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.”

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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.

NOAA Ship Fairweather begins multi-mission projects in Alaska

In a unique deployment of resources, last week NOAA Ship Fairweather split its scientific team and vessels to tackle two distinct projects in Alaska. Coast Survey physical scientist Katrina Wyllie and Lt.j.g. Bart Buesseler report on the multi-mission projects.

***

On August 9, NOAA Ship Fairweather departed Dutch Harbor, Alaska, for a FISHPAC project, led by Dr. Bob McConnaughey from NOAA’s Alaska Fisheries Science Center. This project’s primary mission is to statistically associate acoustic backscatter returns with the abundances of fish and crabs that frequent the Bering Sea seafloor. The science team accomplishes this with acoustic data from multibeam, single beam, and side scan sonars. Understanding the value of acoustic backscatter as a habitat-defining character will help scientists understand where fish live and the importance of different habitats. The acoustic data will also be used to correct for differences in the performance of research bottom trawls on different seafloor types, so that stock assessments and fishery management can be improved. To make sure the scientists understand what the acoustic data are showing, each day the ship will stop and collect physical bottom samples of the seafloor to see, touch, and interpret their findings. Further increasing the effectiveness of this mission, all of the multibeam bathymetry data acquired will directly support NOAA’s Office of Coast Survey as the data will be used to update soundings on the nautical charts for the eastern Bering Sea where the ship will be operating.

NOAA Ship Fairweather will survey the red tracklines for the FISHPAC project this year. The green lines will be surveyed at a later date.
NOAA Ship Fairweather will survey the red tracklines for the FISHPAC project this year. The green lines will be surveyed at a later date.
Fig2
FISHPAC mission equipment on deck of NOAA Ship Fairweather

With Fairweather actively conducting 24-hour ship survey operations in Bristol Bay, there wouldn’t be any chance to deploy her four survey launches for additional acquisition. Sensing an opportunity, the Office of Coast Survey, the command of the Fairweather, and Marine Operations Center-Pacific collaboratively came up with a multi-mission plan to maximize the capabilities of Fairweather during the FISHPAC project. Before departing Dutch Harbor, Fairweather deployed a shore team with the four survey launches to stay in Dutch Harbor and address some critical navigation needs identified by the port.

Two of the NOAA Ship Fairweather launches depart for a day of hydrographic surveying
Two of the NOAA Ship Fairweather launches depart for a day of hydrographic surveying.

 

Although its location is remote, the port of Dutch Harbor is a vibrant and bustling port serving full-size container ships. It is the country’s top fishing port in terms of landings for the past 18 years. Deep draft and ice-free year-round, Dutch Harbor provides a critical link in America’s transportation infrastructure. Trivia buffs may also know that Dutch Harbor is the only other American soil, in addition to Pearl Harbor, to be bombed during World War II. (For more on Alaska in World War II, see USC&GS Ship Hydrographer contributes to significant Allied victory.)

With the increase in commerce flowing into and out of the harbor, local maritime pilots asked Coast Survey navigation manager Lt. Timothy Smith for updated nautical charts to improve the safety of maritime traffic. This need was underscored in July 2015, when a polar ice class vessel ran aground in an area of the chart which hadn’t been surveyed since before World War II. Shortly after this grounding, Fairweather was able to alter their schedule to conduct a response survey in the area of the grounding (green area in project sheet layout, below). Additionally, Fairweather had previously surveyed small high priority areas in 2011 (orange areas).

Project area of the north coast of Unalaska Island hydrographic survey project being conducted by NOAA Ship Fairweather launches.
Project area of the north coast of Unalaska Island hydrographic survey project being conducted by NOAA Ship Fairweather launches.

 

This month’s collaborative project, performed in conjunction with FISHPAC, provided the perfect opportunity to address these navigational needs. With the survey launches remaining in Dutch Harbor, with a team of scientists, coxswains, and engineers to support them, Fairweather’s shore team will acquire complete coverage multibeam data in the entire project area, totaling approximately 38 square nautical miles, as outlined by the blue shapes in the project sheet layout.

