From NOAA Ship Fairweather to Mt. Fairweather: Commanding officer summits ship’s namesake

By Cmdr. Mark Van Waes, former Commanding Officer of NOAA Ship Fairweather

Mount Fairweather stands tall above Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve, dominating the skyline for miles around (when weather permits visibility). Only about 12 miles inshore from the Gulf of Alaska and soaring to 15,325 feet, it is one of the highest coastal peaks in the world.

NOAA Ship Fairweather in the Gulf of Alaska, with Mount Fairweather in the background.
NOAA Ship Fairweather in the Gulf of Alaska, with Mount Fairweather in the background.

Named for the remote mountain peak, NOAA Ship Fairweather surveys the waters of Alaska and the Pacific Northwest, making maritime commerce safer, contributing to scientific discovery, and locating lost vessels. The ship, commissioned in 1968 and celebrating 50 years of service to the nation this year, is currently hard at work in Alaska’s Arctic waters to ensure safe navigation for increasing traffic in the region.

Climbers look to the summit of Mount Fairweather.
Climbers look to the summit of Mount Fairweather.

Though I had only ever seen Mount Fairweather from sea (usually on board either NOAA Ship Rainier or Fairweather), I have been drawn to it for years. Since I summited my first mountain (Mount Rainier in 2007), I’d thought that a trip to climb this remote, seldom-climbed peak would be a worthy adventure. I was fortunate that a series of happenstances occurred that made possible an attempt this May. While NOAA Ship Fairweather was docked for mid-season repairs in Juneau, Alaska, I was able to make my way over to Haines, and from there set out with a team of climbers to make a bid for the peak.

The high camp, at an elevation of 10,400 feet on the Grand Plateau Glacier.
The high camp, at an elevation of 10,400 feet on the Grand Plateau Glacier.

Having endured numerous days’ delay due to weather (Captain Cook must have caught the mountain on a good day when he bestowed its name), early in the morning on Tuesday, May 29, we set out from our high camp at 10,400 feet en route to the summit. At 1:16 p.m. Alaska time and after 10 hours of climbing we were standing atop the mountain. With bright sun and clear blue skies overhead and a layer of clouds below at about 9,000 feet, we marveled at the view of peaks, such as Mount Saint Elias and Mount Logan, visible in the distance. It was, as is the attainment of any mountain summit, both an exhilarating and humbling experience.

Cmdr. Van Waes holds the NOAA flag atop the summit of Mount Fairweather
Cmdr. Van Waes holds the NOAA flag atop the summit of Mount Fairweather.

The surveyors of NOAA’s predecessor agency, the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey, would scale mountains such as these in their work to map the land in which we live. The summit of this mountain forms a corner of the border with British Columbia, and the mountain is the highest point in that Canadian province. Surveying such remote locations to define our nation’s borders was a important part of the work of the hardy folks who served in the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey. Though we no longer have the need to do so to the extent that they did in the past, it is interesting and instructive to get an idea of what they had to endure to accomplish the tasks before them.

As a mariner, I had long thought that the vastness of the sea would make anyone feel small. For me, however, it is the mountains that truly help put things in perspective. Their grandeur and ability to inspire awe is unmatched, as is their ability to instill a sense of place. Having spent the majority of my seagoing time aboard the NOAA Ships Rainier and Fairweather, culminating with a command tour aboard Fairweather, climbing these mountains has been a bridge between my time aboard and the history behind the ships. In the fifty years that they have been in service they have been a steady presence in NOAA’s fleet, just as the mountains for which they are named have stood tall above their respective skylines.

 

NOAA researches autonomous survey system in the Arctic

By Rob Downs, Office of Coast Survey unmanned systems projects lead

A team composed of research engineers and a graduate student from the University of New Hampshire Center for Coastal and Ocean Mapping/Joint Hydrographic Center (UNH CCOM/JHC) and personnel from NOAA’s Office of Coast Survey are aboard the NOAA Ship Fairweather to test UNH’s BEN (Bathymetric Explorer and Navigator) unmanned surface vehicle (USV). On Saturday, July 28, the Fairweather made the first successful launch of a USV for an operational hydrographic survey from a NOAA vessel in the Arctic. The team conducted four additional deployments, including an extended overnight survey made in coordination with the ship.

