Avery Marvin: Cool Science on the Ship and final Reflections of My Rainier Adventure, July 30, 2013

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Avery Marvin
Aboard NOAA Ship Rainier
July 8 — 25, 2013 

Mission: Hydrographic Survey
Geographical Area of Cruise: Shumagin Islands, Alaska
Date: July 30, 2013

Current Location: 54° 55.6’ N, 160° 10.2’ W

Weather on board: Broken skies with a visibility of 14 nautical miles, variable wind at 22 knots, Air temperature: 14.65°C, Sea temperature: 6.7°C, 2 foot swell, sea level pressure: 1022.72 mb

Science and Technology Log:

Sometimes in school you hear, “You’ll need this someday.” You have been skeptical, and (at times) rightfully so. But here on the Rainier, Rosalind and I encountered many areas in which what we learned in school has helped us to understand some of the ship operations.

How does a 234 ft. ship, like the Rainier, float?

If you take a large chunk of metal and drop it in the water, it will sink. And yet, here we are sailing on a large chunk of metal. How is that possible? This all has to do with the difference between density (the amount of mass or stuff contained within a chunk of a substance) and buoyancy (the tendency of an object to float). When you put an object in water, it pushes water out of the way. If the object pushes aside an amount of water with equal mass before it becomes fully submerged, it will float. Less dense objects typically float because it doesn’t take that much water to equal their mass, and so they can remain above the water line. The shape of a ship is designed to increase its buoyancy by displacing a greater quantity of water than it would as a solid substance. Because of all the empty space in the ship, by the time the ship has displaced a quantity of water with equal mass to the ship itself, the ship is still above water. As we add people, supplies, gasoline and so on to the ship, we ride lower. As evidenced by the sinking of numerous ships, when a ship springs a hole in the hull and water floods in, the buoyancy of the ship is severely compromised. To take precaution against this, the Rainier has several extra watertight doors that can be closed in case of an emergency. That way, the majority of the ship could be kept secure from the water and stay afloat.

How does a heavy ship like the Rainier stay balanced?

Another critical consideration is the balance of the ship. When the ship encounters the motion of the ocean, it tends to pitch and roll. Like a pendulum, the way in which it does this depends largely on the distance between the center of gravity of the ship (effectively the point at which the mass of the ship is centered) and the point about which it will roll. Ships are very carefully designed and loaded so that they maintain maximum stability.

Boat stability diagram
Boat stability diagram

Ballast is often added to the hulls of ships for the following reasons:

  • to help keep them balanced when there is not enough cargo weight
  • to increase stability when sailing in rough seas
  • to increase the draught of the ship allowing it to pass under bridges
  • to counteract a heavy upper deck like that of the Rainier, which itself contains 64, 000 pounds of launches.

Ballast comes in many forms and historically rocks, sandbags and pieces of heavy metal were used to lower a ship’s center of gravity, thus stabilizing it. Cargo ships, when filling up at port, would unload this ballast in exchange for the cargo to be transported.  For example, in the 1800s, the cobblestone streets of Savannah, Georgia were made with the abandoned ballast of ships. Today water is used as ballast, since it can be loaded and unloaded easier and faster. Most cargo ships contain several ballast tanks in the hull of the ship.

Cargo ship with several ballast tanks
Cargo ship with several ballast tanks

It is thought that the capsizing of the Cougar Ace cargo ship bound for the west coast of the US in 2006, was caused by a ballast problem during an open-sea transfer.  The ship was required to unload their ballast in international waters before entering US waters to prevent the transfer of invasive species carried by the stored water. The result of the Cougar Ace snafu: 4, 700 Mazdas scrapped and millions of dollars lost. Oops!

Couger Ace capsized in open ocean
Cougar Ace capsized in open ocean

Because the Rainier is not loading and unloading tons of cargo, they use a permanent ballast of steel rebar, which sits in the center of the lower hull. Another source of ballast is the 102, 441 gallons of diesel which is divided between many gas tanks that span the width and length of the ship on the port and starboard sides.  These tanks can be filled and emptied individually.  For stability purposes the Rainier must maintain 30% of fuel onboard, and according to the CO, the diesel level is usually way above 30% capacity. The manipulation of the individual diesel tank levels is more for “trimming” of the boat which essentially ensures a smoother ride for passengers.

