Helen Haskell: Getting Underway, June 5, 2017

NOAA Teacher at Sea

Helen Haskell

Aboard NOAA Ship Fairweather


Mission: Hydro Survey

Geographic Area of Cruise: Southeast Alaska – West Prince of Wales Island Hydro Survey


Date: June 5th

Weather Data: Full cloud cover, rain showers.

Location: Ketchikan, 55.3422° N, 131.6461° W 

Personal Log

Today the boat is leaving Ketchikan. Breakfast is between 7-8 and as I sat with my plate of eggs and toast, I watch the hustle and bustle of life on a boat preparing it to get underway. There are many challenges to sailing a ship, and while I had a general idea, I did not understand how much organization, safety protocols, equipment and manpower it takes to make a boat run, complete science research, and be a safe place for people to live and work. This first couple of days on the boat have been not focusing on the science research being done here, but one of getting a sense of how a research vessel works, the myriad of roles and jobs that are done here and the multiple hats that most people wear.

The ship’s communication system put an all-hands-on-deck call to help with unloading food deliveries at port. Here we passed boxes one by one from the truck up on to the ship and in to the kitchen storage areas where the stewards will unload and store the food ready for our meals and snacks. There are three main meals per day: breakfast (7-8), lunch (11-12) and dinner (5-6). In between these times snacks and drinks are readily available. What I am finding too is that many people work a shift system, or are on the smaller boats away from the ship for a day. Food for them is packed or available and no one goes hungry. Snacks and drinks are available 24-7 too. The meals are diverse and food is plentiful. I hope to talk with the stewards to figure out how they plan the menus and order all the food, to feed about 50 people for a three-week period.

Next came a safety briefing and tour. The first thing I had to do was to practice putting on my emergency gear – how to describe it? This ‘dry-suit onesie’ would allow me to be in the Alaskan waters and survive. While my whole body is covered except for my eyes, the suit contains a life vest, and would allow me to easily float upright. As you can tell from the photo, the main issue I had was with my hair getting in my face, a common occurrence apparently for those of us with long hair. Next we learned about all of our stations and our role for different scenarios: fire, man-over-board, and a full ship evacuation. We learned about the different alarms that would be sounded, the types of fire extinguishers, where the medical office is, and where the AED’s are. We were also reminded that in each stateroom is a breathing device kit that is can be used to provide ten minutes of oxygen, should it be needed.

Me in my emergency suit

Pulling out of port yesterday, the boat first only went a few hundred yards up the narrows. The next stage was to ‘top up’ on fuel – 18,000 gallons of fuel. The boat can hold much more but the cost in Ketchikan is less than further north so it pays to fill up now. As you can imagine there are big safety issues with fueling of boats and during this time, several temporary bans were put in to place on the ship so that no sparks of any kind were made (no cooking, welding etc). The fuel is stored in several large tanks. The tanks are not connected to each other and each can be turned off individually in the event of a fire or leak. Earlier that day too we had also filled up with water.

There are many conservation and environmental practices put in to place that I have already seen on the ship. There are many protocols put in to place to protect both the environment and to conserve resources. During the fueling, a ring (oil boom) was put around the ship so that if there were an accidental fuel spill or leak, it would be contained on the surface of the water. Laundry is ‘closed’ until next weekend and only full loads are allowed in order to conserve fresh water. Water can be made from seawater using equipment on the ship, but it costs $8/gallon to run the equipment, so conservation is the first measure put in place.

Getting fuel in Ketchikan

We also have practiced emergency drills. In these drills, everyone has a station to go to and a job to do. The fire drill mimicked a fire in the generator room and a person receiving burns. What’s interesting to realize it that people wear multiple hats on the ship and so everyone needs to know what to do and how to help. Formal fire fighting equipment is worn by trained people, radios are used to communicate between groups, diagrams of the ship are pulled out and drawn on and labeled to keep account of who has been tasked to do what and where the situation is located. Out at sea, the fire department and the medics cannot be called. The staff members on the ship are the medics and the fire department. During the drill a person role-played being the burn victim, so not only were firefighters needed but also medics. After the drills, everyone meets to debrief. Ideas and observations are shared. Communication is crucial and common here.

