R/V Neil Armstrong in Drydock while OOI Team Onboard

The fact that the R/V Neil Armstrong was out of the water on blocks at the Deytens Shipyard in North Charleston, SC, didn’t deter the Ocean Observatories Initiative (OOI) Coastal and Global Scale Node (CGSN) Team members from loading equipment and setting up laboratories for the first at-sea test deployment for the Coastal Pioneer Array in its new location in the Southern Mid-Atlantic Bight. Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) Port Engineer Hank Ayers helped make this dual operation possible. Ayers has been handling logistics for the Armstrong for 10 years. Over the course of time, he’s developed a knack for multi-tasking, and keeping on schedule and budget, while keeping the 238-foot Armstrong in tip top shape.

Looking at the Armstrong’s at-sea schedule, Ayers arranged for a regulatory drydock period prior to the Pioneer test deployment expedition near the array’s test deployment off the coast of Nags Head, NC. (See figure to right). Regulatory drydock checks are required about every two and a half years for inspections mandated by the US Coast Guard and the American Bureau of Shipping. While in drydock, the Armstrong underwent inspections of the propeller shaft, 17 sea chest valves were checked for condition and wear, the port and starboard anchor chains were replaced, and about 10 percent of the ship’s hull was repainted most of this along the waterline, where it is most susceptible to wear and marine growth, while other sections were touched-up as needed. Other regular maintenance tasks were also completed while the crew was in port.


Ayers explained the complexity of getting a huge vessel that weighs 2641 tons with a 50-foot beam into drydock so the keel can be inspected. “The ship is steered into a big basin with a movable wall at one end. The goal is to have the ship land on top of blocks so when the water is pumped out, it will be securely in place. It’s a delicate process. There’s a ball that floats up at the bow when the ship is in the right position. Once aligned, the crew keeps the ship centered and in position. A diver is also in the basin to make sure that once the ship gets close to the blocks  there are no problems down there. Once the ship is in place on the blocks, the water is drained out.”

The Armstrong was out of the water for 20 days. The Pioneer At-Sea Test team arrived on February 16 to begin the unusual process of mobilizing for the expedition while the ship was technically on land. The shipyard is equipped with huge cranes needed to load the 8000+ pound moorings onto the stern of the ship. Under normal operating conditions, the cranes on the ship would be used to load the equipment onboard.

Said CGSN Instrument Lead Jennifer Batryn who helped with the mobilization, ““It was definitely weird seeing the Armstrong out of the water. It’s a very different perspective than most people are used to seeing for the ship and was especially interesting to observe given OOI uses the Armstrong for a number of our cruises. Other than that, once we were on the ship while it was still in drydock, it really didn’t feel that much different. The ship was very stable and we went through the normal operations of getting the equipment onboard and ready for departure.“

Once loaded, some of the CGSN team headed home to Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, while a team of nine WHOI engineers and scientists stayed onboard to execute the test deployments.

[media-caption path="https://oceanobservatories.org/wp-content/uploads/2023/04/DSC_0258-2-scaled.jpg" link="#"]Not a view many get to see! Armstrong’s Chief Engineer Pete Marczak waving from the stern and CGSN Team members Irene Duran, Jennifer Batryn, and Dee Emrich standing in the North Charleston, SC drydock give a good sense of the size of the RV Neil Armstrong below the waterline. Credit: Rebecca Travis © WHOI.[/media-caption]

The process of refloating the ship commenced on February 21 with the filling of the drydock. It took about 6 hours and 134 million gallons of water to raise the Armstrong in the dock to sea level and ready for departure. The movable wall was taken out and the Armstrong maneuvered over to a nearby pier to continue to get ready for sea and OOI work.

Added Ayers, “The Armstrong is a beautiful, capable ship. When she’s out of the water, you get a sense of her size and capabilities. It’s always a wonderful sight.” And one that won’t happen for a while. Armstrong’s next scheduled drydock is in 2025, so for now, the ship is in good working order and ready to continue its job as a scientific workhorse.



