Marsha Skoczek: Who’s Driving this Ship, Anyway? July 9, 2012

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Marsha Skoczek
Aboard NOAA Ship Pisces
July 6 – 19, 2012

Mission: Marine Protected Areas Survey
Geographic area of cruise:  Subtropical North Atlantic, off the east coast of Georgia
Date:  July 9, 2012

Location:
Latitude:  31.30748N
Longitude:  79.43986W

Weather Data from the Bridge
Air Temperature:  29.5C (84 F)
Wind Speed:   10.4 knots (11.9 mph)
Wind Direction:  From the SSW
Relative Humidity:  81%
Barometric Pressure:  1015.7
Surface Water Temperature:  27.88C (82.4F)

Science and Technology Log

Today, the current was too strong in the area we were going to send the ROV.  The boat and the ROV were not able to keep close enough to the assigned transect line, so the dives for today were cancelled.  Since we had some extra time until the Pisces was able to get us to our next location, I decided to spend some time on the bridge learning about how the Pisces works.

Myself and ENS Pawlishen working on the nautical charts.

Third Officer, Pete Langolis, was on duty when I got to the bridge, and he was nice enough to show me around.  After he let me ring the bell for the noon test of the master alarm system, we got started.  The Pisces is able to keep its course by using both a magnetic compass as well as a gyrocompass.  The magnetic compass has the potential for interference depending on the conditions around it such as the roof of the ship, the types of metals that make up the ship, etc.  To find the correct bearing for the Pisces to travel along, the officer on duty has to take into consideration four factors, where is true north, the variation from the compass rose on the nautical chart, where is magnetic north, and the deviation from magnetic north from the deviation card (this will be different from ship to ship).  This all calculates into the correct compass heading for the officer on the bridge to drive the ship.  Once the correct heading is calculated, it can be programmed into the ship’s tracking computers as well as the bow thruster which acts as an autopilot for the ship.  Every thirty minutes, the officer on deck has to verify with the paper nautical charts that the ship is still on the correct heading.  Any variations from the original heading can be corrected simply by changing the direction on the autopilot.  You can follow along with our current position using the NOAA Ship Tracker website.  Select Pisces from the box in the upper left.

When you are out in the middle of the open ocean, the last thing you want to do is run into another vessel.  The Pisces is equipped with two different radar systems that help look for other ships in the area.  The S-Band radar sends out a longer pulse signal which is good for locating ships that are further away and also seeing through dense fog.  The X Band radar sends out a short pulse signal which better helps to locate ships in closer proximity to the Pisces.

X band radar showing the location of ships near the Pisces

Both of these radars are tied to the Automated Information System (AIS) as well as the Global Positioning System (GPS).  The information about each ship identified on the radar screen can be pulled up and used to help steer the Pisces around other vessels such as cargo ships, commercial fishing vessels, or other military vessels. All targets located by the radar need to be visually confirmed by the officer on deck to insure that they are not on a course that will come too close to the Pisces.

Engine monitor screen on the bridge.

The Pisces has a single propeller  that is powered by two electric motors.  These motors are powered by four diesel generators.  Before we could leave port last Friday, we had to fuel up with 70,000 gallons of diesel fuel.  This took about six hours to complete.  This amount of fuel should last the Pisces several months at sea.  The whole propulsion system can be monitored electronically from the bridge to ensure that everything is running smoothly.

So, who actually drives the ship?  Three NOAA Corps officers share bridge watch in shifts of 4 hours on, 8 hours off.  This doesn’t mean they spend the other 8 hours sleeping. All of the officers on board Pisces have other responsibilities such as the Navigation Officer (NAV), the Operations Officer (OPS), Executive Officer (XO) and the Commanding Officer (CO).  Before a new junior ensign can be left on their own to be in charge of the bridge, not only do they complete a twenty-week training, they will also spend about six months shadowing a senior officer.  This lets them get hands on training and experience while still having someone watching over their shoulder double checking everything.  After all, the lives of everyone aboard the Pisces depend on them doing everything correctly.