Where does all the freshwater come from for a crew of 50?

If only humans could drink saltwater, voyages at sea would be much easier and many lives would have been saved. Unfortunately, salt water is three times saltier than human blood and would severely dehydrate the body upon consumption leading to health problems such as kidney failure, brain damage, seizures and even death.  So how can we utilize all this salt water that surrounds us for good use?  Well, to avoid carrying tons of fresh potable water aboard, most large ships use some type of desalination process to remove the salt from the water.  Desalination methods range from reverse osmosis to freeze thawing to distillation. The Rainier uses a distillation method which mimics the water cycle in nature: heated water evaporates into water vapor, leaving salts and impurities behind, condensing into liquid water as the temperature drops. This all is happening inside a closed system so the resulting freshwater can be kept.  To speed up this process, the pressure is lowered inside the desalinator so the water boils at a lower temperature.  Much of the energy needed to heat the water comes from the thermal energy or waste heat given off by nearby machines such as the boiler.

Desalinator in the Rainier engine room
Desalinator in the Rainier engine room

Distillation purifies 99% percent of the salt water and the remaining 1% of impurities are removed by a bromine filter.  The final step of the process is a bromine concentration and PH check to ensure the water is potable. The bromine should be about .5 ppm and the PH between 6.8-7.2.

Daily water quality log
Daily water quality log

Everyday the Rainer desalinates 2500 gallons of saltwater to be used for drinking, cleaning and showering. The toilets, however, use saltwater and if you are lucky like me, you can see flashes of light from bioluminescent plankton when flushing in darkness. It’s like a plankton discotec in the toilet!

How does the chicken cross the road when the road is moving?

The difference between a road map and a nautical chart is that a road map tells you which way to go and a nautical chart just tells you what’s out there and you design your course.  Thus, navigating on the ocean is not as simple as “turn left at the stop sign,” or “continue on for 100 miles”, like directions for cars often state. Imagine that the road beneath you was moving as you drove your car. In order to keep following your desired course, you would need to keep adjusting to the changes in the road. That’s a lot like what happens in a ship. If you want to drive due west, you can’t simply aim the ship in that direction. As you go, the ship gets pushed around by the wind, the currents, and the tides, almost as if you drove your car west and the road slid up to the north. Without compensating for this, you would end up many miles north of your desired location. If you have a north-going current, you have to account for this by making southward adjustments. In a physics class, we might talk about adding vectors, or directional motion; in this case, we are considering velocity vectors. When you add up the speed you are going in each direction, you end up with your actual speed and direction. In the ship we make adjustments so that our actual speed and direction are correct.

Which way to the North Pole?

Did you know that when you look at a compass, it doesn’t always tell you the direction of true north? True north is directly towards the North Pole, the center of the Earth’s axis of rotation which passes directly to the true south pole. However, compasses rely on the location of the magnetic pole which is offset somewhat.

Compass showing true north and magnetic north
Compass showing true north and magnetic north

The combination of the solid iron core and the liquid iron mantle of the Earth create a magnetic field that surrounds the Earth (and protects us from some really damaging effects of the sun). If you visualize the Earth like a bar magnet, magnetic north is located at an approximate position of 82.7°N 114.4°W, roughly in the middle of northern Canada. If you stood directly south of this point, your compass would point true north because true north and magnetic north would be on the same line of longitude. However, as you get farther away from this west or east, the North indicated by your compass is more and more offset.

The magnetic poles of the earth
The magnetic poles of the earth
Earth showing true and magnetic poles
Earth showing true and magnetic poles

Our navigational charts are made using “true” directions. Because of our location in Alaska, if we were steering by compass, we would have to offset all of our measurements by roughly 14° to account for the difference in true and magnetic north. Fortunately, due to the advent of GPS, it is much simpler to tell our true direction.

Why so much daylight and fog?

Every hour, the crew of the Rainier measures the air temperature, sea water temperature, atmospheric pressure, and relative humidity. Aside from keeping a record of weather conditions, this also allows the National Weather Service to provide a more accurate weather forecast for this geographical region by providing local data to plug into the weather prediction models.

