The crew of the NOAA Ship Ronald H. Brown: the people who make all this science possible

So far on this blog, we’ve spent a lot of time talking about the scientific work we’ve been doing day in and day out for the last few weeks. We love what we do (some days more than others), and are excited about sharing the results of our month of research in the Pacific.

However, there’s a group of people aboard the NOAA Ship Ronald H. Brown that our blog hasn’t talked much about, but who are vitally important to this project. They’re the folks who make this expedition possible, who keep the ship and its operations running smoothly behind the scenes, who feed us, and who make sure we stay safe and healthy while aboard. I’m talking about the ship’s crew, without whom we would be a group of dedicated marine scientists who couldn’t make it out of the harbor.

The NOAA Ship Ronald H. Brown launched on May 30, 1996, from Pascagoula, Mississippi, where she was built – so this week marks the 20th anniversary of her launch!  She was commissioned one year later on July 19, 1997. The largest ship in the NOAA fleet and NOAA’s only Global Class research vessel, she is crewed by 30 men and women, each of whom performs a unique role aboard the ship. The ship’s labor is divided among six departments: the NOAA Corps, deck, engineering, electronics, survey, and stewards.

The NOAA Corps – as well as one commissioned US Public Health Service medical officer – provides the leadership aboard the Brown. The NOAA Corps officers are charged with commanding and driving the ship and making logistical decisions about the ship’s course. The Corps’ primary duty is to serve NOAA and the Department of Commerce through a variety of operations: commanding ships, flying aircraft, performing diving operations, and overseeing scientific research. Ensign Lydia Ames is a NOAA Corps officer aboard the Brown; she recently marked the end of her first year as an officer in the Corps. Her main duties include standing watch (that is, driving the ship) for eight hours per day and overseeing matters pertaining to damage control – maritime terminology for fire and emergency response. Lydia runs our weekly safety drills aboard the Brown and ensures that our safety equipment, such as the life jackets and immersion suits that we would wear in the event of an abandon ship order, fit and work properly. When I ask her the most interesting place she has traveled to while aboard the Brown, she unhesitatingly answers, “Palmyra Atoll in the Pacific Ocean,” citing the atoll’s rich history and biological diversity. Lydia says she is looking forward to the Brown’s next project out of dry dock, when the ship will travel to Easter Island, around South America, and northward to the Caribbean.

Lydia Photo Credit: Meghan Shea
Ensign Lydia Ames on the deck of the NOAA Ship Ronald Brown. Photo Credit: Meghan Shea

Able-Bodied Seaman Reggie Williams, the lookout during the 4:00-8:00 shifts, serves in the deck department. The deck department operates winches during CTD deployments and net tows, moors the ship in port, helps collect hydrographic data, paints, cleans, and tends to general deck upkeep. Reggie, along with Third Mate Dave Owen and Chief Engineer Gordon Gardipe, is a plank owner on the Brown; plank owners are crewmembers who are with a ship at the time of her commissioning. The term refers to the fact that these original crewmembers are entitled to a piece of the ship once she is decommissioned from service. Having been aboard the Brown for 19 years, Reggie takes pride in the ship. In addition to his deck duties, he enjoys serving as a lookout on the bridge because he likes spotting things in the water. During my visit to the bridge while he and Lydia are on duty, Reggie points out a fishing boat far off in the distance, as well as a log floating in the water; Lydia refers to him as “Eagle Eyes” as she peers through her binoculars to spot the fishing boat too. Reggie also enjoys what he calls the “music of the ship,” the sounds of power tools ringing sharply out on deck, laboratory equipment humming, and the baritone whirring of the engines underscoring it all. When I ask him why he enjoys hearing these sounds, he replies, “Because it means somebody’s doing their job.”

Reggie Williams on deck after his lookout shift. Photo Credit: Meghan Shea
Reggie Williams on deck after his lookout shift. Photo Credit: Meghan Shea

The Brown’s engineers are tasked with maintaining the ship and keeping its engines and all working parts running smoothly. While their job is the least visible of those aboard the Brown, as the engine rooms keep them far below deck most days (“We mostly stay down in the dungeons,” one engineer jokes wryly after I mention that we rarely see them), it is certainly among the most critical, and the engineers are often the unsung heroes on the ship for the hard work they do behind the scenes. During our project, the ship’s crew is preparing the Brown for her annual inspection, which will happen after we reach Seattle, so the engineers are even busier than usual, working to ensure that the ship’s engines and generators are in, well, shipshape.

Jeff Hill, the electronics technician aboard the Brown, is in charge of the myriad electronics systems aboard the ship. This includes not only the internet that we use to connect to our land-based colleagues, family, and friends (not to mention this blog!), but also the navigational systems, radar, radio communications, and all data storage systems onboard. Jeff has been aboard the Brown for 12 years and has worked for NOAA aboard various other vessels for the last three decades, at postings as far-flung as Alaska and Hawaii. A veteran of both electronics and marine work, he remembers when, before ships were equipped with satellite phones and internet, mariners would use ham radio to call home to their families. He enjoys the travels that come as part of the job, and he’s looking forward to visiting South America in the coming months.

Josh Gunter preparing for a night of CTD casts and net tows. Photo Credit: Meghan SheaJosh Gunter prepares for a night of CTD casts and net tows. Photo Credit: Meghan Shea

The survey technicians are in charge of all scientific operations that require sampling. Survey technicians on this project supervise us during our deployments and recoveries of the CTD rosette and all nets. Josh Gunter, the Brown’s senior survey technician, has served on NOAA ships for the last nine years and joined the crew of the Brown last October. Prior to that, he served as a survey technician aboard the NOAA Ship Bell M. Shimada. Josh has a quick, wisecracking sense of humor, and he keeps those of us on night shift laughing and in good spirits, even in rough seas. He’s quite a storyteller, and when I ask him about his most memorable NOAA ship experiences, he tells me about how, during a previous posting, the ship he was on rescued a lost group of Cuban refugees whose small, homemade vessel had been pushed off-course. His favorite part of the job? The diversity of science and people aboard the ship. He enjoys taking part in the many different scientific projects and loves that every project involves a different set of surveys. He adds that the job comes with some great occupational perks: “We get to see some awesome sunsets and go to some amazing places. A lot of people pay to go whale-watching; it’s just part of our day-to-day experience out here.”

Emir Porter wraps up leftovers for crew and scientists working through the night to enjoy. Photo Credit: Meghan Shea
Emir Porter wraps up leftovers for crew and scientists working through the night to enjoy. Photo Credit: Meghan Shea

Finally, all operations on the Brown would come to a complete standstill (and we would all surely mutiny) if not for the work of the stewards, who keep the public spaces aboard the ship clean and who cook three delicious meals each day for the 58 people aboard. Their workday begins at 5:00 AM each morning and does not end until the last dishes from dinner have been cleaned. Emir Porter, who serves as second cook, has been stationed aboard the Brown for four years, his first posting as a NOAA mariner. While other crewmembers cite traveling as their favorite part of the job, Emir says that his coworkers are what make the job fun. (For the record, I absolutely believe it: the stewards seem to always be engaged in laughter and lively conversation while preparing meals in the galley.) What is he looking forward to the most in the coming months aboard the ship? Traveling to Charleston, South Carolina, the ship’s home port, and seeing family.

After all, there’s no place like home, especially when your job is on the high seas.

Author: Katie Douglas

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