My emergency assignments

With communication at the forefront, there are many mechanisms put in place to make sure the people on board know the specifics of the mission each day and their role in the mission. There are different departments in the boat, but one cannot function without the other. People are hired as Survey crew, Engineers, Deck crew, Stewards, Electronic Tecnicians and as NOAA Corps officers. There are also visitors on the boat, such as myself, some who are with the boat for the whole season, others like myself for a few weeks. Schedules are placed around the boat indicating who is on what shift. Meetings are held at 8am each day with the science and deck teams to discuss where the small research boats are surveying that day. During these briefings safety reminders and weather conditions are discussed as well as the location of where each boat will be. Boats radio in each hour for safety. Department heads meet daily to share their updates, keeping everyone up to date with different aspects of the ship. Debrief sessions happen at the end of each research day after dinner. Everyone participates as no one person’s job is isolated here. Issues and concerns are dealt with and go in to the decision making for the following day. Communication is key.

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The morning meeting


Fact of the day:

The Fairweather is divided in to 26 fire zones to help with safety and fire fighting. All the doors operate manually and many internal doors are held open by a magnet. In the event of a fire, the doors can be closed instantly from the Bridge, using a switch to stop the magnets working.

Word of the day: Muster

This is the term used when all the people gathered in the correct place for the fire/emergency drill. Roll was taken and we had a ‘full muster’. 

What is this?

What do you think this is a picture of? (The answer will be in the next blog installment).


(Previous answer: Rubber boots with spikes in to help with traction. Here on the boat, and in many parts of Alaska waterproof footwear is very useful. While the boots the staff here don’t have spikes in them, these were on display in the Southeastern Alaska Discovery Center.

 Acronym of the Day

EEBD: Emergency Escape Breathing Device

Lynn Kurth: Goodbye “Toes”, June 26, 2016

NOAA Teacher at Sea

Lynn M. Kurth

Aboard NOAA Ship Rainier

June 20-July 1, 2016

Mission: Hydrographic Survey

Geographical area of cruise:  Latitude: N 57˚23  Longitude: W 153˚20  (North Coast of Kodiak Island)

Date:  June 26, 2016

Weather Data from the Bridge:
Sky: Fog
Visibility: 1 Nautical Mile
Wind Direction: 085
Wind Speed: 12 Knots
Sea Wave Height: –
Sea Water Temperature: 12.2° C (54° F)
Dry Temperature: 12.6° C (54.7° F)
Barometric (Air) Pressure: 1008.6 mb

Science and Technology Log

As I was looking up at the stars over the ship one evening, I was thinking about the study of space and the 1980’s Teacher in Space program.  It’s difficult to believe that as of this past January it has been thirty years since the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster, which took the life of educator Christa McAuliffe and six other astronauts.  Christa had been selected to become the first teacher in space, which offers such opportunity to learn and grow.  I admire Christa McAuliffe because of this and the fact that she recognized that the study of space offers the opportunity for discovery, innovation and investigation.

Kurth at Sea (Uganik Bay, Alaska)

I love being a Teacher at Sea because the ocean is similar to space in that it is largely unexplored and offers the chance to discover, innovate and investigate.   In fact, less than 5% of earth’s ocean has been explored even though new technologies have expanded our ability to explore.  Scientists like those I am working with on the Rainier use a variety of this new technology such as satellites, complex computer programs, and multi beam sonar to explore and carry out their hydrographic work.  Over the past week, I have been fortunate to work with these scientists in Uganik Bay and gain a better understanding of how they use these technologies in their work.