The City of Unalaska has graciously facilitated this unique mission by providing pier space for all four launches for the project’s duration. The team itself has established a base of operations at the Grand Aleutian Hotel, where they have converted a conference room into a command center to process the day’s freshly collected data, while preparing the mission for the subsequent day.

The shore team has plenty of work to keep them busy until August 27, when Fairweather returns to Dutch Harbor after completing the more than 4,000 line-mile  FISHPAC mission and recovers the survey team and launches. Fairweather then transits back to Kodiak, Alaska, for a scheduled inport and well deserved break before hydrographic survey operations resume in the vicinity of Sitkalidak Strait.

Lt.j.g. Bart Buesseler review multibeam bathymetry data in the shore team base of operations room.
Lt.j.g. Bart Buesseler review multibeam bathymetry data in the shore team base of operations room.
Launch crews hold morning safety meeting at the pier.
Launch crews hold morning safety meeting at the pier.
The four launches tie up alongside at the Robert Storrs International Small Boat Harbor facility.
The four launches tie up alongside at the Robert Storrs International Small Boat Harbor facility.

 

Additional resource:Combining expertise makes for better nautical charts and better understanding of fish habitats in Alaska, Oct. 9, 2012

NOAA hydro field season underway

The 2014 hydrographic survey season is underway, with the NOAA fleet beginning its projects for this year.

Have you ever wondered how Coast Survey goes about determining where to survey and when? Several considerations go into prioritizing survey plans, which are laid out several years in advance. Coast Survey asks specific questions about each potential survey area.

  • Is it considered a critical area? If so, how old are the most current survey data?
  • Have local pilots or port authorities submitted reports of shoaling, obstructions or other concerns?
  • Does the U.S. Coast Guard or other stakeholders from the maritime community (e.g., fisheries, energy, pipelines) need surveys for economic development or ecological protection?

Coast Survey’s 2014 projects reflect these priorities.

Alaska

NOAA Ships Rainier and Fairweather will be surveying Kodiak Island, specifically Kupreanof Strait to the north and Sitinak Strait to the south. These are considered emerging critical areas, because of both old soundings (1900-1939 for North and 1900-1969 for South Kodiak Island) and increased demand from the tourism and commercial fishing industries to chart safe passages closer to shore.

Kodiak N and S_text_inlet

The Rainier will also continue her work in Cold Bay. The projects focus on charting potential areas of refuge for ships approaching the harbor, especially when currents are strong. Cold Bay is a very small harbor town on the Aleutian Peninsula. (You may recall that when the Rainier visited last year, all eight of the town’s school children came aboard to learn about driving the ship and making nautical charts!)

One of NOAA’s hydrographic services contractors will survey Bechevin Bay, a priority area because it constitutes the easternmost passage through the Aleutians from the Bering Sea to the Gulf of Alaska. In addition, hydrographic surveys in this area will help validate an algorithm, being tested by NOAA’s Remote Sensing Division, that estimates water depth strictly from satellite imagery.

Bechivin Bay and Cold Bay_Aleutian_text

West Coast

Fairweather will survey south of the San Juan Islands, in the Straits of Juan de Fuca in Washington. The team will also investigate reported shoaling in Friday Harbor.

One of Coast Survey’s navigation response teams, NRT6, is surveying in San Francisco Bay, where the San Francisco Bay Pilot Association requested surveys in San Pablo Bay and Suisun Bay at the Reserve Fleet area, and in Richmond Harbor to address charting discrepancies and other concerns. The ship will then survey Anchorages 22 and 23 (Carquinez Strait, near Benicia, CA) to chart a shoal that has migrated toward the federal channel and caused a tug and barge to run aground.

Gulf of Mexico

Pilots and port authorities requested hydrographic surveys in Galveston Bay and the vicinity, and NRT4 is responding. Anchorages in this area are of particular interest; the team will survey Anchorage Basin A in Bolivar Roads and the newly charted barge channels and charted features along the main Houston Ship Channel.

