Wes Struble: The Engine Room, February 24, 2012

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Wes Struble
Aboard NOAA Ship Ronald H. Brown
February 15 – March 5, 2012

Mission: Western Boundary Time Series
Geographical Area: Sub-Tropical Atlantic, off the Coast of the Bahamas
Date: February 24, 2012

Weather Data from the Bridge

Position: Windspeed: 15 knots
Wind Direction: South/Southeast
Air Temperature: 23.9 deg C/75 deg F
Water Temperature: 24.5 deg C/76 deg F
Atm Pressure: 1016.23 mb
Water Depth: 4625 meters/15,174 feet
Cloud Cover: less than 20%
Cloud Type: Cumulus

Science/Technology Log

Moving a ship through the water has come a long way since Ben-Hur was chained to a rowing bench as a Roman War Galley slave. I was interested in what systems powered the Ron Brown and Lt. James Brinkley was kind enough to take me on a tour of the ship’s engine rooms.

The Ron Brown has a total of six separate power units. Three of these are V16 (16 cylinders) diesel engines connected to electric generators.

Second Assistant Engineer Jake DeMello sits watch in the entrance to the engine room

These generators produce electricity to run the ship’s electric motors which turn the screws (propellers). In the past the diesel engines would have been connected directly to the propeller shaft, but in the last 20 – 30 years many ships have gone to using electric motors as an interface between the diesel engines and the propellers. On the Brown at any given time two of the V16 diesel engines are online running the generators while the third engine is held in reserve. These generators produce 600 volts of AC current. A transformer converts the 600 V AC to a DC current to run the ship’s large DC electric motors.

Image credit: nauticexpo.com
This image shows a diesel engine connected directly to the “Z” drive.
On the Ron Brown there is a generator and an electric motor between the
diesel engine and the “Z” drive.

A view of the main propulsion diesel engines of the Ron Brown. The V16 propulsion engines are in the foreground while the Ship Services V8 engines are in the background

Close-up of two of the V16 Marine diesels on the Ron Brown. For scale notice the flight of stairs behind the engines

Most ships have a propeller shaft that exits the rear of the ship parallel to the keel. The propeller is stationary – it can only rotate to propel the ship forward or backward. To turn the ship a rudder is employed which is usually controlled by a wheel on the bridge. The Ron Brown does not have a rudder; instead it is propelled by a “Z” drive. This type of propulsion system is specially suited for research vessels.  In a “Z” drive the main drive shaft from the electric motors comes out parallel to the ship’s keel. It then is joined to a type of “spline gear” and makes a 90 degree turn down. At this point the shaft exits the ship where there is another “spline gear” which turns 90 degrees again parallel to the keel.

NOAA Corps Officer Lt. James Brinkley stands next to one of the V16 "exhaust pipes" from the main propulsion engines on the Ron Brown

The region between the two “universal joints” is mounted on a kind of turn table which allows each of the screws (there are two – one on the starboard side of the ship another on the port side) to rotate 36o degrees. In addition to precise maneuvering, this system of two “Z” drives and a bow thruster, when interfaced with a computer control system and GPS, allows the ship maintain an exact position in the water to within a few feet or better.

The Ron Brown's inboard portion of the "Z" drive. The electric motor that propels the ship is at left. If you look carefully just to the left of center you can see the main drive shaft connecting the motor to the "Z" drive mechanism

The engine status monitor. Notice at the very top it indicates that Propulsion engines 1 & 2 are operating.

The Ron Brown has three other smaller V8 diesel engines that power generators that are used to provide electricity for SS (ship services). This would represent things like radios, heating & air conditioning, lighting, computers, etc. The electricity produced by these three generators goes through two step-down transformers. The first reduction drops the potential from 600 V to 480 V. The next step down brings it from 480 V to 120 V. This is the form that is available to power the equipment throughout the ship. In addition, these three smaller engines and their generators can be used to power the Ron Brown’s propulsion in case of an emergency.