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Out on the skiff with Chief Jim Jacobson and crew

Before the surveying work using the multi beam sonar system can begin, a small crew is sent off the Rainier in a skiff, a shallow flat-bottomed open boat, to complete near shore work.  During this work, the crew on the skiff meticulously examines the features of the coastline while comparing what they see to any available charts and other sources of information about the area.  The depth of Uganik Bay was last surveyed and charted in 1908 but the area does have some additional charting of shoreline features documented throughout the years via aerial photography and information shared by local mariners.  The skiff used for the near shore work is equipped with a GPS (global positioning system) unit and a computer program which continually maps where it travels.  The skiff moves slowly along the shoreline while circling rocks and other features (reefs, islands, kelp beds, fishing gear) in order to accurately determine their size and location.  The scientists record all of their findings on a sheet illustrating the area they are working in and enter the revisions into a computer program when they return to the Rainier.   These revisions frequently include adding features not previously documented, modifying information on existing features or suggesting possible features to be eliminated when they are not found and verified.

Chief Jim Jacobson enters updated information from near shore work documented while on the skiff.

For example, one of the days while I was working with a crew on a skiff, part of our work involved verifying whether or not a series of rocks existed where they had been previously charted.  Oddly enough, when looking at the chart the formation of rocks looked like a giant left footprint.  This particular feature on the chart, was flagged for us to investigate and verify because each of the rocks that made up “the little toes” seemed to be too equally spaced to be natural features.  When we examined the area we found that there was only one rock, “the big toe”, at the top of the formation vs. a total of five.  The suggested updates to this feature were supported with the documentation of photographs and measurements.  In other words, the scientists suggested that the final revisions completed by NOAA staff in Seattle would include the “amputation” of the four “little toes” from the charts.

Sheet used on skiff to document suggested revisions. Notice the “foot” feature?


All Aboard!

I have really enjoyed chatting with the people on board the Rainier because they have interesting stories to share and are happy to share them. Erin Earley, member of the engine utility crew, was one of those people who graciously gave me some of her time for an interview.

Erin Earley (right) discusses ship operations with Ensign Bethany McAcy (left)

Tell us a little about yourself:

I’m Erin Earley from Sacramento, California and was a social worker prior to working for NOAA (National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration).  I enjoy water color painting, creating multi-medium sculptures, and anything to do with designing gardens.  And I love dogs, Shelties in particular.

How did you discover NOAA and what do you love the most about your job with NOAA?:

As a social worker I had a couple of young adults in the child protection system who wanted to find a different career.  When looking at career options for them I came across a maritime program for youth in Sacramento that seemed to meet their needs.  So, I went to a parent night to learn more about the program and when I heard about the rate of pay and opportunity to travel I asked if they were considering an option for adults to join the program. They said that they were and I registered for the program and began with the AB (able bodied seaman) program for deck work but after watching the Deadliest Catch I decided that wasn’t for me.  So, I decided to complete the engineering program to be qualified for engine room work.  The course work included survival work, emergency ship repair work and fire fighting skills.

I love my job with NOAA because for the most part I’m working with a small group of people, we all know our duties, and we all help each other out.  I enjoy seeing jobs get completed and things getting fixed.  And, the most important reason I love my job is that I don’t have to drive to work and dress up.  I come from Sacramento, and here I don’t have to wait for traffic coming across town and wait at Starbucks for an hour.  On a ship you become a minimalist, you learn what is important and what is not.   I love meeting new people, trying new foods and seeing new things!

Erin Earley takes a sounding of a fuel tank

What are your primary responsibilities when working on the ship?  

My primary responsibilities at sea include monitoring the oil levels of the equipment, making sure that everything is running properly, reporting to the engineer anything that might be a problem, making sure the bow thruster has proper fluids, and making sure there’s no excess water in any of the places.  We’re floating on a huge ocean and we want to make sure none of it’s coming in!

What kind of background and/or education do you need to have this job?

