Wednesday, 29 January 2014

Sun on the water (Andrew Cormack)

April Fools Day 1989 maybe wasn’t the best day for one brand new RVS employee and three brand new Sun workstations to join RRS Discovery  in Barry. We all worked well in lab conditions but typical Biscay weather soon revealed some design flaws. So my first week of shipboard computing involved re-writing low level file handling subroutines in forty minute bursts between visits to the heads. I was eventually cured by being sent up the ladder to refill the wet-bulb thermometer. Discovering that I felt better standing on the ship’s roof than down in the computer lab taught me the cures for sea-sickness: fresh air, horizon and, if those aren’t available, bunk.

A later trip to the same 20ºW line gave me a closer look at the ocean, thanks to a boat transfer through a school of pilot whales from Discovery  to RRS Charles Darwin  to help re-build their computer systems after a power failure. Discovery  may not look big from the dock-side, but she looks enormous when you’re looking up a rope ladder from sea level.

My last Discovery  trip (post-rebuild) also involved intensive programming, when a team from Columbia University decided they’d like ground-referenced velocities from our ship-mounted ADCP. Unfortunately the ‘ground’ in the South Atlantic was 3000m away, far out of the ADCP’s range. Using GPS data to subtract the ship’s motion was fine in theory, but calculations designed to produce a smooth estimate of position from spiky satellite data turned out to be a very poor source of accurate velocities. The eventual results seemed to make scientific sense, though they were very different from the big arrow marked Benguela Current on the chart. That’s a massive average of the real world mess of little currents and eddies (incidentally I think it was that trip where someone told the engineers that mapping eddies involved sailing uphill: was that in the contract?). It was my only visit to the southern hemisphere so included the memorable experience of sitting on the bridge watching more than fifty albatrosses soaring around us. And my final view of the ship, from another boat transfer into Cape Town, was past rafts of penguins.

Tuesday, 30 October 2012

Duff first cruise (Raymond Pollard)


John Swallow deploying the echo-sounder fish (Mac Harris looks on)
I first sailed on Discovery as a raw (and probably upstart) postdoc in Jan/Feb 1971. Cruise 38 leg 1 was out of Barry, ending at Plymouth. The cruise was led by John Swallow with Mike Harding as Master. We were working at the shelf edge, so not that far from port.

Temperature, Salinity Depth (TSD) probe)
This was just as well, as you will see. I remember making copious notes on how things worked, especially the echo sounder (under Big John’s tutelage). It is only with hindsight do I realise that novel systems were beginning to revolutionize the science. CTD stations (Conductivity, Temperature, Depth) were taken with a Bissett Berman 9040 system. (Except that in those days they were TSDs Temperature, Salinity and Depth probes.)

The cruise report remarks that this work “was greatly enhanced by use of the computer for logging the TSD output and providing rapid plots of the vertical distribution of temperature, salinity and density.” Yes, we had a computer on board! However, my abiding memory was not the science but the poor quality of the food!

About to deploy a mooring. L to R Netman, Dick Burt; Dave Grohman;
John Gould; John Swallow


About to deploy a mooring. L to R Netman, Dick Burt; Dave Grohman;
John Gould; John Swallow
Was it this trip or a later one when the food was so bad that the only thing I found edible was plain yoghurt? And I don't especially like plain yoghurt, but at least you could add sugar to it. Offal was often on the menu, sheeps' hearts I recall.

I got in serious trouble when, at the end of one particularly awful meal, the duff was so solid that I stuck my fork into it upright and left the saloon. There were stewards in those days, not self-service, so the stewards knew exactly who had done it.

It was not long before I was summoned to see the Master. Mike Harding was sympathetic, and I am sure appreciated the validity of my protest, but he explained that the galley staff were doing their best, and it was not helpful to protest as I had done. My first lesson in tact perhaps. Others must judge whether I learnt anything from it.

We had to make two emergency port calls to Falmouth for injury. One of them was caused when the ship rolled heavily in atrocious weather. The roll threw the Chief Engineer against the recently installed computer system, breaking his ribs. I think the poor man never fully recovered.

The second unscheduled port call seemed to me to be more like retribution. The Chief Steward was taken ill with a stomach complaint and had to put ashore. His replacement had served on cruise liners, I think, and the quality of the meals improved dramatically!