The unmanned surface vehicle BEN launched from NOAA Ship Fairweather. Photo by Christina Belton, NOAA.
The unmanned surface vehicle BEN launched from NOAA Ship Fairweather. Photo by Christina Belton, NOAA.

Coast Survey will use the data BEN collects to contribute to Fairweather’s Point Hope survey project. With the support from the Fairweather’s command and crew, the team is operating USV hydrographic surveys in coordination with the ship and its survey launches to explore and develop new operational models with unmanned systems, identify and possibly solve shortcomings in the technology, and provide experience to the ship’s crew in the operations and support of unmanned systems.

The Arctic is well suited to testing unmanned systems because relatively low traffic minimizes the risk of encounters with other vessels. In addition, the expense of conducting hydrographic surveys in such remote areas makes the potential gains in the data acquisition capacity from USVs particularly attractive for NOAA survey ships.

BEN independently follows programmed lines.
BEN independently follows programmed lines.

BEN is manufactured by ASV Global and is significantly larger (13 feet vs. 3 feet), has a much longer endurance (more than 16 hours vs. 6 hours), and is faster (5 knots vs. 2 knots) than the small USVs operated from other NOAA hydrographic survey vessels. BEN is equipped with a standard suite of hydrographic survey equipment and can independently follow planned survey lines at a distance of approximately 5 miles from the ship. The USV can also be remotely driven when alongside the ship for deployment and recovery.

The capabilities of autonomous survey systems are rapidly advancing, and developing autonomous system technology and procedures is a key piece of Coast Survey’s autonomous systems strategy.

 

NOAA surveys the unsurveyed, leading the way in the U.S. Arctic

President Thomas Jefferson, who founded Coast Survey in 1807, commissioned Lewis and Clark’s Corps of Discovery Expedition in 1803, the first American expedition to cross the western portion of the contiguous United States. Today there remains a vast western America territory that is largely unknown and unexplored – the U.S. waters off the coast of Alaska. As a leader in ocean mapping, NOAA Coast Survey launches hydrographic expeditions to discover what lies underneath the water’s surface.

Alaska is one-fifth the size of the contiguous United States, and has more than 33,000 miles of shoreline. In fact, the Alaskan coast comprises 57 percent of the United States’ navigationally significant waters and all of the United States’ Arctic territory. Alaskan and Arctic waters are largely uncharted with modern surveys, and many areas that have soundings were surveyed using early lead line technology from the time of Capt. Cook, before the region was part of the United States. Currently only 4.1 percent of the U.S. maritime Arctic has been charted to modern international navigation standards.

A launch from NOAA Ship Fairweather surveys near ice in the U.S. Arctic.
A launch from NOAA Ship Fairweather surveys near ice in the U.S. Arctic.

In part, Arctic waters are difficult to survey because of the sheets of sea ice persist throughout the majority of the year. Traditionally, thick ice sheets have restricted the number of vessels that travel in the area. But Arctic ice is declining and sea ice melt forecasts indicate the complete loss of summer sea ice in the Arctic Ocean as early as two or three decades from now, meaning year-round commercial vessel traffic is likely to increase.

Given the vast expanse of ocean to be charted in the U.S. Arctic, Coast Survey determined charting priorities and coordinated activities in the U.S. Arctic Nautical Charting Plan, the third issue of which was released in August 2016. The plan proposes 14 new charts and was created following consultations with maritime interests, the public, and federal, state, and local governments.

In July and August, the crew aboard the NOAA Ship Fairweather is fulfilling a piece of the U.S. Arctic Nautical Charting Plan as they conduct hydrographic surveys in the vicinity of Cape Lisburne and Point Hope, Alaska. Seventy percent of this area has never been surveyed, while the remaining 30 percent has only lesser bottom coverage from single beam surveys conducted in the early 1960s. The data will be used to produce nautical charts that align with Coast Survey’s new rescheming efforts as stated in the National Charting Plan. This is one of seven hydrographic surveys NOAA has planned in Alaska for 2018. 

The data Coast Survey collects is the first step, as exploration is an iterative process and bathymetric data provides a foundation from which to build. The benefits of surveying extend beyond safe navigation. Accurate seafloor depths are important for forecasting weather, tsunami, and storm surge events that affect local communities. Bathymetric data also informs the discovery of seabed minerals, historic wrecks, and natural resource habitat mapping.