It would help to go to a maritime school and a lot of major coastal cities have these schools that offer these programs.  If you want a four year college education you could go to a maritime academy (San Francisco, New York and Baltimore ) to get a degree in mechanical engineering and then you could work on a ship or on the shore side at a port.  If you don’t want to go to a four year college you can still work in engineering but you would have to take certification courses and work your way up.  I think for a young person the adventure of working for NOAA is fun but you should always have a plan as far as where you might want to go.  Keep your options open!

Did You Know?

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The Rainier, Uganik Bay

The Rainier:

  • has 26 fuel tanks
  • uses 500 gallons of fuel a day while at anchor
  • uses 100 gallons of fuel each hour while underway (2400 gallons/day)
  • goes through approximately 50 lbs of beef and 30 lbs of chicken each week
  • uses 8 different kinds of milk (lactose free, soy, almond, cashew, 1%, 2%, whole, and skim)



Cassie Kautzer: It’s All About the Survey! August 24, 2014

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Cassie Kautzer
Aboard NOAA Ship Rainier
August 16 – September 5, 2014

Mission: Hydrographic Survey
Geographical Area of Survey: Woody Island Channel, Kodiak, Alaska
Date: August 24, 2014

Temperature & Weather:  12° C  (54° F), Cloudy with Drizzly Rain

Science & Technology Log

Survey work continues today (Yes- even on the weekend) in the Woody Island Channel.  While it is easy for me to see why this area is navigationally significant, it made me think about how one would identify which areas need to be surveyed.  The National Ocean Service compiles data and prioritizes areas in need of surveying.  Examples can be seen here for NOAA’s survey priorities in and around Alaska.

Using the areas of critical priority the Hydrographic Surveys Division (HSD) writes project instructions.  Project instructions include all necessary data and guidelines, including: project name, project number, assigned field unit (ship), assigned processing branch, planned acquisition time, purpose and location of survey, and necessary supporting documents.  On the project instructions, the Hydrographic Surveys Division also splits the assigned survey areas into sheets, or manageable sections.

This image shows the project on the North side of Kodiak Island.  The project area is split into sheets.  Sheet 6 is highlighted in pink.  (Photo Courtesy NOAA and Project Instruction packet.)
This image shows the project on the North side of Kodiak Island. The project area is split into sheets. Sheet 6 is highlighted in pink. (Photo Courtesy NOAA and Project Instruction packet.)
This is a completed sheet from the North Kodiak project.
This is a completed sheet from the North Kodiak project.

Each sheet is then assigned to a Hydrographic Survey Technician (HST), a Hydrographic Senior Survey Technician (HSST), or a NOAA Corps Officer.  Usually, one person will be the sheet manager and another will be the sheet assistant.  The sheet manager is often teaching and guiding the sheet assistant, to train them to be able to do this work on their own in the future.   The sheet manager is also responsible for dividing the sheets into polygons. Polygons for hydro surveys are used to divide the survey into smaller sections.  When planning polygons, it is important for the sheet manager to follow specific guidelines- shapes cannot just be randomly drawn on a sheet or chart.  The deeper the water, the larger the polygon can be; the more shoal the area, the smaller the polygon should be.  Polygons should be drawn with the ocean contours, and should be planned for launch boats to run them from offshore to nearshore.  This is a safety step in that launches should be working from deeper areas up to shoaler areas near the shore.  As the boats move back in forth collecting data, it is as if they are mowing the lawn.  The boats always try to slightly overlap the last strip so that no data is missed.  If a small spot or strip of data is missed, its like that little area of grass that didn’t get mowed.  It is called a Holiday in the data, because we have to make a special trip back to gather data on that spot.