Hourly weather log
Hourly weather log

Weather in the Shumagin Islands could be very different from that of the nearest permanent weather station, so this can be valuable information for mariners. In our time out here, we have experienced a lot of fog and cool temperatures (although the spectacular sunshine and sunsets of the past few days make that seem like a distant memory). One reason for this is our simultaneous proximity to a large land mass (Siberia, in far-east Russia) and the ocean. Cool air from the land collides with warm waters coming up from Japan, which often leads to fog.

Currents of the Pacific
Currents around Alaska

However, because we are pretty far north, we also experience a lot of daylight (although not the 24-hour cycles so often associated with Alaska). At this time of the year, even though the Earth is farther away from the sun that it is in our winter season, the axis of the Earth is tilted toward the sun, leading to more direct sunlight and longer hours of illumination.

Earth's orbit around the sun
Earth’s orbit around the sun

One slightly bizarre fact is that all of Alaska is on the same time zone, even though it is really large enough to span several time zones. Out in the west, that means that sunset is in fact much later than it otherwise should be. Our last few spectacular sunsets have all happened around 11pm and true darkness descends just past midnight.  I have on several occasions stayed up several hours past my bedtime fishing on the fantail or getting distracted wandering around the ship because it is still light out at 11pm!

Rosalind and Avery at sunset
Rosalind and Avery (with Van de Graaf generator hair) at sunset

Personal Log:

Well friends, I said a bittersweet goodbye to the Rainier and its incredible dynamic crew. I am sad to have left but am also excited to return home to the Oregon Coast to begin planning for this school year. I look forward to incorporating my newfound knowledge and unique experience at sea into the classroom.  I am still amazed at the breadth and diversity of information that I learned in just under 3 weeks. From learning how to steer the ship to acquiring and processing survey data to puffin reproduction, the list goes on. I never stopped asking questions or being curious.  And the Rainier crew was always there to graciously answer my questions.  I am grateful for all that they taught me and for the kindness and patience they consistently showed me.

When I asked Rick Brennan, the Commanding Officer, what he most enjoyed about his job, he responded “The people.” He said he enjoys seeing the personal and professional growth of individual crew members.  It is not hard to see that the Rainier crew is pretty amazing.  They are an extremely dedicated group of individuals whose passion for their profession supersedes living a “normal life”. Each one of them has an interesting story of how they got to the Rainier and many of them sacrifice family time and personal relationships to be aboard the ship for months at a time.

Beyond the scientific knowledge attained, I leave this ship with a few important life reminders.

1) Be patient with yourself, your own learning style, with others around you and the task at hand. Authentic science is messy and exhausting. Ship life attracts unique personalities.

2) Don’t forget about the big picture and why you are here in the first place. “Mowing the lawn” day in and day out can seem mundane but all of those data points together will compromise the updated nautical chart which will ensure safe mariner travel for a multitude of ships.

3) Teamwork is key to any complex operation. This not only means working together but always being willing to lend a helping hand and sharing your particular knowledge with fellow crew members.

4) Appreciate, observe and protect the natural beauty that surrounds us.  Cultivate this awareness in others. Our livelihood as a species depends on our interaction with the environment.

This is my second to last blog post. Stay tuned for an exciting last entry about my extended stay in Kodiak, Alaska (post Rainier) where I explored the unique cultural and historical facets of this vibrant fishing port. Note: This next post will involve bears, a seal skin kayak, a behind the scenes fish factory tour, orcas, reindeer sausage and fossils!

For now, I leave with fond memories of a truly unique 18 day voyage aboard the most productive coastal hydrographic survey platform in the world: her majesty, the Rainier. Thank you lovely lady and thank you Rainier crew for making this Teacher at Sea adventure so magical!

The most striking sunset of our voyage.
The most striking sunset of our voyage.

