Conceived of to fill the need for an ice-capable research vessel in the Alaskan region, designed to provide a state-of-the-art platform for all manner of oceanographic research including the effect of climate change in that area, and already embarked on her second science mission en route from construction in the Great Lakes to her home port in Seward, AK, the R/V Sikuliaq is our lodging, transport, base of operations, and laboratory for the duration of our mission to the Pacific Jurassic Quiet Zone.
Oceanographic research vessels in the United States are coordinated by the University-National Oceanographic Laboratory System. The UNOLS fleet consists of ships owned by various organizations, two of the most prominent of which are the Navy and the National Science Foundation (NSF), and operated by partners of the UNOLS group of universities and US National Labs. This organizational structure facilitates the process by which ship time is allocated to researcher of all stripes, who typically apply to NSF for project funding (as in the norm among all sciences) and then, upon approval, enter a subsequent process through which they may be assigned a research vessel capable of accommodating their scientific, geographic, and scheduling needs.
The newest member of the UNOLS fleet, the R/V Sikuliaq is owned by NSF and operated by the University of Alaska Fairbanks. This means that the ship is potentially available to all oceanographic researches affiliated with the UNOLS system, and is crewed by UAF employees. These sailors comprise a diverse group of research ship veterans, crewmen moving on from recently-retired ships, merchant mariners and more. The ship spends more time at sea than any individual member of her crew, and this means that positions on the ship rotate through regulars and relief. Each time the ship departs port, she sails with a complement of her total pool of crew depending on each individual’s opting-in to the contract for that trip. On our cruise, much of the first, original crew of “plank-owners” (who, upon the ship’s eventual decommissioning, will be entitled to take away a piece) are still aboard, with a few positions occupied by relief.
A brand new vessel whose construction was finished earlier this year in Marinette, Wisconsin, the Sikuliaq is still in the process of making her way to her home port, which will be Seward, Alaska. A new ship is required to undergo a rigorous and ongoing certification, verification, and testing process including “sea trials” some of which have been already completed, as well as “ice trials” which will begin once the ship reaches her home waters around Alaska. The Sikuliaq is designed for this region of arctic seas, and is capable of breaking up to three feet of seasonal ice at a speed of two knots. As a consequence of this design, which includes a tapering hull that narrows toward the rear of the ship in order to reduce friction with the ice, the underside of the hull is curved in a way uncommon to most open-ocean vessels. This lack of a pronounced keel is a major contributing factor in the incessant rolling — even in what we now must necessarily think of as deceptively calm seas — that we may have already mentioned once or twice.
The Sikuliaq is 261 feet in length, 52 feet wide (in the “beam”) at her widest point, and draws about 19 feet of water (the size of the “draft” is the vertical distance from the lowest point of the hull to the water line). She is driven by two “azimuth thrusters,” so called because each can independently rotate through a full 360 degrees of azimuth (in the horizontal plane), obviating entirely the need for a rudder to steer the ship, benefiting from the flexible output of a diesel-electric power train managed by the engineering department. The ship is rated for a maximum calm-water speed of 14.2 knots; we have been used to travelling at around 11 in most manageable seas but at the time of this writing (beginning the final transit to Guam) our speed over ground (that’s SOG for short) is hovering around 12.2.
When precision is called for in preference to raw power, the Sikuliaq’s “dynamic positioning” system — a combination of GPS guidance and computer control — allows the ship to automatically hold station over a given point or follow precisely a course specified by the bridge. This is essential in following the Sentry AUV during its dives, as maintaining communication with the vehicle depends on staying close enough to hear it.
Another advantageous feature of the Sikuliaq for our purposes is the somewhat rare “centerboard.” This is a deployable segment of the lower hull which can be raised and lowered to extend or retract instruments and sensors below the rest of the ship. Although it requires a low SOG when lowered, the centerboard is capable of putting sonars and other sensors below the bubbles that often can cause interference, and having this ability has made for very smooth sailing as far as communicating with AUV Sentry goes.
The ship is equipped with numerous cranes and winches — the so-called “overboard capability” — which allow deployment and recovery of instruments and vehicles over the side of the ship. For this cruise, Sentry has been deployed and recovered on the starboard side using one of the large cranes and the DeepTow sled is towed by a cable running through a block mounted on the A-frame, which is a mobile structure at the very aft end of the ship. Smaller, movable pneumatic winches can be stationed at critical positions on the deck to provide additional stability for moving loads during deck operations.
Inside (within the watertight doors, off the exposed “weather deck”), in addition to the working areas and living quarters we’ve already described, the ship is equipped with numerous other vital spaces: science stores, with ample reserves of everything office necessities to cleaning supplies; the tech shop, with a workbench, drill press, and comprehensive assortment of tools and hardware; the “Baltic room,” a temperature-controlled staging area for overboard equipment; the wet lab, a transitional space between the Baltic room and the main lab; the analytical lab, for additional lab space, and many other rooms dedicated to the marine techs and crew tasked with maintaining a science-conducive environment on board.
On a modern ship like the Sikuliaq, one component of this environment is fast fiber-optic local area network (LAN) and shipwide local wireless network. This serves as a convenient central repository for the copious amounts of sensor data gathered by the ship’s suite of instruments, a sort of one-stop-shop for all of the location, course, heading, and attitude (that’s spatial orientation) data that are necessary to put other instruments’ observations in their appropriate context. It’s also the definitive source for settling bets on just how many degrees that last terrific roll really was.
Named with the Alaskan native Iñupiat word for “young sea ice,” the Sikuliaq is still making her way toward the seas that will ultimately be her primary home and research area. Nevertheless, by providing this cruise a platform and processing environment for our several various magnetometric instruments, she is already hard at work proving her versatility and excellence as a facilitator of a great variety of marine research.