23 August, 2010
By Michael Dessner
A plan coming together is very seldom what you envision it to be and our preparation for the cruise to Titanic has not been an exception. We are working aboard the R/V Jean Charcot, a French ship that is primarily staffed by Russians, Scots, Irish and Pilipino crew. The Waitt Institute of the west coast is providing the AUV system and our operations team hails from the opposite side of the continent and Woods Hole, Mass. There are media folks aboard from all corners of the country, an ROV team from the highly regard Phoenix International and they are also working with another team from the imaging labs at WHOI to provision the ROV with up to 5 HD cameras and another set of cutting edge 3D cameras. Filling out the bill are a couple gents who will handle navigation information and they hail from Seattle’s Williamson and Associates, another highly regarded underwater survey group. Add to that Dr. James Delgado of the Institute for Nautical Archeology, Dr. David Gallo who is a Director of Special Projects at WHOI and president of RMS Titanic, Chris Davino, all of whom are providing leadership. We are going to be operating AUVs and a work class ROV sporting freshly added imagining systems, it’s one helluva lot of moving parts and separate teams all coming together onto a new ship and installing their equipment, all in under a week. Generally speaking it would be tough for such a diverse group of people to get on the same page in a week much less mobilize for an expedition of this stature. But let’s go back in time a bit and get caught up; in all the running around and after 12 to 14 hour days actually working rather than riding a desk I took a couple days away from my computer to concentrate on the physical, now that I am dedicating time to the literal I’ll take a moment to catch up.
I think I left things off around the 20th. There’s not really a lot to say about the integration of equipment except that it’s kind of like painting a house: it looks a lot worse than it is and always, always gets bad before it gets better., But when you’re done, it’s a thing of beauty. The last few days have been a lot like that. We started from a bare deck and began adding the Waitt Institute’s AUV system. The Waitt launch and recovery system (LARS) went on first and the procedure used to install it was almost identical for every piece that followed.
First you measure out the space where you want the item to go, this is always done in advance but that’s pretty much theory and based on drawings that are being worked sometimes thousands of miles away from the boat. In reality when you get to the steel of the ship you usually find that things are not always exactly as they have been represented. So you break out the measuring tape and block out where you want your gear to go and, as many of my smarter friends have told me, it’s best to measure twice and cut once. After blocking out your space it’s time get the equipment in question into place. Measure it again, check out the lines of work and make sure the gear is going to be able to do what you need. Nothing on a ship at sea is just set down; it gets welded into place. You could say the rule of thumb on a ship might be more accurately stated as measure thrice and weld once or prepare to blowtorch, grind and try again.
Once our LARS is placed on the horizontal plane its time to make sure that the vertical is right. The AUV’s have to move across from one van to the LARS and if the tracks running to and fro are too low or too high, at least with the AUV system, you got yourself some troubles. In our case each van and the LARS had to have a set of custom feet or riser bars added to them to put all the gear onto a level playing field. After all it’s not like ships decks are flat; you want a little slope on the decks so that when the water starts washing over it has a way to drain off. That means you’re working on sloped decks which leads to more measuring and placing and re-placing the equipment. At that point you’re glad to have a patient and competent crane operator. Patient because each time something changes you need to rig the container or equipment and then pick it up, set it back down, check and recheck; and competent because he’s lifting vans or equipment that range into the tens of thousands of pounds and you’re often working with digits (if not your entire body) in pinch points. Integrations are a madhouse ballet: you’ve got the operators running around and putting everything in line; crane operators working with ground guides to get things in place again and again; fabricators helping pull together risers, feet, pad eyes for ties down, railings and stanchions where needed; grinders shaving down the odd bits getting in the way or removing old welds so they can be redone; welders using cutting rod to zorch off anything that doesn’t need to be there; electricians pulling power and comms lines making runs through the penetrators to run up or across decks; ships crew making sure safety measures are taken into account and that our operations do not negatively impact the running of the ship, welders making the final welds when things are in place and above it all: three groups of cameramen and bloggers trying to capture and understand everything. Cue music, whirl like dervish, repeat.