Avery Marvin: Sound Off! From Noise to Nautical Charts, July 22, 2013

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Avery Marvin
Aboard NOAA Ship Rainier (NOAA Ship Tracker)
July 8 — 25, 2013 

Mission: Hydrographic Survey
Geographical Area of Cruise: Shumagin Islands, Alaska
Date: July 22, 2013

Current Location: 54° 55.6’ N, 160° 10.2’ W

Weather on board: Broken skies with a visibility of 14 nautical miles, variable wind at 22 knots, Air temperature: 14.65°C, Sea temperature: 6.7°C, 2 foot swell, sea level pressure: 1022.72 mb

Science and Technology log:

Teamwork, safety first
Rainier motto, painted in the stern of the ship above the fantail, the rear lower outside deck where we have our safety meetings.

“Teamwork, Safety First”, is inscribed boldly on the Rainier stern rafter and after being aboard for more than 2 weeks, it is evident this motto is the first priority of the crew and this complex survey operation at hand.

Rainier launch
This is one of the survey launches that we use to gather our survey data. In this case, the launch is shown approaching the Rainier, getting ready to tie up.

It’s a rainy overcast morning here in SW Alaska and we are circled around the officers on the fantail for the daily safety meeting. Weather conditions, possible hazards, and the daily assignment for each launch are discussed. Per the instructions on the POD (Plan of the Day), handed out the previous evening, the crew then disperse to their assigned launches. The launches are then one-at-a-time lowered into the water by the fancy davit machinery and driven away by the coxswain to their specific “polygon” or survey area for the day. A polygon surveyed by a launch on average takes 2-3 hours at 6-8 knots to survey and usually is an area that is inaccessible by the ship. Many polygons make up one large area called a “sheet” which is under the direction of the “sheet manager”. Several sheets make up an entire survey project. Our hydrographic project in the Shumagins has 8 sheets and makes up a total of 314 square nautical miles.

Safety meeting
The CO, XO, and FOO lead the safety meeting for the day, discussing weather conditions, water conditions, and the assignments for each launch.
Shumagin Islands
This is a chart of the Shumagin Islands showing the 8 sheets (highlighted in green) that we are surveying.
East side of Chernabura Island divided into survey “polygons”, each labeled with a letter or word. Notice how each polygon is a small subset of the larger sheet.

On board each launch we have a complex suite of computer systems: one manages the sonar, another manages the acquisition software, and the third records the inertial motion of the launch as it rocks around on the water (pitch, heave, roll). The acquisition system superimposes an image of the path of the launch and the swath of the sonar beam on top of a navigational chart within the polygon. Starting at one edge of the polygon, the coxswain drives in a straight a line (in a direction determined by the sheet manager), to the other end of the polygon, making sure there is some overlap at the boundaries of the swaths. He/she then works back in the other direction, once again making sure there is some overlap with the adjacent swath. We call this “mowing the lawn,” or “painting the floor” as these are visually analogous activities. Throughout the day, we pause to take CTD casts so that we have a sound velocity profile in each area that we are working.

Typical launch dispersal for a survey day. Launches are signified by “RA-number”. You can also see the location of our tide measurement station and GPS control station, both of which we use to correct our data for errors.
Mowing the lawn
This image shows the software tracking the path and swath of the launch (red boat shape) as it gathers data, driving back and forth in the polygon, or “mowing the lawn.” The darker blue shaded area shows overlap between the two swaths. The launch is approaching a “holiday”, or gap in the data, in an effort to fill it in.

You might be wondering, why the swath overlap? This is to correct for the outer sonar beams of the swath, which can scatter because of the increased distance between the sea floor and the sonar receiver below the hull of the boat. The swath overlap is just one of the many quality control checks built into the launch surveying process. Depending on the “ping rate”, or the number of signals we are able to send to the bottom each second, the speed of the boat can be adjusted.  The frequency of the sound wave can also be changed in accordance with the depth. Lower frequencies (200 khz) are used for deeper areas and higher frequencies (400 khz) are used for shallower areas.