Discovery in Millbay Dock, Plymouth

Monday, 22 October 2012

Blowing the whistle on Discovery (John Moorey)

When RRS Discovery was built, a “Meteorological Office” was put into a small space inside the funnel. Most of the readouts of the ship’s meteorological instruments were housed there. It was the job of the person being relieved from the 4-hour echo-sounding watch to go from the plotting office up two decks to the bridge deck and into the funnel to record the data.

John Moorey on Discovery
In 1963, on the shakedown cruise I was relieved at midnight. On the bridge deck I noticed that it had become foggy, the horizontal visibility was about 20 or 30 metres, but looking up one could see the stars. I climbed up the few steps and entered the small door into the “met office” and started to fill in the log sheet. At that moment the officer who had just taken over the middle watch decided to warn other possible ships of our presence.

The ship’s whistle blew. I was deafened. I shot out of the funnel and almost fell down the steps and ran along the deck as far from the funnel as possible. A few seconds later the whistle stopped, but there were a few blank entries for that 4-hour period. I didn’t return to complete the log sheets.

I notice that Discovery’s last cruise is, Southampton, Santa Cruz Tenerife, and the Bahamas along 26°N. My first cruise for NIO (National Institute of Oceanography) was on RRS Discovery II in 1957 for an IGY hydrographic survey of latitude 24°N and I notice that our itinerary was very similar: Plymouth, Santa Cruz, and Nassau Bahamas.

I joined NIO in 1954 as a scientific assistant. My job was mainly instrumental – the equipment that we used was water bottles and mercury in glass reversing thermometers. If any of that still exists it will be in museums, but the results are still used. At the 50th anniversary of Discovery this summer, Dr Brian King told me that he had recently used results from that 1957 cruise. In the 1960s there was a big development in instrumentation. It was an exciting time.

Thursday, 18 October 2012

Discovery Reflections (Howard Roe)

I first saw Discovery  on 13 January 1968 in Millbay Dock, Plymouth. She was being loaded with all the paraphernalia needed for cruise 21, a biological cruise to the subtropical and tropical Atlantic off the West African shelf. This was to be my introduction to sea-going and my new career on plankton. I had transferred to Wormley’s Institute of Oceanographic Sciences  (IOS) from the Whale Research Unit at the end of the previous year. Swapping 25 metre long whales for millimetre long plankton was a challenge!

We were away for 68 days – much longer than most recent cruises. For me, this first experience of the skilled teamwork and sense of community on board, the runs ashore in exotic ports, and the first sight of extraordinary deep-sea animals that I had only heard of in books, was life-changing.

We fished a variety of midwater nets to depths of over 3000m. There were ingenious pop-up nets that really did not work, neuston nets at the surface, and a bottom sledge and Shipek grab. We deployed bottom longlines and made numerous dips in the upwelling off the West African coast with a temperature salinity depth probe – a forerunner to the CTD.

The net systems we used were in transition between older technologies using conical nets with catch-dividing buckets and paper recording depth pressure gauges, to acoustically controlled trawls where the mouth opened and closed to allow catches from known depths. Gear failures were common but the trawls and the rather primitive benthic sledge, were subsequently developed during the next few years to become the complex systems still in use today.

And we caught things: scarlet shrimps which showed clear vertical separation in their distributions and a clear faunal discontinuity at 200N – a zoogeographic boundary confirmed several years later; luminescent squid and fish; jewel–like copepods (my new group!) whose colours sadly faded rapidly in formalin; bottom–living black sharks with reflective green eyes; a spectacular bright orange whale fish; dense swarms of blue copepods and gelatinous salps at the surface.

In the constant temperature lab, goose barnacles and the eggs and developing larvae of shrimps were kept alive for weeks, and euphausiids obligingly survived and moulted several times. Phytoplankton was blooming in huge quantities over the African shelf and filled up all of the bottom sledge hauls we made there. Further offshore we caught corals, sea-cucumbers, large shrimps and halosaur fish. The sampling gear and the series of stations that we worked were the beginning of the very detailed studies carried out by the Wormley biologists over the next 10 years that still provide unrivalled information on the community structures and diversity of deep-ocean animals in the North Atlantic Ocean.

