Walking onto the bridge of the Atlantis at midnight may be a bit overwhelming at first, particularly if you have not visited during the day or the giant cup of coffee you drink prior to your journey hasn’t taken effect yet. The space is dark and you are liable to run into just about everything if you don’t wait five minutes to allow your eyes to adjust to the lack of light. Once your eyes adjust, shapes of chart tables, engine panels, and the captain’s chair (which I am known for frequently running into) show themselves in dim and now-avoidable outlines. Welcome to the bridge, a place not many frequent apart from the deck crew and the chief scientist, and the occasional visitor who may or may not be lost.
Generally the ship’s crew works behind the scenes to make a science cruise run smoothly and efficiently. Most people know that Captain Colburn is in charge of the vessel: his is the voice in the sky that comes on and off the radio during Alvin launches and recoveries. But what about the other hours of the day? That’s where the deck officers and able-bodied seamen come in. Apart from the captain’s position, the Atlantis has three licensed officers who are each responsible for different tasks aboard the vessel. The Chief Mate oversees the deck department, the Second Mate (me) is responsible for navigational work and equipment, and the Third Mate maintains the safety and emergency equipment aboard.
During any given time under way, there will be a deck officer on the bridge in charge of “the watch,” accompanied by an able-bodied seaman to assist him or her. In conjunction with our counterparts in the engine room, we drive the vessel to different science stations, keep a lookout for traffic (or sometimes fouled sea turtles), make sure we are ready for instrument or Alvin launches and recoveries, and generally maintain a safe working environment for the vessel at all times. We aim to keep our shipmates safe and sound, 24 hours a day.
So what does the bridge look like? When members of the science party wander onto the bridge, we often hear it looks like a spaceship. As I am not an astronaut and have never been aboard a space ship, I cannot confirm or deny this statement, but I understand why someone might suggest this. There are panels and buttons everywhere, and unfamiliar instruments most people see only in movies. The next question I always get is: Where is the steering wheel? (The helm in nautical terminology.) The answer is, the Atlantis doesn’t have one! The vessel is actually steered by turning the ship’s drives (thrusters) and increasing the number of RPMs (rotations per minute) in the direction we want to go.
The Atlantis has three thrusters: two stern and one bow. We can move the ship by moving thrusters individually or by tying the three thrusters together into an integrated system known as joystick mode (like Atari or other old fashioned video games) or in an autopilot setting. The Atlantis is capable of what is known as dynamic positioning (DP). DP allows the ship to move or maintain position within meters of our target at very slow speeds. It also will hold the ship in an exact position and adjust thruster direction and RPMs to counter any wind or current that would otherwise move the ship. All these steering options make the Atlantis highly maneuverable, which is essential for deploying and recovering instruments like the CTD rosette, the Vent-SID, the Large Volume Pump, and of course, Alvin.
Other things you will find on the bridge include the radars, which use radio waves to detect traffic and land around the vessel; an electronic chart system (similar to MapQuest but for ships); and a Global Positioning System (GPS), telling us where the vessel is at any given time. The Atlantis uses paper charts (large ocean maps) for official navigation purposes, and as the second mate I am responsible for plotting our voyage plans and science stations on these charts.
Traditionally vessels move cargo, anything from televisions to oil, from point A to point B. The Atlantis is unusual because we do not carry traditional cargo. Instead we we move personnel,
instruments and the vessel to different spots on the globe to establish data and samples for a number of scientific missions and goals. The deck and engine departments attempt to work seamlessly to put the ship where it needs to be daily, so that all the science party needs to worry about—apart from those lucky few who are assigned to night operations like myself—is rolling out of bed after a peaceful night’s rest for Alvin dive prep. And if that is too deluded a dream for our scientists (who tend to work around the clock whilst aboard), I will have fresh coffee available for all at 06:00, when my day is almost over and the waking world is beginning to stir.