Personal Log

Being out to sea away from land is not something I have ever done before.  I am struck by the vastness of the ocean.  Everywhere you

Lobate ctenophores are translucent and give off a bioluminescent glow. Bolinopsis infundibulum. Picture: OAR/National Undersea Research Program (NURP)
High resolution (Credit: NOAA)

look, there is nothing but blue water.  It is truly hypnotizing.  Also, knowing that there might not be another vessel within hundreds of miles of us is a little weird.  Last night I went out with my roommate, Stephanie, to see the stars.  There is no light pollution out here in the open ocean, so we were able to see every star in the sky, including the Milky Way Galaxy.  It was an incredible view.  We also could see the bioluminescent organisms as they were getting turned up in the ship’s wake, animals such as jellyfish, copepods, and ostracods.  It was really neat to see bioluminescence in action.

Ocean Careers Interview

In this section, I will be interviewing scientists and crew members to give my students ideas for careers they may find interesting and might want to pursue someday.  Today I interviewed NOAA Corps officers Ensign Michael Doig and Ensign Junior Officer Douglas Pawlishen.

Ensign Michael Doig

ENS Doig, what is your job title?  I am the Navigation Officer for the Pisces and an Ensign in the NOAA Corps.

What type of responsibilities do you have with this job?  I am one of the officers that has bridge duty to steer the ship.  I also keep the nautical charts up to date, maintain the ship’s inventory, and train the new junior ensigns.

What type of education did you need to get this job?  I have a Bachelors’ Degree in Zoology from University of Hawaii and a Masters’ Degree in Science Education.

What types of experiences have you had with this job?  I have been fortunate enough to travel all over the Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico on board the Pisces.  One of the coolest things I have seen is a pod of orca whales trying to kill a baby sperm whale in the Gulf of Mexico.  The baby sent out a distress call and all of the adult sperm whales encircled the baby to protect it.  The baby sperm whale was saved.

How is the NOAA Corps different from other jobs?  First, when you apply for the NOAA Corps, they look at all of the math and science courses you have taken in college.  They are looking for students with strong background in those fields.  After you are accepted and make it through training, you are assigned to a NOAA ship for two years.  After those two years, you can apply for a land assignment, but that will probably only last for about three years before you have to go back out to sea on a new ship.  You work year round and are granted thirty days of personal leave for the year.

Since your time on the Pisces is almost finished, what land assignment are you applying for at the end of your two years?  I have applied to work in the Miami NOAA branch studying coral reef restoration.

What is your best advice for a student wanting to become a scientist?  Companies are always looking for employees with strong backgrounds in science. Don’t be afraid of those upper level physics classes or upper level math classes.  Get in there and do it!!

 

Junior Ensign Douglas Pawlishen

Ensign Pawlishen, what is your job title?  I am an Ensign Junior Officer aboard the Pisces.  This is my first ship assignment in the NOAA Corps and I just started on the ship last Thursday.

What type of job responsibilities do you have on this ship? To shadow Ensign Doig so he can train me about life aboard the Pisces.

Why did you decide to join the NOAA Corps?  I wanted a job where I wouldn’t be stuck in an office all day every day doing the same thing over and over again.  With my science background, I thought the NOAA Corps offered me the opportunity to do something more hands on and different every day.

What type of education do you need to get this job?  I have a Bachelors’ Degree from University of Massachusetts  Amherst in Natural Resources and  a minor in both Criminal Justice and Wildlife Management.

What types of experiences have you had with this job?  Well, since I am brand new, I haven’t really been out to sea yet.  My best experience so far was aboard the Coast Guard Eagle, which is a massive sail boat confiscated in World War II from the Germans.  All of the NOAA Corps cadets along with the Coast Guard cadets have to spend two weeks on board sailing the Coast Guard Ship Eagle and developing our team work skills.