Hydro Senior Survey Tech  Brandy Geiger analyzes data and creates polygons for the sheet she is managing for the Woody Island Canal Survey.
Hydro Senior Survey Tech Brandy Geiger analyzes data and creates polygons for the sheet she is managing for the Woody Island Channel Survey.
Senior Tech Barry Jackson, Assistant Tech Dan Negrete, Senior Tech Brandy Geiger, Chief Tech Jim Jacobson, and Senior Tech Starla Robinson look over Woody Island Channel plans to prepare for survey.
Senior Tech Barry Jackson, Assistant Tech Dan Negrete, Senior Tech Brandy Geiger, Chief Tech Jim Jacobson, and Senior Tech Starla Robinson look over Woody Island Channel plans to prepare for survey.

Once plans are completed, the Field Operations Officer (FOO) can plan how many survey launch boats will be deploying, who will be aboard each, and what polygons they will aim to cover each day.  Aboard each launch a skilled coxswain (driver) and a Hydrographer in Charge (HIC) are needed.  There is almost always a third person on board, as it is best/safest to deploy boats with one person at the bow (front), one at the stern (back) and one in the driver’s seat.  Once on the water, the HIC and Coxswain have to cooperate and communicate to make an efficient and safe plan for the day.

Rainier Survey Launch - RA3.
Rainier Survey Launch – RA3.
Hydrographer in Charge (HIC) Starla Robinson and Seaman Surveyor Dennis Brooks look over multibeam data together, as they safely plan next steps to survey in shoal, rocky waters.
Hydrographer in Charge (HIC) Starla Robinson and Seaman Surveyor Dennis Brooks look over multibeam data together, as they safely plan next steps to survey in shoal, rocky waters.

Personal Log

Every day is an adventure!  I so enjoy learning – and it’s a good thing – because just about everything here is new to me!

Enjoying this beautiful evening- oceanside!
Enjoying this beautiful evening- oceanside!
Assistant Survey Tech Thomas Burrow [from Rogers, Arkansas :) ] processes multibeam data brought back from the launches.
Assistant Survey Tech Thomas Burrow [from Rogers, Arkansas 🙂 ] processes multibeam data brought back from the launches.
A black sand beach on the Kodiak Coast Guard Base.
A black sand beach on the Kodiak Coast Guard Base.
Observing from the observation deck as the Rainer gets underway.
Observing from the Flying Bridge as the Rainer gets underway.

For My Students

The survey says…

*What observations did you make in trying to answer the trivia question about what I found in the water?  Did you decide you saw Harbor Seal, Otter, Octopus, Plants, or Aliens?

You were actually seeing a plant/plants called kelp.  Kelp is a large brown seaweed that often has a long, tough stalk.  Kelp can often be found growing in and around shoal, rocky areas in the ocean.  A lot of kelp in the area is a warning to boats and other vessels that shallow areas or rocky obstructions may be near by, and caution is needed.

A new question for you:

1) What is a polygon?

2) What experiences have you had with the ocean?


Bill Lindquist: Life at Sea, May 6, 2013

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Bill Lindquist
Aboard NOAA Ship Rainier
May 6-16, 2013

Mission: Hydrographic surveys between Ketchikan and Petersburg, Alaska
Date: May 6, 2013

Weather Data from the Bridge

Clear skies
10.5 C (51 F)
Wind: 4 knots out of the south

Science and Technology Log

Navigational Science

My iPhone will pinpoint my location on a highway map and lay out a course to get me wherever I need to go. Navigating by canoe from lake to lake within the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCAW) requires a map, compass, and discerning eye. The tools of navigation on board an ocean-going vessel requires far more than a phone or a map and compass, yet similarities do exist. As a guest on the bridge, I had the chance to witness the team effort put in to safely get us where we needed to be. Like canoeing, navigation begins with a map, compass, and a good plan.