NOAA Corps Officer, Lt. James Brinkley stands next to one of two cable spools, located in the stern of the Ron Brown, that contain 5000 meters of cable each. They are used for long distance towing. For scale Lt. Brinkley is 6'3".

I would like to thank Lt. James Brinkley for the tour and Second Assistant Engineer Jake DeMello for explaining some of the technical aspects of the engines and answering my questions.

Kaci Heins: Final Blog, October 7, 2011

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Kaci Heins
Aboard NOAA Ship Rainier
September 17 — October 7, 2011

Farewell Alaska

Mission: Hydrographic Survey
Geographical Area: Alaskan Coastline, the Inside Passage
Date: Friday, October 7, 2011

Weather Data from the Bridge

Clouds: Partly Cloudy  1/8
Visibility: 10+ Nautical Miles
Wind: 4 knots
Dry Bulb: 8.5 degrees Celsius
Barometer: 1018.5 millibars
Latitude: 54.47 degrees North
Longitude: -132.32 degrees West

Science and Technology Log

One of the Main Engines

Every day we tend to take for granted the simple things in life such as having electricity to power to charge our cell phones, to be able to turn on the water whenever we need a drink, or to make sure the toilets flush in the restroom.  When we are on a ship at sea for a long period of time, it is important that all of these systems that impact of our daily life are functioning properly.  We cannot take an extension cord and run it from the port to wherever we are heading so that we have electricity.  The Rainier, like any other ship, is like a floating city and is self-sufficient in its abilities to generate its own electricity, create and store its own fresh water, process its own sewage, and still get to where it needs to go.

There are two 12 cylinder two-cycle diesel engines that power the ship.  Each engine is geared independently to individual propeller shafts.  This means that the ship can actually be steered by adjusting the pitch or “bite” of the propellers.  The average speed for the Rainier from these engines is about 12 knots.  Power is generated on the ship through two 415 kilowatt, 450 volt, 3 phase, 60 cycle generators, which are driven by the diesel engines.  The generated voltage is stepped down through transformers to supply the 120-volt power for lighting, appliances, and electronic equipment on the ship.  The heat rejection from the diesel engines is also used for the evaporators which help produce the ships water.

Engine for the Generator

There are two water storage tanks that can hold up to 8390 gallons of water.  This amount of water will only last us a couple of days because the ship uses about 2000 gallons of water a day.   There are two flash type distilling plants that generate our potable water, which converts sea water into our fresh water for the ship.  They are able to convert around 6000 gallons of fresh water a day for all of the needs of the ship.  Hot water and steam for our needs are provided by two pressurized hot water boilers that use diesel fuel to heat the water up to around 360 degrees Fahrenheit.

Hot Water Boiler

All of these various systems and machinery are the lifeblood of the ship.  They help provide the basic needs for the crew in order to survive for long periods of time at sea and for the ship to fulfill its mission. Without the engineers monitoring and maintaining the ships equipment we could not accomplish the tasks required of the ship .  There is extensive amounts of hands-on experience and training that comes with this territory of keeping the ship alive.  This training can come from collegiate academies, prior military service, trade schools, or wanting to come into an entry-level position to experience life at sea.

*Special thanks to Cliff Elsner for giving me an extensive tour of the engine room and helping me share this information about the heart of the ship.

Personal Log

Rainbow During a Survey

It’s funny how a person adapts to their environment over time.  I was so excited to be going to Alaska to take part in this experience, but I had no idea what it would be like or how much I would learn.  Noises that were beyond annoying at the beginning of the trip become a constant humming that the Rainier shares each day.  The vibrations and gentle sway that would keep you up until the wee hours of the morning, start to rock you to sleep each night in preparation for the days work ahead.  However, there are times when she may want to rock, but the Pacific Ocean wants you to roll. Then there isn’t much sleep to be had.  The weather would like to break the Rainier, but she is a floating fortress of steel that continues on knowing there is a job to be done.  It is a constant rhythm with this ship.  The waves keep time and rarely does anyone miss a beat.  The pulse and the life of the ship stay in complete sync.   With everyone doing their part we come to the finale as we finish the last day of work and pull into port.  There is a welcomed intermission between journeys as we head into Ketchikan, Alaska.

