NOAA’s Largest Research Vessel: The Crew

Lt. Paul Chamberlin, the Operations Officer, standing watch. Officers are on the bridge, keeping watch for other ships, weather conditions, and marine wildlife constantly.

Moving aboard ship is a rapid transition to communal living. Every bunk is filled with the sixty residents of Research Vessel Brown for this cruise. Two bunk staterooms make up the bulk of private spaces onboard, with a few cabinets for your things, a sink and a small desk. Every two staterooms share a bathroom containing a toilet and a shower. The people on board are broadly split into three groups: the crew, the officers, and the scientists. The crewmembers are the most permanent residents, with some residing on the ship for more than ten years. The NOAA officers spend two years on a ship and then rotate off. The scientists come and go with every cruise. In our case, we cruise from Boston to Bermuda, where we disembark, new scientists arrive and travel to Barbados, and the process continues. Eventually the R/V Brown will make its way back to home port in Charleston, South Carolina.

The crew literally runs the ship and its equipment, operating and maintaining the engines, the plumbing, and the electrical circuits which power not only the lights, air conditioning, and computers, etc., but the scientific equipment as well. They operate the large cranes for deployment of instruments over the side of the ship, like the CTD (more on this in the next post), or for loading of gear and stores on to the ship, like the scientists’ containers and all our food. Speaking of food, the crew keeps us from going hungry. The kitchen puts out copious and delicious meals on the Brown (we had prime rib AND lobster on Sunday night, and the best ribs of my life last night), highly important to maintaining motivation and critical thinking ability- essential for scientists working around the clock in some cases. Chief Cook Kurt Kier is dedicated to taking care of the entire boat through serving great food. He told me that the cooks size up the new batch of scientists to determine if they are “eaters” or not, within the first few meals. Fortunately, we are eaters, because the food keeps coming and it’s fantastic.

Our fabulous chef Kurt, whipping up another fantastic meal.

Officers can come from a variety of places (see the NOAA Corps page for more information). Many have served in the Navy, like my bunkmate Aaron Colohan. Along with being the Navigation Officer, he is extremely gracious with my presence in his home at sea, has great taste in music, and has shared some hair-raising sea stories. Last night he told me about being on a cruiser in a category 5 hurricane with 100 foot seas! Our captain, Mark Pickett, besides his rank and command, also has a Ph.D. in Oceanography. He’s a tall, fit guy with a deep voice who exudes calm confindence. This seems to be a shared characteristic of all the officers, and after hearing Aaron’s stories, I can see that it must in part be forged by some harrowing experiences. These men and women oversee the helm, navigation, the safety of all aboard, maintain twenty-four hour watches, and manage the overall conduct of all operations. Of particular importance to the scientists, they keep the ship “on station,” meaning in the place where we want to sample and make measurements, accounting for wind and current.

Scientist Martin Graus at his mass spectrometer.

Like the scientific community in general, the researchers on this cruise are an international group. Even though many work at United States institutions, in addition to Americans, there are people from Sweden, Finland, Mexico, Austria, and Ireland. Yesterday during lunch I was having a conversation in English and next to me people were speaking in Swedish, across the table, Spanish.

On any given research cruise, there is a Chief Scientist, who coordinates the efforts of all the different researchers. Our Chief Scientist, Patricia Quinn, is highly organized, attentive, and seems quite at home with a level of responsibility and detail that I find daunting. She and her team manage the logistics of getting everything to and from the ship, where equipment is placed on the ship, connect various scientists who have similar needs, and Trish also serves as the main conduit between scientists and the officers and crew. All this is in addition to preparing and conducting her own research.

Together, the crew, officers, and scientists combine to pull off the challenging act of converting a lifeless ship into a living, breathing research platform at sea.


Next up: the research.


Our intrepid chief scientist, Patricia Quinn, in her natural environment.




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