NOAA explores remote Alaskan waters.
NOAA explores remote Alaskan waters.

As with any new endeavor, there is a balance between exploration, safety, environmental conservation, and commerce. Lt. Bart Buesseler is Coast Survey’s regional navigation manager for Alaska and works directly with Alaskan communities, mariners, and port authorities to communicate local needs, concerns, and requests. As many Native Alaskan coastal communities still rely on subsistence hunting of marine mammals, these changes in ice and vessel traffic create a direct impact to their way of life. With that in mind, Lt. Buesseler works with communities and maritime users to identify the priorities that will best support the needs of an area while still addressing the concerns of the communities. It is through this collaboration that the balance between exploration, safety, conservation, and commerce can be achieved.

The Lewis and Clark expedition aimed to map a new territory, learn about the environment, and find a practical land route through the continent. By conducting hydrographic surveys to collect depth measurements of the ocean – and putting those markings on a nautical chart with other navigation information – Coast Survey leads the way for safe maritime passage in the U.S. Arctic.

Everyday actions keep mariners safe aboard NOAA hydrographic survey vessels

Collecting bathymetric data for our nation’s nautical charts requires skilled work on the water. Whether survey data is actively being collected or the ship is transiting to its next destination, NOAA crews perform a number of ancillary tasks as they operate NOAA hydrographic ships 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Atmospheric and ecological observations provide context for the crew so they can avoid dangerous situations, while also supporting NOAA environmental databases and records. Drills and training are necessary to keep people and property safe. Below are some of the actions the mariners take while they are aboard the vessel:

1. Emergency drills – The crew regularly practices fire, man overboard, and abandon ship scenarios. Each drill is taken very seriously. For example, smoke and fog machines add realism to the fire drills. Each crew member has an assigned role to carry out for each type of emergency, and someone takes notes about the effectiveness of the first responders, firefighters, medical group, and central communications team. Following the drill, the executive officer of the ship leads a debrief so that the crew can receive feedback and discuss areas of improvement.

Video: NOAA crew members rescue a mannequin during a man overboard drill.

2. Position – While in motion, it is vital to know where the ship is, what direction it is heading, and where it will be moving next. To accomplish this, the team on the bridge takes position measurements every 15 minutes near landmasses and 30 minutes further from land. There are three ways to determine the position of the ship – using the Global Positioning System (GPS), using radar, or triangulating the position using an alidade (compass) to collect the bearings of landmarks. The measurements serve as a check for the ship’s GPS reading. In addition, the crew attends regular navigational meetings where the navigation officer shows the intended ship path and discusses any points to note such as narrow passageways, heavy traffic areas, and upcoming weather forecasts.

3. Watches – There is always someone on watch when a ship is transiting or surveying. To supplement the information collected by radar, the lookout uses binoculars to detect debris, other ships, shallow areas, and marine wildlife. If necessary, the crew adjusts the course of the ship to avoid entangling equipment or harming the ship or wildlife. In addition, daily observations of marine mammals are reported to the NOAA National Marine Fisheries Service.

A NOAA Corp officer watches for hazards to navigation on board NOAA Ship Fairweather.
A NOAA Corp officer watches for hazards to navigation on board NOAA Ship Fairweather.

4. Training – Training helps the crew keep their navigation and emergency response skills sharp. Medical persons in charge (MPICs) act as the medical first responders on the ship and receive training on CPR, giving shots, and medical emergency protocols. They also attend informational sessions on topics of interest such as diabetes and transmitted diseases.

Launch_Cropped
NOAA crew practice deploying a launch boat from NOAA Ship Fairweather.

The navigation team practices skills like docking and undocking the ship, maneuvering in tight spaces, and lowering and raising launch boats. These drills are important ways for junior NOAA Corps officers to gain operational skills. To help new officers learn the basics, the executive officer of NOAA Ship Fairweather designed a video game where a person can issue commands to teammates who control the bow thrusters, engines, and rudders of an imaginary ship. The game has several challenging levels where players can practice their communication skills while getting a sense of how the boat might respond while docking, turning, or moving in rough environmental conditions.