Videos credit: Rebecca Travis © WHOI.

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Marine Mammal Operations Aboard R/V Neil Armstrong During Pioneer 17

The Northeast Fisheries Science Center (NEFSC) had the opportunity to participate on leg two of the Pioneer Array research cruise aboard the R/V Neil Armstrong. The dates for the second leg this year were November 7 – 15 2021. This time frame was critical for us because our main asset for assessing right whale distribution, the NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration)Twin Otter aircraft was scheduled to depart for the Gulf of St. Lawrence Canada, and would not be available. Since 2010 the distribution of the North Atlantic Right whale has changed significantly, and it has become increasingly important to survey more broadly within the range to determine if there are aggregations of right whales in unprotected areas.

Participating scientists from the NEFSC for this cruise were Chris Tremblay and myself, Pete Duley. Chris was brought on for his expertise in acoustics, specifically with the deployment and monitoring of sonobuoys for the detection of North Atlantic Right whales and other large baleen whales. This additional element to our research plan was added to detect right whales in weather when visual observations were not ideal, and to access call types associated with different behaviors from observations with right whales in good visual conditions. Deployment of sonobuoys were conducted with very low or no impact to the mission of the work on the Pioneer array.  November 12 was the only day of the entire cruise in which we were unable to conduct visual observations due to the weather. The Northeast U.S Shelf Long Term Ecological Research (NES-LTER) group was conducting a CTD survey across the shelf break and we used this opportunity to make four sonobuoy drops in association with their survey. We are still analyzing the acoustic recordings form the cruise, but at this point feel that they were a valuable addition to the research.

Sonobuoys are launched by hand from the back deck, once permission has been granted by the bridge. The instruments are not meant to be retrieved and can record for up to eight hours. The instruments send information from their hydrophones by VHF transmission (line of sight) to an antenna mounted on one of the upper decks (01), and scuttle themselves after eight hours of recording.

[media-caption path="/wp-content/uploads/2021/11/Bigeyes.png" link="#"]Marine Mammal Observer Chris Tremblay uses Bigeye binoculars to search for right whales during mooring operations by the Pioneer 17 team. Credit: Peter Duley. [/media-caption]

Marine mammal visual operations aboard the Neil Armstrong were conducted from the 01 Deck. Our Bigeye stand would not fit the predrilled holes in the 01 deck and this required Kyle Covert, the ship’s welder,  to manufacture some iron fasteners to secure the stand and Bigeye binoculars. This issue was fixed during the staging prior to our departure and worked quite well. The marine mammal observation deck (deck 02) was unavailable to us this year because of Bigeye stand mounting issues. There are plates welded into the deck for the stands, but no predrilled bolt pattern in the deck. The marine mammal deck also has a desk with access to the ship’s SCS (Sea Control Ship) feed, and offers a better vantage point because it is higher. However, even while working in higher sea states we were unaffected by spray from the bow on the 01 deck, and this worked out quite well for this cruise. We brought with us a small desk, some deck chairs, and ratchet straps for securing everything.

The crane on the 01 deck is on the starboard side and caused a slight visual obstruction in panning from 090 to 270 degrees. The location of the Bigeyes aft on the port side, however, provided good visibility nearly to 180 degrees on the port side, which proved useful when stationary during the Pioneer Array mooring deployments and recoveries. We recorded whales aft of the ship during several of these stationary observation periods. Visual observations while underway were conducted from 07:30 to 16:45 and observers rotated from the Bigeyes to the recorder position on the half hour. At the locations where the ship was stationary working on mooring operations for extended periods of time, Chris and I did a scan of the area every 15 minutes. We are still working on analyses of the visual data, and although we did not observe any right whales during the Pioneer 17 cruise we feel that the ship is a great asset for our work and would love for the collaborative effort to continue. Thank you so much for the opportunity to participate this year!

Written by Peter Duley, Fisheries Wildlife Biologist, Northeast Fisheries Science Center

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