I did see a moose in Alaska!

I am so grateful for this experience to see Alaska, to see the wildlife, and to see what hydrographic surveying is all about.  However, I never imagined I would meet so many wonderful people on this ship.  Each person I came in contact with had wonderful characteristics, personalities, and skills to share.  I admire what each person has to contribute from every department on the ship.  If they were not here then the ship would not function to its fullest potential and complete its mission.  I am thankful for each handshake, each ear to ear smile, the jokes played on each other and myself, the hearty laughter at dinner that keeps us all sane, the hugs of support, the high fives of accomplishment, but most importantly the many lessons that you have taught me that I will keep with me for a lifetime.  I love this ship, I love this crew, and I loved this experience.  Thank you to everyone that made this possible.

Thank You Rainier!

Interview with the Captain

Crew Interviews

Animals Spotted!

Blue Heron

Whales (Species Unknown)

Sea Otters

Question of the Day

Kevin McMahon, August 5, 2004

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Kevin McMahon
Onboard NOAA Ship Ronald H. Brown

July 26 – August 7, 2004

Mission: New England Air Quality Study (NEAQS)
Geographical Area:
Northwest Atlantic Ocean
August 5, 2004

Weather Data from the Bridge
Lat. 44 deg 03.77 N
Lon. 68 deg 18.53 W
Heading 210 deg
Speed 8.7 kts
Barometer 1005.7 mb
Rel Humidity 79.8%
Temp. 15.4 C

Daily Log

0800 hours. We have left behind the protective cove in the shadow of Mt. Desert Island and are now in the Gulf of Maine of 235 degrees along the Maine coast. The skies ahead look more threatening than the skies we are leaving behind.

1130 hours and we are just off Matinicus Rock Lighthouse. I spent about one hour in the engine room with Keegan Plaskon who is the ships 3rd engineer. A very sophisticated propulsion system not to mention electrical systems, HVAC, and desalinization systems for the ship.

The RONALD H. BROWN is known in the trade as a diesel electric ship. It propulsion system is somewhat unique in that it uses diesel engines to generate electricity which in turn is used to power the motors turning the propellers. On most vessels of this size, there is a direct connection between the diesel engines and the propellers.

The propeller system is also unique in that there is no rudder system to steer by. With the propellers connected to what is known as a thruster, the two aft propellers can be rotated independently of each other a full 360 degrees. When the two aft thrusters are synchronized with the bow thruster and tied in with the ships GPS system, it allows the team of scientist onboard to remain on station in one place for an extended period of time. Wind, tide and currents can be overcome. Last evening we stayed in one position in a small bay near Bass Harbor, ME with the ships bow pointed into the wind. Although the wind was only about 4 knots out of the northeast, the tidal flow was running about seven knots at its peak.

There are three large diesel engines onboard whose primary use is propulsion. Each is a 16 cylinder Caterpillar (Cat 3500). A single Cat can propel the ship along at about 7 knots. As more speed is needed, the other two Cats are brought on line. The top speed of the ship is about 14 knots. But the ship also uses it diesel engines for other needs. There are three other Cats onboard. They are smaller engines with 8 cylinders each. These engines are used to provide the ship with the needed electricity for everyday use, and the BROWN uses a lot of electricity. Besides the need the scientists have for electricity, there scientific equipment runs on 110 AC just like in your TV and refrigerator home. The ship uses its generators to make fresh water, provide climate control, refrigerate its food supplies, and run the sewage treatment system, its navigational system and what seems like an endless list of other needs.

What is the fuel consumption like? I am told that the ship consumes between 5 & 6 thousand gallons of fuel per day.


If there are about 75 scientists and crew aboard, how many gallons are needed per hour per day for each person per day?

The vessel is also capable of producing 4,000 gallons of water per day but that on a normal day the people onboard consume about 3,000 gallons per day for consumption, personal hygiene, toilets and industrial uses.


How many gallons is this per person per hour per day?