commands such as: “Left ten degrees rudder”, “steady on course 167°”, “ease 5° right”, “helm in auto” (auto-pilot). To acknowledge the command, I repeated what the conning officer said followed by “aye”. For example: “Left ten degrees rudder, aye” or “course 167°, aye”.  When the boat is actually on the course that was requested by the conning officer, I repeated the command with the word “steady”. For example: “Steady on course 167°”

Avery at the helm

Avery at the helm

You might be wondering why all of the commands involve degrees. Well that is because this ship is steered by the rudder, similar to how you manually steer a small sailboat.  So changing the angle of the rudder will change the direction of the ship.  To change this angle, you turn the steering wheel a desired amount of degrees beyond zero in the direction the conning officer instructed.  So if he said “right 5 degrees rudder”, I would turn the steering wheel right, and stop at the 5 hash mark.

Once the boat actually turns 5°, I will make sure I am at the correct “heading” or degree mark that the conning officer instructed.  A heading can be any number between 000-360 (where 000-deg = North, 045 = Northeast, 090 = East, etc.) as this boat can turn in a complete circle and be navigated in any direction.  (There is 360° in both a compass and a circle.)  Once I am steady at the correct heading, I will put the steering wheel back to 0° which means the rudder is completely straight and parallel with the boat. At this point the boat is going straight. If this were a car, you could just stay straight no problem.

But because this boat moves in water and is affected by ocean conditions such as swells, it is easily knocked off course of the heading. So as helmsman I am constantly making tiny adjustments with the steering wheel by a few degrees in either direction to maintain my heading.   This adjustment is done using the steering wheel if I am driving manual, or using a dial on the gear panel if the boat is in “auto” (auto-pilot). Because the ship rudder must “push water out of the way” in order to steer the boat, there is a delay between when I turn the steering wheel to when the ship actually moves that amount of degrees. This is not a car which turns instantaneously by the movement of axles.  So I need to account for that “lag time” as well as ocean conditions and the speed of the boat when turning the ship.  For example, if the boat is going slow (3 knots) and I need to turn quickly, I will have to use a greater rudder angle.  Throughout this process I have several digital screens that show me my current position and course, current heading and desired heading as well as other navigational aides.  When I was helmsman, I was closely monitored and assisted by Jason, a former Navy Chief Boatswain, who is one of the best helmsman on the ship.  To be a good navigator you need to know the fundamentals but you also need a lot of practice and exposure to various navigational situations.

Helm stand

Helm stand

Yesterday, Rosalind and I got to work on deck and help the Chief Boatswain with various deck tasks such as lowering the anchor and assisting with the davit to hoist the launches from their day of surveying out on the water.  Assisting with the job of lifting a 16,000 lb launch with 3 people aboard using the davit winch was by far the most exhilarating experience thus far on the ship. I handled the task with extreme caution. As with being a helmsman, there are many factors I must consider as a davit operator.  For example, if there is a significant swell, I need to be more aggressive with the davit movements to get the boat lifted fast to avoid any excessive swaying in mid-air. Most importantly, I must attentively follow the gestures of the deck boss below who is able to see the launch very clearly and is directing me on every davit movement.  Even an experienced davit operator like Jason, who probably can predict the next davit movement in his sleep, must never assume and then act. He ALWAYS follows the exact orders of the deck officer below because he never knows what they are seeing that he cannot from the above deck.  Overall, with Jason’s close attention and assistance, I think I did a good job of assisting with the davit. The boat made it safely aboard, and my heart returned to a normal beating pattern. 🙂

Operating the crane to get the davit ready to lift the launch out of the water

Getting the davit positioned and ready to lift the launch out of the water.

On a lighter note I learned how to play the good ole’ mariner pastime favorite, Cribbage. Rosalind (the other Teacher at Sea and my delightful roommate) taught me how to play. We had a cribbage tournament here aboard the ship in which about 12 people competed. I did not advance to the finals but had a lot of fun nonetheless.  I am looking forward to gaining more Cribbage strategies so I can be a more competitive player for future matches.

First round of Cribagge tournament

First round of Cribbage tournament

Just for fun:

An adorable sole I caught on the fantail of the Rainer (I released him/her)

An adorable sole I caught on the fantail of the Rainer (I released him/her). 🙂

Fun factoid: A fathom which is a maritime measurement equal to 6 feet, was originally based on the distance, fingertip to fingertip of a man’s outstretched arms. Fathom that!

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