5. Environmental conditions – The crew keeps track of the air pressure to detect upcoming storm systems. They observe and record cloud type and cover, wave and swell height and direction, and temperature. These measurements are recorded every hour while the ship is moving and are reported to the NOAA National Weather Service every four hours.

The information and training the crew obtains are vital pieces of the research vessel’s operation. By collecting environmental data and honing their skills, the crew ensures they safely navigate U.S. waters and perform their mission.

 

NOAA ships Fairweather and Rainier mark 50 years of service and survey

 

NOAA ships Rainier and Fairweather.
NOAA ships Rainier (left) and Fairweather (right) alongside at Marine Operations Center – Pacific in Newport, Oregon.

To recognize the successful history of NOAA ships Fairweather and Rainier, as well as the professional mariners, hydrographers, and commissioned officers who have served aboard these ships for the last 50 years, NOAA hosted a ceremony and public ship tours at the Marine Operations Center – Pacific (MOC-P) in Newport, Oregon.

The ceremony opened with the national anthem sung by Ensign Airlie Picket and HAST Amanda Finn. Capt. Keith Roberts, commanding officer, Marine Operations Center – Pacific, served as master of ceremonies introducing Representative David Gomberg, District 10 – Central Coast Oregon State Legislature, Rear Adm. Shep Smith, director, Office of Coast Survey, and Rear Adm. Nancy Hann, deputy director, Office of Marine and Aviation Operations and NOAA Corps, who all gave remarks during the ceremony.

“Today we are here to recognize a milestone in the career of the Rainier and Fairweather, who turn 50 this year.  They are the last of a generation of truly beautiful ships,” said Rear Adm. Shep Smith. “The passion, dedication, and craftsmanship of generations of engineers and deck force have kept these ships operable for 50 years and this is no small feat.”

groupphoto-blog
Past and present crew of NOAA ships Fairweather and Rainier.

Rear Adm. Hann provided comments on the hydrographic fleet’s contribution to the national economy and the importance of investing in the future of NOAA’s fleet. “There is recognition in the value of the work that the crew of the Rainier, Fairweather, and the entire NOAA fleet provides to the nation.”

NOAA Teacher at  Sea Alumni Association presented plaques honoring the ships to their commanding officers, Cmdr. Mark Van Waes and Cmdr. Ben Evans. The ceremony closed with the commanding officers of both ships directing inspirational words to their crews.

NOAA Teacher at Sea Alumnus Lisa Battig presents a plaque honoring NOAA Ship Fairweather to Cmdr. Mark Van Waes, commanding officer of the ship (left). NOAA Teacher at Sea Alumnus Denise Harrington presents a plaque honoring NOAA Ship Rainier to Cmdr. Ben Evans, commanding officer of the ship (right).
NOAA Teacher at Sea Alumnus Lisa Battig presents a plaque honoring NOAA Ship Fairweather to Cmdr. Mark Van Waes, commanding officer of the ship (left). NOAA Teacher at Sea Alumnus Denise Harrington presents a plaque honoring NOAA Ship Rainier to Cmdr. Ben Evans, commanding officer of the ship (right).

Following the ceremony, NOAA hosted over 400 members of the public on ship tours and tours of the MOC-P museum, a collection that features several of NOAA’s heritage assets. Visitors had the opportunity to board the ships, speak with the crew, and explore one of the many launches (small boats) that the ships deploy to conduct hydrographic survey operations.

ENS Airlie Picket shows visitors how to map the seafloor using sounding boxes.
Ensign Airlie Picket shows visitors how to map the seafloor using sounding boxes.
NOAA Ship Rainier and visitors.
Visitors of all ages toured NOAA ships Rainier and Fairweather during the open house at MOC-P.

Both ships, along with their sister ship, Mt. Mitchell, were constructed at the Jacksonville Shipyards in Florida and later christened in March of 1967. Following hydrographic tradition, the ships were named for features near their working grounds—Alaska’s Mt. Fairweather, Washington’s Mt. Rainier, and North Carolina’s Mt. Mitchell. The U.S. Coast & Geodetic Survey commissioned the Fairweather and Rainier in October of 1968 at the Pacific Marine Center in Seattle. Mt. Mitchell was launched one year earlier and, though no longer commissioned with NOAA, is still operating as a privately-owned research vessel.