Rosalind working the surveying computers in the launch
Rosalind working the surveying computers in the launch

Despite what might seem like mundane tasks, a day on board the launch is exhausting, given the extreme attention to detail by all crew members, troubleshooting various equipment malfunctions, and the often harsh weather conditions (i.e. fog, swells, cool temperatures) that are typical of southwest Alaska. The success of the ship’s mission depends on excellent communication and teamwork between the surveyors and the coxswain, who work closely together to maximize quality and efficiency of data collection. Rain or shine, work must get done.  But it doesn’t end there. When the launches arrive back at the ship, (usually around 4:30 pm), the crew will have a debrief of the day’s work with the FOO (field operations officer) and XO (executive officer). After dinner, the survey techs plunge head first (with a safety helmet of course) into the biggest mountain of data I have EVER witnessed in my life, otherwise known as “night processing”. We are talking gigabytes of data from each launch just for a days work.  It begins with the transferring of launch data from a portable hard drive to the computers in the plot room. This data is meticulously organized into various folders and files, all which adhere to a specific naming format. Once the transferring of data has finished, the “correction” process begins. That’s right, the data is not yet perfect and that’s because like any good science experiment, we must control for extraneous factors that could skew the depth data. These factors include tides, GPS location error, motion of the launch itself, and the sound velocity in the water column.

Plot room
Our chief surveyor works in the plot room cleaning and correcting data.
Data cleaning.
Data showing the consequences of the tide changing. The orange disjointed surface shows the data before it was adjusted for the tide changing. You can see how the edges between swaths (i.e. red and olive green) do not match up, even though they should be the same depth.
Sound speed artifact
This image shows the edge effects of changing sound speed in the water column. The edges of each swath “frown” because of refraction owing to changing density in the water column. This effect goes away once we factor in our CTD data and the sound speed profile.

In previous posts, I discussed how we correct for tides and the sound velocity. We also correct for the GPS location of the launch during a survey day, so that any specific data point is as precisely located as possible. Although GPS is fairly accurate, usually to within a few meters, we can get even more precise (within a few centimeters) by accounting for small satellite errors throughout the day. We do this by determining the location of a nearby object (our Horizontal Control, HorCon, Station) very precisely, and then tracking the reported position of this object throughout the day. Any error that is recorded for this station is likely also relevant for our launch locations, so we use this as the corrector. For example, if on July 21, 2013, at 3pm, the GPS location of our Bird Island HorCon station was reported 3cm north of its actual location, then our launches are also probably getting GPS locations 3cm too far north, so we will adjust all of our data accordingly. This is one of the many times we are thankful for our software. We also account for pitch, heave, and roll of the launch using the data from the inertial motion unit. That way, if the launch rolled sideways, and the center beam records a depth of 30 meters, we know to adjust this for the sideways tilt of the launch.

HorCon station
This shows the set up of our Horizontal Control and tide gauge station. The elevated rock position was chosen to maximize satellite visibility.

After all correctors have been applied (and a few software crashes weathered), the survey technicians then sort through all the data and clean out any “noise.” This noise represents sound reflections on sea life, air bubbles, or other items that are not part of the seafloor.  Refraction of sound waves, as mentioned in the last post, is caused by density changes in the water due to changes in the temperature, pressure, or salinity.

Dirty data
This shows sonar data with “noise”. The noise is the seemingly random dots above and below the primary surface. On the surface itself, you can see data from four different swaths, each in a different color. Notice the overlap between swaths and how well it appears to be matching up.
Cleaned surface
This shows sonar data after the “noise” has been cleaned out. Notice how all data now appears to match a sea floor contour.

Many of the above correctors are applied the same day the data is collected, so the sheet manager can have an up-to-date record of the project’s progress before doing final planning for data collection the next day. After a sheet has been fully surveyed and ALL correctors applied, the sheet manager will complete a “descriptive report”, which accompanies the data and explains any gaps in the sonar data (“holidays”) and/or other errors present. This report, along with the data, is sent to the Pacific Hydrographic Branch for post-processing, and in 1-2 years, we will have a corrected and updated navigational chart. During this time the data is reviewed for quality and adherence to hydrographic specifications and then is distilled into a cartographic product (nautical chart) consisting of points, lines, and areas.

Personal Log:

So I am going to hold off in talking about an animal that has recently fascinated me and instead devote this personal log to some cool things I have been doing on the ship.

