Robert Ulmer: Quo Vadimus? June 16, 2013

NOAA Teacher At Sea

Robert Ulmer

Aboard NOAA Ship Rainier

Underway from June 15 to July 3, 2013

Current coordinates:  N 55⁰47.254’, W 130⁰58.264’

(at anchor in Behm Canal at the mouth of Chickamin River)

Mission:  Hydrographic survey

Geographical area of cruise:  Southeast Alaska, including Chatham Strait and Behm Canal, with a Gulf of Alaska transit westward to Kodiak

Log date:  June 16, 2013

Weather conditions:  26.04⁰C, scattered altocumulus clouds, 32.91% relative humidity, 1012.18 mb of atmospheric pressure, light variable winds (speed of less than 3 knots with a heading between 26⁰ and 51⁰)

A bit of breathing room in Wrangell Narrows

A rare bit of breathing room in the passage of NOAA Ship Rainier through Wrangell Narrows

Explorer’s Log:  Preparing for the transit through Wrangell Narrows

When watching a great concert, recital, or athletic event, we often forget the hours upon hours of preparation that were invested before the starting whistle or the rise of the curtain.  History remembers and recites the first few moments of Neil Armstrong’s walk on the surface of Earth’s moon, but too often neglected from that history are the many years of research, discussion, calculation, prediction, and practice by thousands of people – including Armstrong – prior to that famous “one small step,” for without those advance preparations the brilliant moment likely never would have occurred.

Photos at the top of Everest belie the training, packing, mapping, and grueling climb that precede the snapshot.  Last-minute buzzer beaters arise out of years of dribbling and shooting in empty gyms long after scheduled team workouts end.   The revolutionary insights of Copernicus and Kepler were built upon hundreds of previous models and millions of recorded observations and related calculations.  Great campaigns are waged on drawing boards long before they approach the battlefield.

Chart showing approach to Wrangell Narrows

This is the chart used during the navigational team meeting in preparation for Rainier’s approach to Wrangell Narrows.

Aboard NOAA Ship Rainier the culture of preparation is omnipresent.  Posted on the door of my stateroom and carried in my pocket at all times is a billet card that delineates where I am to report and what task I am assigned in each of several emergency situations aboard ship.  Within an hour of getting underway from the port of Juneau, the alarm sounded for a fire drill, and every person aboard reported smartly to his or her assigned station.  Heads were accounted, gear was readied, and some crew members even donned full firefighting suits and deployed hoses and fans to address the fictional fire in the XO’s office.  Because every person aboard knew his or her role in advance, the ship was prepared for the drill.  And more importantly, because the entire ship participated actively in the drill, dealing with a genuine emergency, if necessary, will be more seamless and effective.

Then only ten minutes later, the alarm rang again.  This time an abandon ship drill.  As assigned, I retrieved my emergency gear and moved quickly to Muster Station 1 on the starboard bridge wing, where ACO Mark Van Waes explained in detail what would happen in the event of such an emergency.

Teamwork and Safety first

As this sign above the fantail proudly displays, NOAA Ship Rainier values teamwork and puts safety first in all operations and missions.

Leaving the dock at Juneau Port

Careful navigation requires attention to details, like avoiding this small dock while leaving Juneau Port.

Of course, most of the preparatory work aboard Rainier is not about emergency situations, but rather is focused on readying for the work of navigating and operating the ship or the scientific missions of conducting surveys and samples, and that aspect of life aboard ship is non-stop.  Everywhere around me, crew members and scientists are constantly working together, giving formal and informal trainings and lessons, offering one another ideas, insights, questions, and answers, unencumbered by the impediments of pride and arrogance that too often prevent achievement through growth.  To the left of me, a young ensign is given room to make navigational decisions, while to my right two expert hydrographers consult available data and each other while they brainstorm about technical and theoretical issues on their own horizons.

Passing Petersburg, Alaska

The entrance to Wrangell Narrows is alongside the town of Petersburg, Alaska.

Reviewing the data and documents during the mission

Scientists from the survey team review data and documents while aboard the launch.

And the gathering of minds aboard Rainier is impressive.  Today the hydrographic survey team assembled in the wardroom to talk about the upcoming week’s launches of smaller vessels to perform multi-beam sonar surveys and gather bed samples from the floor of Behm Canal.  Under the guidance of FOO Mike Gonsalves, data were shared, schedules were outlined, and every member of the team – regardless of rank or role – was encouraged to share thoughts, concerns, and inquiries relevant to preparation for the task at hand, the ultimate task of this leg of Rainier’s mission.  Like those other great events throughout history, here is yet another example of prior preparation preventing poor performance at the critical moment.  And those were not the last conferences regarding the survey launches, either.  A meeting regarding safety and other last-minute issues was held on the fantail before putting the launches out, and the various people aboard each small vessel constantly interacted to update and modify their ideas before executing their actions.

(Note:  My next blog post will be about the scientific survey launches, so stay tuned!)

