The main priority of the crew on a research ship is to get everyone home intact. At sea, even simple tasks can hold hidden risks and dangers—an unexpected wave or sudden heading change when the ship turns abruptly can send a crew member skidding across the deck or overboard. Therefore the view from the bridge, or the control center of the ship, is focused first on safety; and this is not a small or thoughtless focus. Part of an officer’s job is to know these inherent risks and adapt operations as conditions change. They ensure that the crew are wearing work vests and hardhats when deploying moorings out on deck, or they stop operations in bad weather, for example.
Before I started graduate school at the University of Washington, I served for a little over five years as a NOAA Corps officer. NOAA officers operate NOAA’s research fleet of ships and aircraft, including a sister ship to the REVELLE, and even some hurricane hunter aircraft. I was fortunate to spend my first tour of duty as an officer aboard the NOAA Ship OKEANOS EXPLORER.
Among myriad duties that a junior officer has, the most important is underway watch standing—being the Officer of the Deck, the (often) sole officer on the ship’s bridge in charge of all operations during watches. For this cruise, I’ve left my former perch looking out from the bridge and ‘stepped below decks,’ to work on a new ship as a scientist. The views are quite different, but can usefully influence each other.
The bridge officer has to have superior situational awareness, not just of what’s happening on the ship, but also in monitoring radar, charts, looking out the windows and the various other tools that help establish a clear picture of the world around the ship. Within that context, their next priority is the mission—the science they’ve come to do.
In contrast with the ship’s officers, who have a long term, multi-year relationship with the ship and her operations, the science party has a very short time aboard to complete their work. This may be only a few weeks. While us scientists have a safety focus too, our vantage point from the science lab lets us focus on the scientific mission. Within that short time we have the ship we have to set up a fast operational tempo to make the most out of the ship time (and the money that is spent securing it).
For a well-seasoned crew and science team, these are not competing objectives, but rather form a maximally productive interplay between the push to get the mission completed and the potential dangers looming on the ship and the surrounding ocean.
It is an interesting shift to go from walking down the passageways eyeing fire extinguisher gauges and knowing the name of each ship that passes, to focusing on the guts of the instrument spread out on my workbench and plotting energy fluxes at the CTD stations. The advantage though of having both perspectives is that neither will fade entirely, and both experiences inform the other.
—Benjamin Bloss, The Revelle
The Tasman Tidal Dissipation Experiment//Supported by the National Science Foundation