LARs on first, then Mary Ann’s hut, followed by Ginger’s, once those are set its time to stage some weights for the deployments, our air gun for recoveries, Benthos balls for the Deep Ocean Transponders (DOTS), crates of line and chain for tie downs, our pedestal for controlling the LARS, the hydraulic power unit for running the LARS, a van of spares and equipment we don’t want to be without. The list is long and that’s just ours. Add to that same deck at the same time a Phoenix International work class Remote Operated Vehicle: two vans, one a mechanical spares van and workshop the other a vehicle control and electrical spares van; the LARs for the ROV followed by the huge winch carrying 7000 meters of .68 inch armored fiber optic cable, a generator to power it all and then you’re ready to set the ROV on the LARS. In a dream that would do it but here it just the beginning, now the ROV team has to add the cameras and that is such an intricate job I am going to save it for another posting. You’d think that would cover it but it’s not even close. Once all the gear is in place its time to wire everything up, drop a generator into the middle of it all and start stringing cat 5 cables and power lines, hydraulic lines and other necessary cables and comms lines so everybody is speaking the same language data-wise. Then test, retest, repair, test, retest, tweak, test….well you get the idea.
While this is happening the ship is also provisioning, 6 trucks worth of fuel are bunkered aboard, a few trucks filled with food have to be unloaded and foodstuffs stored by the same people who are already feeding 47 people. It’s a vast and intricate dance and requires everyone to pull together to get it right. As this job is media intensive there were also truckloads of camera equipment added, media teams to sort and install it and while they are putting their kit together they’re also reporting. No one gets to do just one thing at a time, usually you’re trying to keep multiple balls in the air, put the jigsaw together and cover all your bases before the show kicks off. It was damn hectic but in a true testament to the professionalism of the people on this expedition it came together nicely.
Once the spider web of communications and data cable are in place the testing begins and runs constantly right up until the equipment is deployed, everyone wants their gear to work and work at its highest potential. While all of that was being done the group of techs who joined us from Billy Lange’s imaging shop at Woods Hole Oceanographic was busy putting together the junction bottle that would run the 5 HV and one 3D camera that we plan to use aboard the Phoenix Remora ROV. Frankly I’m surprised they were able to get it done, adding half a dozen cameras to an ocean depth work ROV is not something that’s usually accomplished in a month much less a week. That equipment, the cameras on the ROV’s, are really going to shine on this expedition. I’m not sure but I think nothing quite like it has been done before, but that, too, is another subject for another post.
It’s not all work though. My AUV operating team took a lunch one day and we visited Signal Hill in St. Johns and got a nice overlook of the area while also catching up on some the local history. As well the night before our scheduled departure RMS Titanic threw us a little going away gala; they’d already provided us with some super sweet swag, jackets hats and shirts branded with the expedition logo. The party was a good time, the food was great and the drinks were flowing and many long lasting friendships were begun.
My ribs hurt the next morning so many laughs did I enjoy. I could fill a few pages on the antics but perhaps they are best left to the imagination, after all, even seagoing scientists are deserving of a little privacy. I’m just glad to report that no one seriously overindulged, we suffered no local entanglements and the following day everybody made it to work. Again, almost amazing. Sea going folk party hard and we kept the faith but again, the professionalism of the group was the rule of the day and everybody was aboard when the lines were pulled.
So it’s closing in midnight and I am sitting in my little stateroom pecking away and enjoying the salt breeze and sound of the hull slicing though the waves from my open porthole. There are a few folks up in the labs putting finishing touches on the gear, running some more comm. Lines and editing film but most everybody is nestled in their bunks while they acclimate to being underway. A calm has descended upon the ship while we settle into the new routine, that of the sea-goer.