The view forward through Wrangell Narrows

A panoramic view of the passage forward through Wrangell Narrows

The most impressive preparation during the past few days, though, was that of the navigational crew.  After hours of work compiling past data and available current information and building itemized route plans for passage through the potentially-treacherous Wrangell Narrows, Ensign JC Clark led a large and comprehensive meeting to discuss every bit of the upcoming traverse.  Utilizing charts, mathematics, weather forecasts, and expert opinions, the group of men and women in the boardroom created a plan of execution that considered everything from tides to local traffic, from channel depths to buoy patterns.  Adjustments were made in an air of excitement tempered by the confidence of experience, preparation, and skill.

Alidade on starboard bridge wing

This device (called an alidade) on the starboard bridge wing is used for visual bearings.

And when the ship approached the town of Petersburg at the mouth of Wrangell, the preparation paid off.  Turn after turn, command after command, the teamwork was superb, and the resulting passage was seamless.  The ride was so smooth as the bridge maneuvered Rainier through the slalom in that deep and narrow fjord, that only the beautiful scenery itself was breathtaking.

Chief Boatswain Jim Kruger practicing knots

During a brief opportunity to look away from the water, Chief Boatswain Jim Kruger worked on maintaining his expert knot-tying skills.

We tend to envision genuine explorers as being people who dare to travel beyond the horizon, choosing adventure over caution every time they set out.  But the truth is that every great explorer, long before he lifts his foot for the first step of the travel, asks himself and his companions:  Quo vadimus?

Where are we going?

Pre-launch meeting on the fantail

Field Operations Officer Mike Gonsalves conducts one last survey team meeting on the fantail before the launches get underway.

The answer to that question might be a physical location, or it could just as easily be a direction.  Up that mountain.  Toward that little island.  Around the bend.  It could even be broad and metaphorical.

Sea lions basking on a buoy at the entrance to Wrangell Narrows

The ACO pulled out the binoculars to answer his own question of why that red buoy at the entrance to Wrangell Narrows was listing so much to the right. The tilt was because these sea lions were using the buoy to bask in the warm near-solstice sun.

But regardless of the short answer, the great explorer knows that the value of good preparation ultimately is the maximization of adventure can be maximized.  Explorers may appear to disregard caution, but in fact, they have done the training, built the skills, plotted the course, and considered the likely obstacles in order to address that caution before getting underway.

But regardless of the short answer, the great explorer knows that the value of good preparation ultimately is the maximization of adventure can be maximized.  Explorers may appear to disregard caution, but in fact, they have done the training, built the skills, plotted the course, and considered the likely obstacles in order to address that caution before getting underway.

ACO Van Waes shared with me a superb insight:  The difference between a road map and a nautical chart is that a road map outlines a suggested path of travel, while the chart simply shows the traveler what things are out there.  The hydrographic survey teams and supporting scientists who work for NOAA make nautical charts so that seagoing explorers can continue the great human endeavor of creating their own maps to turn curiosity into discovery, and I am very proud to spend these weeks working and learning among the people who keep that grand tradition going forward.

So prepare yourselves, practice your skills, plan a bit, and choose a direction or two.  And then keep exploring, my friends.

Personal Log:  Father’s Day

On the day before I left Florida I cropped my hair closely and stopped shaving my face (for the first time ever), in part to minimize the need for maintenance away from home, and also as a minor-league scientific experiment to compare rates of hair growth on the face and on the crown.  After five days the chin, cheeks, and jawline seem to be winning the race.  But the most interesting datum – as so often is the case in scientific tests – is a peripheral notation:  When passing a reflective window this morning, I saw a familiar face framed by the short beard and small wrinkles at the edges of the sunglasses under the brim of my hat, but the face that I saw wasn’t my own.  This third Sunday in June, thousands of miles from home, sort of pensively half-smiling at a fleeting thought that was blending with a pretty view of the treeline off starboard, I saw the face of my dad looking back at me.  And my smile grew a bit softer and fuller when I caught glimpses of my sons in the reflection, too.

So happy Father’s Day to you three other Ulmer men who do so much to define this Ulmer boy.  I’m proud of you, and I love you guys.

And on behalf of children everywhere, happy Father’s Day to the rest of you readers who have undertaken the great task of raising kids.  Your work is important.  

Did you know?

Underway through Gastineau Channel

Underway through Gastineau Channel, outbound from Juneau

The ship’s propellers are called screws because essentially they spiral through the water to propel the boat forward by pulling water from in front and pushing it backward.  NOAA Ship Rainier has two screws, one starboard (right) and one port (left), and they spin in opposite directions to make smoother and more efficient fluid dynamics.  On this ship the screws constantly spin, but they are tilted differently to increase or decrease forward propulsion.

To increase forward vessel speed, the screws hang with a vertical profile so that the water moves horizontally backward from the boat, thus pushing the boat forward.  To decrease forward vessel speed, the screws are tilted toward a more horizontal plane, decreasing the backward push of water, and consequently reducing the ship’s thrust force.  It’s very much like holding your open, flat hand outside the window of a moving car and feeling the wind push it backward, upward, or downward, depending upon the angle of your palm relative to the car’s (and the wind’s) trajectory.  Newton’s Third Law of Motion says that every action comes with an equal and opposite reaction, and so the more directly backward the water is pushed, the more directly forward (with the same amount of force) the ship is pushed in the opposite direction.