A NOAA contractor will survey in Louisiana, offshore of Barataria Bay. About 5,000 deep-draft vessels transit the Southwest Pass of the Mississippi River per year. Surveys will be looking for turnoffs and turning basins for large vessels. A re-survey of sandy, changeable bottoms in the areas of Mobile Bay, Alabama, and Panama City, Florida, will also be conducted to finish surveying approach lanes to these ports. A NOAA contractor will survey the approaches to Lake Borgne/Lake Ponchartrain in Louisiana, where charts still use data acquired by the U.S. Coast Survey in the 1800s.

NRT1 is surveying in Panama City, Florida, acquiring data in St. Andrews Bay and West Bay. The team will also investigate shoaling and a changing channel course in Grand Lagoon, depths and features in West Bay and West Bay Creek, and depths along the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway. After they finish up in Florida, NRT1 will continue the rest of the 2014 survey season in Louisiana.

Western GOM_text_inlet

East Coast

NRT2 will survey in the St. Johns River area near Jacksonville, Florida, in response to a request for support from the U.S. Coast Guard. The survey team will investigate hazards to navigation in the waters of a proposed anchorage area seven nautical miles northeast of St. Johns Point.

NRT5 will survey in the area of Eastern Long Island Sound. Along with providing contemporary hydrographic data, this survey will support the Long Island Sound Seafloor Mapping Initiative. NOAA Ship Thomas Jefferson will also survey in Long Island Sound, performing essential habitat mapping in Fishers Island Sound, and continuing Post Tropical Cyclone Sandy surveys that were started in 2013.

LI Sound_Sandy_text

In central Chesapeake Bay, the research vessel Bay Hydro II  will survey critical areas, measuring depths where shifting sands and shoaling have been reported. NOAA Ship Ferdinand R. Hassler will survey a possible wind turbine site in the approaches to the Bay.

The Hassler will survey off the coast of Portsmouth, New Hampshire. This data will contribute to habitat mapping and the state’s effort to locate sand resources for beach replenishment.

Finally, the Thomas Jefferson and Hassler will survey an area offshore of Rhode Island Sound to identify a safe route for deep draft oil tankers. The area is also a potential site for wind turbines.

NOAA Ship Fairweather surveying ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach for shipping safety

From surveying our most northern Alaskan waters last year, to our southern coastal waters this year, NOAA Ship Fairweather has really been making the hydrographic rounds, so to speak. This month, Fairweather’s hydrographic work is reaping benefits for the maritime industry in Los Angeles and Long Beach.

Fairweather is surveying this area in response to requests from the Port of Los Angeles, the Port of Long Beach, and the pilots who maneuver increasing large oil tankers and cargo ships through the area’s crowded shipping lanes. This project will acquire data for comprehensive updates to NOAA nautical charts 18749 and 18751, which provide the depth measurements and aids to navigation that mariners rely on for safe transit. Fairweather last surveyed the area in 1975, and NOAA contracted for a small survey in 2000.

FA survey in LA/LB
This chart shows where NOAA Ship Fairweather is surveying.

This project undertakes surveys encompassing 114 square nautical miles. Of those, NOAA considers 89 SNM as critical to safe navigation and therefore a NOAA priority. The survey areas include San Pedro Bay and its approaches, stretching south to the waters off Huntington Beach and Newport Beach.

Capt. Kip Louttit, executive director of the Marine Exchange of Southern California San Pedro, presents a certificate of appreciation to Fairweather's commanding officer, Cmdr. James Crocker.
Capt. Kip Louttit, executive director of the Marine Exchange of Southern California San Pedro, presents a certificate of appreciation to Fairweather‘s commanding officer, Cmdr. James Crocker. Photo courtesy of Capt. Kip Louttit

Retired Coast Guard captain J. Kip Louttit, executive director of the Marine Exchange of Southern California San Pedro, visited the ship last week to thank the “great ship and crew [for] doing an incredibly necessary survey for the ports.”

The Fairweather usually operates in Alaskan coastal waters and, last year, conducted a noteworthy hydrographic reconnaissance along the U.S. coast in Arctic waters to determine the priorities for updating Arctic charts. Fairweather is part of the NOAA fleet of ships and aircraft operated, managed, and maintained by NOAA’s Office of Marine and Aviation Operations, which includes both civilians and the commissioned officers of the NOAA Corps, one of the seven uniformed services of the United States. The ship is homeported in Ketchikan, Alaska.