Most recently I got to be the helmsman and steer the ship. This involved me following orders from the “conning officer” who told me various steering commands such as: “Left ten degrees rudder”, “steady on course 167°”, “ease 5° right”, “helm in auto” (auto-pilot). To acknowledge the command, I repeated what the conning officer said followed by “aye”. For example: “Left ten degrees rudder, aye” or “course 167°, aye”.  When the boat is actually on the course that was requested by the conning officer, I repeated the command with the word “steady”. For example: “Steady on course 167°”

Avery at the helm
Avery at the helm

You might be wondering why all of the commands involve degrees. Well that is because this ship is steered by the rudder, similar to how you manually steer a small sailboat.  So changing the angle of the rudder will change the direction of the ship.  To change this angle, you turn the steering wheel a desired amount of degrees beyond zero in the direction the conning officer instructed.  So if he said “right 5 degrees rudder”, I would turn the steering wheel right, and stop at the 5 hash mark.

Once the boat actually turns 5°, I will make sure I am at the correct “heading” or degree mark that the conning officer instructed.  A heading can be any number between 000-360 (where 000-deg = North, 045 = Northeast, 090 = East, etc.) as this boat can turn in a complete circle and be navigated in any direction.  (There is 360° in both a compass and a circle.)  Once I am steady at the correct heading, I will put the steering wheel back to 0° which means the rudder is completely straight and parallel with the boat. At this point the boat is going straight. If this were a car, you could just stay straight no problem.

But because this boat moves in water and is affected by ocean conditions such as swells, it is easily knocked off course of the heading. So as helmsman I am constantly making tiny adjustments with the steering wheel by a few degrees in either direction to maintain my heading.   This adjustment is done using the steering wheel if I am driving manual, or using a dial on the gear panel if the boat is in “auto” (auto-pilot). Because the ship rudder must “push water out of the way” in order to steer the boat, there is a delay between when I turn the steering wheel to when the ship actually moves that amount of degrees. This is not a car which turns instantaneously by the movement of axles.  So I need to account for that “lag time” as well as ocean conditions and the speed of the boat when turning the ship.  For example, if the boat is going slow (3 knots) and I need to turn quickly, I will have to use a greater rudder angle.  Throughout this process I have several digital screens that show me my current position and course, current heading and desired heading as well as other navigational aides.  When I was helmsman, I was closely monitored and assisted by Jason, a former Navy Chief Boatswain, who is one of the best helmsman on the ship.  To be a good navigator you need to know the fundamentals but you also need a lot of practice and exposure to various navigational situations.

Helm stand
Helm stand

Yesterday, Rosalind and I got to work on deck and help the Chief Boatswain with various deck tasks such as lowering the anchor and assisting with the davit to hoist the launches from their day of surveying out on the water.  Assisting with the job of lifting a 16,000 lb launch with 3 people aboard using the davit winch was by far the most exhilarating experience thus far on the ship. I handled the task with extreme caution. As with being a helmsman, there are many factors I must consider as a davit operator.  For example, if there is a significant swell, I need to be more aggressive with the davit movements to get the boat lifted fast to avoid any excessive swaying in mid-air. Most importantly, I must attentively follow the gestures of the deck boss below who is able to see the launch very clearly and is directing me on every davit movement.  Even an experienced davit operator like Jason, who probably can predict the next davit movement in his sleep, must never assume and then act. He ALWAYS follows the exact orders of the deck officer below because he never knows what they are seeing that he cannot from the above deck.  Overall, with Jason’s close attention and assistance, I think I did a good job of assisting with the davit. The boat made it safely aboard, and my heart returned to a normal beating pattern. 🙂

Operating the crane to get the davit ready to lift the launch out of the water
Getting the davit positioned and ready to lift the launch out of the water.

On a lighter note I learned how to play the good ole’ mariner pastime favorite, Cribbage. Rosalind (the other Teacher at Sea and my delightful roommate) taught me how to play. We had a cribbage tournament here aboard the ship in which about 12 people competed. I did not advance to the finals but had a lot of fun nonetheless.  I am looking forward to gaining more Cribbage strategies so I can be a more competitive player for future matches.

First round of Cribagge tournament
First round of Cribbage tournament

Just for fun:

An adorable sole I caught on the fantail of the Rainer (I released him/her)
An adorable sole I caught on the fantail of the Rainer (I released him/her). 🙂

Fun factoid: A fathom which is a maritime measurement equal to 6 feet, was originally based on the distance, fingertip to fingertip of a man’s outstretched arms. Fathom that!