NOAA ships Fairweather, Rainier, and Mt. Mitchell under construction.
NOAA ships Fairweather, Rainier, and Mt. Mitchell were built in the Jacksonville Shipyard in Florida.

 

NOAA Ships Fairweather and Rainier .
NOAA Ships Fairweather and Rainier were christened in Jacksonville, Florida, in March, 1967.

The NOAA ships are operated and maintained by the Office of Marine and Aviation Operations, with hydrographic survey projects managed by the Office of Coast Survey. NOAA thanks the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Heritage Society and the National Marine Sanctuary Foundation for their support of this event.

Take a 360 tour of NOAA Ship RAINIER

In celebration of 50 years of survey and service to the nation, NOAA ships Rainier and Fairweather—two of NOAA’s hydrographic survey vessels—will be opening their doors and hosting public ship tours. Since we understand that many of you are unable to be in Newport, Oregon, the afternoon of March 22 to take a tour in person, we are bringing the tour to you! The following 20 images offer a 360 degree view of the interior and exterior of NOAA Ship Rainier. The images were taken last field season on the survey operations mission to Channel Islands, California. From the crew mess and engine room to a view from the bow, we have captured it all.

The crew mess

Wardroom

Wardroom lounge

Galley

Laundry room

Ocean lab

Survey plot room

“Holodeck” (aft survey plot room)

Bridge

Steering

Gym

Infirmary (med bay)

Cold stores

Central engine room control

Engine room

Bedroom

Boat deck

Bow

Fantail

View of fantail from boat deck

NOAA Ship Fairweather uses new technology to improve survey efficiency

By ENS Peter Siegenthaler

Following the scheduled winter repair period, Fairweather is kicking off the 2017 field season in Tlevak Strait; the waterway between Dall Island and Prince of Wales Island in Southeast Alaska. This area was last surveyed between 1900 and 1939, and the lead-lines used at the time to determine depths were susceptible to omission of rocks and other features in an area. Using the latest innovations in hydrographic technology, Fairweather will be resurveying these areas with complete coverage multibeam echo sounder bathymetry. This allows Fairweather to identify any rocks or shoal features missed in prior surveys, increasing the safety for local communities, whose economies and livelihoods are dependent on maritime transportation of goods.

One of the new developments Fairweather’s survey department in particular is excited about is a new software program affectionately named “Charlene.” Charlene was developed by PS Eric Younkin at Coast Survey’s Hydrographic Systems and Technologies Branch (HSTB) to automate the night processing workflow. This simplifies hours spent each night converting and correcting raw sonar data into an automated script which takes in raw data at one end and generates products at the other. Initial results are promising, and the ship is looking forward to fully integrating Charlene into the processing workflow.

Another new development for the 2017 field season is new multibeam sonars for the ship’s survey launches, which were installed during the winter repair period. The preliminary data acquired by these sonars has shown vast improvement over their predecessors’ data, which will go a long way towards reducing data processing timelines. The new sonars do this by automating most of the acquisition parameters in real-time, far faster and more effectively than could be achieved manually. They also take advantage of a multitude of hardware and software advances that have taken place over the past several years, resulting in systems that are quieter, smaller, and easier to operate.

Fairweather is continuing to use and develop the launch-mounted lidar systems (lasers) for the acquisition of shoreline data. This was another HSTB-developed process that was validated during the 2016 field season. This year, Fairweather is using those lessons learned in order to further improve our acquisition workflow. These systems create accurate real-time point clouds of features above the waterline and have revolutionized the way hazards to navigation are documented. Before the use of lasers, shoreline verification frequently required physically touching rocks and obstructions above the water surface for accurate measurement and placement. This process involved increased risk, took more time, and produced less accurate data. The new laser workflow addresses all these limitations. By scanning the shoreline at a distance with calibrated equipment, efficiency, accuracy, and safety are all greatly improved.

Overall, Fairweather is enthusiastic about being back at work in Alaska. With her new software, sonar systems, and dedicated crew, the stage is set for and productive field season!

Area surveyed by Fairweather May 30- June 10, 2017.
Area surveyed by Fairweather May 30- June 10, 2017.