We worked around the clock in shifts – starting with the tedious (and possibly pointless) echo-sounding watches that began as soon as we crossed the continental shelf leaving England. At our chosen sites, which ranged from the Canary Islands, the African slope, the Cape Verde Islands and deep water off Senegal, we worked 12 hour day or night shifts changing over at the various port calls. We worked hard but also enjoyed ourselves. Bronzing during the day (no thought of damaging sunlight in those days); trying to catch squid attracted to the ship’s lights at night; and shark fishing with joints of meat from the cold store were popular leisure activities outside on deck. Inside the social focus was the bar-open continuously with measures (doubles of course) costing sixpence (the equivalent of 2.5p at today’s rates).

The bar was sited at main deck level –it had armchairs and a fireplace and was sadly ousted from this prime position by the installation of the first ship’s computer some 12 months later.

On Fridays we lined up in the bar for our tot of navy rum (the ship’s officers were all provided by the Royal Fleet Auxilliary in those days). Music centres did not exist, but amongst our company were some very accomplished musicians who played whilst the rest of us “sang”. It was here that novices like myself were introduced to liar dice. Films were shown twice a week in the ship’s library-come-cinema; table tennis and darts matches with the crew; and any excuse for a party- sometimes fancy dress during which inventive costumes were constructed from rolls of Mufax paper.

Every Sunday lunchtime we had ‘small-eats’ in the bar, spectacular arrays of canapés sometimes washed down with whatever cocktail was been tested! Dining was formal. We wore jackets and ties in the officers’ mess, where we were waited on by very smart stewards, had silver napkin rings, and if we were a bit late we had to sit at the central circular table with the Captain! In addition to the three usual meals, afternoon tea and biscuits were served in the mess, and we were wakened in the mornings by stewards bearing cups of tea. The bosun provided a laundry service for the more fashion conscious. Times have changed! The food has also changed, no longer do babies’ heads, (steak and kidney pudding) woolly tickers (sheeps’ hearts) yellow peril and herrings feature monotonously on the menu. Some things are better today! We spent two days in Dakar-where we astonished the locals by demonstrating our bow propeller when going alongside. Here we searched for African dancing, bartered for masks, drums and parrots and wandered around the unfortunately named VD market. 

It was all very colourful! Later we made two visits to Tenerife where I was introduced to the Atlantico and London Bars (the latter sadly bulldozed years later). It snowed whilst we were there. Mount Teide covered with snow is spectacular. And on our second visit we attended an ICES conference on the west African Upwelling System. Being new to all of this I paid more attention to touring the island than sitting in a cold conference room. Finally we returned to Plymouth on the 1 April where I resolved to become an ocean biologist!


Six months on the Black Pig (Tiny Pook)

Capt Sam Mayl
I loved the Discovery. I first joined her November 1984 in Falmouth after she had had a refit. The master was Sam Mayl from Falmouth to Gibraltar. During this passage we did workup trials of the 3km seismic array that we would be using down in the Antarctic. When we got to Gibraltar, Sam Mayl was relieved by Mike Harding. From Gibraltar we transited to Port Stanley, arriving New Year's Eve.

Here we picked up the scientists and the technicians, then we sailed Port Stanley New Year's Day at 17:00 to start work down in the Antarctic a few days later [Cruise 154 led by Peter Barker, University of Birmingham]. We then went to Punta Arenas in February for fuel, water, and provisions. We also got all new officers, as they only did two months on two months off. The master was again Sam Mayl. We went back down into the ice [Cruise 155 led by Bob White from the University of Cambridge] and took fuel and water in Grytviken South Georgia. We came out of the ice on April 1st, and headed for Montevideo to offload the scientists and technicians. We then transited our way back to the UK, arriving in the Clyde on May 13th. I have some great memories of that ship, and I re-read my journals smiling inwardly to myself remembering great times, and the antics we got up to.

Tiny Pook, Bosun, also known as Glenn Pook, (Chief Petty Officer Deck in modern parlance)

RRS Discovery

Tuesday, 16 October 2012

Coping with seasickness (Martin Angel)


Cruise 30  I lay on the deck of the plotting office at two in the morning feeling very sick. Having a surname beginning with A meant I always caught the first ‘death-watch’ echo-sounding watch, which started as the ship crossed the shelf-break at midnight. A recurring question crossed and re-crossed my mind  why had I chosen such a bloody awful occupation. 

