Tuesday, 24 July 2012

Day 19 - Running the ship

The running of the RRS Discovery can be split into three main teams: the officers and deck crew; the engineers; and the catering staff, all of whom are governed by the ship’s Master. In total, there are 21 crew members, each and everyone being vital and working as a close team throughout.

It should be pointed out that from the ship’s crew point of view, they are all mariners together, working for the ship herself. It is generally believed that she (the ship) has a soul and most certainly a personality (described as cantankerous at times).

The Master, Peter Sarjeant
The Master is ultimately responsible for the entirety of the ship and all those aboard. The Master (referred to by the crew as ‘the Old Man’) is the key decision maker on board.

In the Merchant Navy, the Master is equivalent to the position of Captain. Peter Sarjeant has been Master for 24 years. Having joined the National Environmental Research Council in 1999 he has subsequently been in charge of the RRS Charles Darwin, James Cook and the Discovery.


As I sit talking to him in his quarters at the bow of the ship, he tells of adventurous trips of gigantic seas and near misses with hurricanes, I get the impression he very much loves his job, and in particular, the enthusiasm he sees from the scientific team. He tells me of how times have changed over the years. For example when he first began, the weather reports would come in by Morse code and it would be his job to plot out the isobar contour maps by hand.

Day-to-day working life entails management meetings with the scientists, officers and chief engineer, writing reports and communicating with shore. On top of that he is on call 24 hours a day.

Second officer William McClintock planning
the route for Discovery’s next trip to Iceland
The officers are in charge of the navigation of the ship and are a fail-safe for safe operations. Working 4-hour watches they man the bridge 24 hours a day. Each officer has also to deal with life saving drills, fire fighting equipment and medical matters.

Long distance journeys to far-away ports require careful planning. The nautical charts and publications are also checked and updated if required.

From the bridge the officers are in contact with the deck crew who work hard to organise the scientific machinery on deck. Working from the winch room, the deck crew will operate winches that can lift up to 10 tonnes of equipment. At the same time the officers on the bridge keep the ship stationary by means of carefully balancing the ship’s propellers and thrusters against the oncoming swell and wind.
Seaman William Mclennan, in the winch room

This is an incredibly skilled task. The RRS James Cook has dynamic positioning that automatically keeps the ship on position. The replacement RRS Discovery will also have this feature. But it is the experience and skill of the crew that keeps this 50-year-old vessel on station during deployments.

John Benning