Charting a track
Charting a track

A path (track) is drawn on the nautical charts with waypoints identifying track adjustments to be made. Compass headings to get from one waypoint to the next are written in.  Progress along this track is regularly noted on the chart. While paper and pencil keeps the track grounded and secure, the primary navigation on the Rainier is electronic. Digital charts created by earlier surveyors are displayed along with our location pinpointed by GPS data accessed through high power receivers atop the ship – difficult at times in these remote portions of SE Alaska surrounded by the mountains. The track penciled on paper is plotted digitally and the journey begins. The Conn officer reads the map and calls out to the helmsman the heading to take.

At the helm
At the helm

The helmsman repeats it to assure it was heard correctly and turns the ship’s wheel to the new heading noting it with a dry erase marker on a small whiteboard on the helm station. The ship’s heading is indicated by an overhead digital compass display and held steady until the next waypoint is reached. Safe navigation requires a smoothly running team. The Conn officer and helmsman continue back and forth making any necessary adjustments while a third keeps a close eye on the radar. Another scans ahead with binoculars to note any floating debris to avoid.

Keeping a sharp eye ahead
Keeping a sharp eye ahead

Depth is continuously monitored along with notations of tide and currents. Weather conditions are recorded. All operations are carefully coordinated and monitored by the assigned Officer on the Deck.

Complicating navigation in this part of Alaska is the difference between the geographic north pole and magnetic north pole. Our compasses align with magnetic north – a different place from geographic north or “true north”. All charts and maps reference true north. Failure to account for this difference leads to getting lost. In Minnesota true north and geographic north are so close the difference is seldom noticed. In this area of Alaska the difference between true north and where a compass points is approximately 17 degrees. Fortunately, the ships gyrocompasses automatically account for this difference and report headings aligned with the true north of the charts.

A majestic view off the bow
A majestic view off the bow

Following our plan, we made it today from Ketchikan to Burroughs Bay in Behm Canal. Our work plan called for anchoring in the bay and getting to work in the morning. To anchor my canoe I simply throw out a small anchor attached to a rope and am set. Successfully anchoring the Rainier required the joint work of many. Within much of the bay the waters far enough from shore were too deep to gain a sufficient hold to keep the ship in position. With the ship’s Commander in charge, we maneuvered within the bay carefully monitoring the depths to identify a suitable location finally finding a shelf that appeared would work. The drop anchor command was given and 16+ fathoms (one fathom equals 6 feet) of chain held within the confines of the ship for six months quickly reeled out raising clouds of dust. It held.

Dropping anchor
Dropping anchor

Personal Log

Life at sea

There is a palpable pulse to the floating community that must exist to live and work together on a ship at sea. The quarters are close with minimal space to roam. The ongoing work lies amidst the everyday tasks of living causing leisure time to mix with work time. The functions of the ship go on 24 hours a day. On the ship Rainier, distinct, but united groups work side by side: NOAA Corps officers, survey technicians, the maritime crew, stewards, the ship’s engineers, and the occasional Teacher at Sea. To successfully collect the terabytes of data going into the making of new and revised nautical charts, all members of the ship’s personnel must work as a cohesive whole.

I have been blessed with a warm reception from each of these groups. The ship’s Commander and an Ensign welcomed me at the airport ferry and escorted me to the ship. The Ensign helped begin to unravel the labyrinth of passageways that eventually brought me to my state room. A conversation with my roommate gave me a glimpse into the role of the NOAA Corps. A crewman caught me in my roaming and offered a guided tour of the bridge and small boats. I was given an introduction to the personal side of life at sea by another over coffee. Yet another provided an extensive introduction to the complexities of modern navigation found on the bridge.  An engineer provided a close up tour into the bowels of the engine room.  These expressions of welcome were offered freely. It was evident that each of these people are proud members of this Rainier community, living and working side-by-side on a daily basis. Life at sea isn’t for the partially committed. Each of these people give up extended months at a time away from their loved ones in their commitment to this task. I was struck by a conversation with the engineer shared over breakfast. After a break from sea life, he found he had to return to sea to satisfy the salt water coursing in his blood.

I made it. I am officially a teacher at sea. Life is good.