Laura Guertin: From the bridge of the Thomas Jefferson, September 6, 2014

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Laura Guertin
Onboard NOAA Ship Thomas Jefferson
September 2 – September 19, 2014

Mission: Hydrographic Survey
Geographical area of cruise: North Atlantic Ocean
Date: September 6, 2014
Location of ship: 41o 04.009′ N, 72o 01.642′ W



Science and Technology Log

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Our transit from Norfolk, VA, to offshore of Port Judith, RI, took us through some calm waters (and NYC!). I spent most of the morning of our transit day (Sept. 3) on the bridge learning about the equipment and navigation tools. The CO (Commanding Officer) of the ship, CDR Crocker, kindly welcomed me on the bridge during the morning of transit. I was able to learn about the equipment and navigation tools, as well as observe what it takes to pilot a hydrographic survey vessel the size of the Thomas Jefferson (see the TJ fact sheet for ship stats).

One navigation tool that caught my eye is called the AIS – Automated Identification System (read an overview of AIS here and here).  LT Megan Guberski, the ship’s Operations Officer, provided me some great information to explain the value of this particular equipment: “AIS information is collected by a dedicated antenna, and generally includes the ship’s course, speed, and name. The AIS information is then broadcast to the radars and displayed visually. In crowded waters deck officers use the overlapping radar and AIS display monitor their neighbors. If a collision course is detected, the officers can use the VHF radio to hail the other ship by name.”

Nautical charts are on the bridge in paper and digital format. I asked the CO why paper charts are still used and kept around, as all NOAA charts are now digital and only print on demand. He said the ship always needs to know where it is at all times – for example, if there was a power failure on the ship, how would the ship know where it was? (such a simple and logical answer!) There are cabinet drawers filled with paper nautical charts that are utilized hand-in-hand with the technological tools for navigation. In fact, we are utilizing 23 different paper nautical charts for our transit and survey areas during the time I’m on board.

Although I could not see the satellite receiver, there are screens on the bridge that provide the GPS (Global Positioning System) coordinates of the ship. Not familiar with GPS? Check out NOAA’s Global Positioning page and view this NASA YouTube video about GPS. These latitude and longitude values aid in plotting and tracking the ship’s transit.

The ship also is in constant radio contact with other ships, receives emergency weather alerts from the National Weather Service (a division of NOAA), uses compasses to tell direction, thermometers to manually track air temperature, and even utilizes basic tools such as binoculars to spot obstructions on the water, from buoys to lobster pots (also called crab pots, lobster traps, etc.).

But clearly, the most important part of the bridge is the people – the people on watch, the people at the helm steering the ship, etc.  On the Thomas Jefferson, I have observed three people on the bridge at all times – the deck officer, whose primary duty is collision avoidance; the conning officer, who oversees the navigation; and, the helmsman, who steers the ship. A simple way to remember this trio is that one person plans the ship’s turns, one person orders the ship’s turns, and one person drives the ship. Although the technology is a wonderful tool to supplement time and work on the ocean, it cannot ever replace the importance of human observation and intuition. I’m glad that this crew has its eyes on and out for everything, 24/7!

Check out this image slideshow to see the tech tools that I have described, as well as other features around the bridge.

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And to get a complete rundown of the bridge and its equipment, view this video tour of the Thomas Jefferson given by ENS Ryan Wartick (now LT Wartick), filmed in February 2010.



Personal Log

I feel so lucky to have the opportunity to spend time and observe the activities on the bridge. My own observations help me not only understand more of how the ship works, but it is priceless to be able to see the teamwork involved in communications among the bridge crew and between the bridge and the crew throughout the ship. Today was the first day of gathering data for the hydrographic survey (more on the specific survey projects in a future post!), and that communication between the hydrography lab on the ship, with the launch (a smaller ship) collecting data in shallower water, and with the bridge is so critical in the success of scientific missions such as this.

Personally, I’m so glad there are people who have the skill set to navigate a ship such as the Thomas Jefferson. In fact, one of the Ensigns jokingly told me that learning to steer the Thomas Jefferson felt like learning how to drive a forklift on ice(!). I’m also pleased that the crew is so open to answering any of my questions and volunteering information to help me learn, such as the difference between a statute (land-measured) mile, nautical mile and a knot – I forgot what it was like to be a student again!



OK GEOSC 040 students at Penn State Brandywine, here is your next round of questions. Please answer these questions online in ANGEL in the folder “Dr. G at Sea” in the link for Post #4.

  1. I want to make sure everyone is familiar with GPS technology, as GPS plays such an important role in navigation and surveying (and will be mentioned in many more future posts). From my description, links above, and any additional websites you wish to explore, tell me in your own words what is GPS. How does it work?
  2. In your own words, what is the importance of having GPS and AIS on a ship doing oceanographic research in shallow water? In deep water? (*think of the TED videos you are watching and if/how GPS and AIS would be helpful)
  3. Let’s say that hypothetically, an emergency came up and I needed to head home. I tell CDR Crocker I need the ship to get to Philadelphia ASAP. Who would he work with, and what tools would he use to get the ship to dock in Philly? Any ideas what he would have to navigate around as he gets closer to Philly (besides lobster pots)? (*note – be sure to look at the photo slideshow and the video for images and descriptions of equipment I didn’t mention above)



Lounge on the TJ
Lounge on the TJ

Random Ship Fact!

This random ship fact is inspired by 2014 NFL season – yes, even football makes its way out on to the ocean! The ship has access to DirectTV, with TV screens in the ship’s lounge (pictured here, with quite a reading collection), in the dining area, and in the individual staterooms. On Thursday, the first football game of the season, people on the ship gathered to watch the Green Bay Packers play the Seattle Seahawks. I haven’t found too many Philly sports fans on the ship, but an even more random ship fact (for those Eagles fans)… Troy Vincent’s cousin is on the ship with me!


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