The ship pitched and rolled violently as she forced her way into the teeth of the south-westerly gale we always seemed to encounter as we crossed the Bay of Biscay. All the instruments around me were mounted on rubber gimbals, so they rocked and swayed independently in a weird sick-making charconne. Every ten minutes I had to rise from the deck and mark up the chart and record the sounding. A quick dash to the head to wretch bile from my already empty stomach   a drink of water  and back to lying on the deck. A crash from one of the nearby laboratories forced me into action again. Another duty of these watches was to check the security of all the instruments in the laboratories. At such an early stage of a cruise, any damage to the instruments caused by a heavy box on the loose could seriously impair what we could achieve during the next six to eight weeks. 

The banging was emanating from the electronics laboratory. A four-drawer steel filing cabinet had not been properly locked and had burst open. The drawers as they slid in and out were spewing their contents in all directions. Starting with the top drawer fairly quickly I managed to get its contents back in and shut the drawer. But the drawer could not be locked shut until all have been closed. As I started on the second drawer the ship lurched violently again as she took a green one over the foredeck. The top drawer flew open not only spewing out its contents again, but also catching me on the side of the head and drawing blood. With nothing to hand with which to secure the drawer, I had to use one hand to hold the top drawer shut, while I re-filled the second drawer. As I re-filled it, it was free to slide in and out as the ship rolled, constantly hitting me in my stomach, which was already was agonisingly tender from sea-sickness.

At last I got the second drawer re-filled and shut. With one hand I could just keep the upper two drawers shut, while I struggled to deal with the third. I then had three drawers to keep shut, while I dealt with the fourth, At last, despite the ship continually lurching violently, I just managed to keep the top drawers shut with one hand and a knee, and started on the fourth drawer. Another lurch and I staggered back, and all the drawers flew open again. I dredged up some of the profane language I had learnt while doing national service in the army but foul language had no effect on the drawers, but fortunately most of their contents stayed in place, and as the ship rolled back three of the drawers slid shut. It took me an hour of struggle finally to get all four drawers shut and locked.

Throughout this time I had no time to think about sea-sickness. It was rather extreme cure, but it did suggest that sea-sickness is in part a psychological illness and if you are fully employed with things to do you can pull through. Well pull the other one!

Images taken onboard RRS Discovery

Friday, 12 October 2012

The Biggest Waves (Penny Holliday)

Waves crash over the bow of RRS Discovery
In February 2000, the people on board RRS Discovery endured an experience they will never forget. Cruise 245 was the 68th occupation of the Ellett Line, a repeat hydrography section in the Rockall Trough, and the aim was to collect rare winter data. Winter is a particularly interesting time from a physical oceanography perspective with convective mixing to 800 m below the surface, and a huge amount of heat released to the atmosphere from the ocean. We soon found out why this time series, which was started in 1975 by David Ellett, had so little winter data.

D245 Wave data
For most of the cruise we were battered by ferocious storms. Of the 25 days at sea, science work was possible on only 9. The science programme was in tatters, and so were people nerves. The storms were relentless and as the ship rolled and pitched, no-one got any sleep and ribs were broken. The ship's officers and crew worked continually to keep us safe and to try to salvage something of the science we had planned. But the sight of the Captain (Keith Avery) and often the Chief Engineer (Ian McGill) on the Bridge at all hours, looking very worried, and saying they had never seen weather so bad, is something I hope not to experience again.

There was damage to the ship. An interior window between the main lab and the computer room shattered as the ship flexed. During a roll of 33° at 4am the starboard lifeboat came loose and was banging loudly against the side of the ship. Crew were dispatched to secure it, and watching them go out into the raging storm was the worst moment for me. They did the job though, and all came safely back inside.

During a 12-hour period on 8-9 Feb 2000, a total of 23 waves exceeded 20m (peak-to-trough height). The biggest wave was over 29m, and significant wave height reached 18.5m, the highest ever recorded.

Penny Holliday, Co-Chief Scientist of Discovery  Cruise 245



Read Susan Casey's version of this story on Gizmodo as an excerpt from her book "The Wave".