Archive for December 14th, 2009

December 4: The Recovery

Monday, December 14th, 2009

We arrived at the Investigador in the morning, about 9:30 am. We drove up from Baiona to Vigo in the rain, but it really doesn’t matter if we get wet.  All planning is based on the wave forecast. We need low waves to put the Zodiac in the water, and the small Zodiac is the safest way to approach The Scarlet Knight for recovery.  The wave heights had peaked at 7 m, and they were forecast to come down.  Nilsen was checking the different forecast products from the COOLroom, and emailed us that wave heights of 22 feet were being reported.  It was the last environmental guidance we would receive from the COOLroom before heading out, and I would think of that email over and over again throughout the next day. 


The Spanish Research Vessel Investigador was built for work. The Investigador has a vast aft deck, cranes on both sides, a large A-frame off the stern, a small Zodiac on the starboard, and numerous cabins for a large scientific crew. It’s perfect for us. On the other hand, the Investigador was not built for speed.   A typical operating speed is about 8 knots. We are also heading directly into the wind & waves, and that will certainly slow our progress. We have about an 18 hour steam directly into hard weather to get to Scarlet, so we are bracing for an uncomfortable ride.  The crew is strapping down all the crates and toolkits on the deck.  We leave Vigo at noon on Thursday, December 3.  Lunch is served as we make our way west along the bay towards the sea.  We pass Baiona off to our port side, and see it from the same point of view as the crew of La Pinta some 516 years ago.


As we head out towards the Bay entrance, we get our first feel of the waves that will dominate every aspect of our lives for the next 2 days.  We leave the protection of land, and we get to feel the downward side of that 7 m storm.  We are seeing the occasional 20 foot wave but they are not the most prevalent – a good sign. We head to our bunks.  There is little we can do while steaming into this sea, it’s too rough to work on deck.  The COOLroom has reduced The Scarlet Knight’s surfacing interval to 2 hours. All that is required from us is to call in on the Iridium phone to get the updated position and pass it on to the Captain.


No one gets much sleep during this transit.  You lay in your bunk but the waves slam you against the side wall, waking you.  Every couple hours for the rest of the day and into the night it’s the same routine – make your way up to the bridge, call the COOLroom for Scarlet’s updated position, and write it on a piece of paper for the Captain.  Most everyone skips dinner.  The good thing we notice is that we are getting slammed into the side of our bunks less and less.  More people are able to sleep.  At 4 am I give the updated position to the Captain, and notice I am the only one from the scientific crew on the bridge or in the galley. By now I am getting used to the waves, and am hungry again.   I think back to the cream filled croissants they serve for breakfast at the hotel, settle for a sandwich, and head down to my bunk. The next thing I know its Josh in my room, saying is time for the 6 am position check, and we have slowed the ship because we are close.  Do I want to go recover a glider? 


I head up to the bridge. The stillness of the past night is replaced by a hive of activity, with everyone working by the dim task lights illuminating only their own workspace.  We scan the horizon around us. No lights from vessels. Clouds cover the moon. No sign of the sun.  It is totally dark. Conversations are hushed.  They give me the headset to talk to the COOLroom.  John Kerfoot is on the other side.  Its 6 am onboard the Investigador, and 12 midnight in the COOLroom.  John tells me the COOLroom is packed and I am on the speakerphone.  The room is full of our students, other scientists, and media. Once our voices from the ship are heard in the COOLroom, the webcams then broadcast both video and sound over the internet.  Tina is there via an Instant Message video link to Antarctica, watching the procedure with a room full of colleagues at Palmer Station.  I hear her voice from Antarctica and say we miss her on board the Investigador.  Our students from the Azores and Canaries, our sponsors in DC, and my daughter in her dorm room in Vermont are among those watching over the web.   But the conversation right now is between me and John Kerfoot.  We are a few miles east of 12 W longitude, and Scarlet is a few miles west of 12 W.  There are no ship lights on the horizon. Juan, the First Officer, shows me there are no ships on the radar for either the 6 mile or the 12 mile setting.  The Investigador and Scarlet are alone at sea. 


John in the COOLroom switches Scarlet to 15 minute missions, and the Investigador begins the approach.  The Investigador crosses 12 W and continues to within 1 nautical mile of Scarlet.  Its still pitch dark.  We can’t even see the waves, but we know they are much smaller simply because we are no longer getting hurled into the walls.  All eyes are on the red lights of the Freewave modem.  When the red light turns green, we have a line of sight radio modem connection directly to Scarlet, and three way communications between the crew on the Investigador, the crew in the COOLroom, and the glider at sea is established. The lights flicker between green and red, and the first glider speak from Scarlet is picked up on Chip’s computer.  We are still over a mile away, but Clayton and Chip installed the Freewave antenna high on the Investigadors mast. The antenna height increased our range, and we were seeing that impact. Soon we are within 1 mile and we have a solid green light and a strong signal between us and Scarlet.  Three way typed messages are being sent between the Investagador, the COOLroom, and Scarlet. Someone jokes that it’s probably the most expensive text messages they have ever sent.


The COOLroom tells us sunrise is still a couple hours away.  We check the weather forecast.  We have a narrow window of time.  The 7 m waves from the storm have subsided and were now down to less than 3 m.  The window could be as long as 6 hours before the next storm comes in and generates waves forecast to reach 8 m.   At least the narrow window extends into daylight hours.  We all agree that since the forecast weather window extends into daylight hours, a night recovery is too risky. We decide to maintain our position 1 mile to the west of Scarlet.  After all this time at sea, there was no reason to risk a nighttime approach. The Captain says we should use this opportunity to serve breakfast, and that our cook has prepared bacon and eggs. The crew on the ship heads down to the galley.  The COOLroom sent a few people out to get food at WaWa.  My daughter in Vermont heard me say I was heading down to the galley for bacon and eggs and went to bed.  We were 221 days since the launch of The Scarlet Knight off the coast of Tuckerton, New Jersey. The Investigador and Scarlet were now within 1 nautical mile of each other off the coast of Baiona in Galicia, Spain. We were at the exact place in time and space where we said we would be months earlier.  We had rock solid communications with Scarlet, and she was telling us exactly where she was at that she was fine. I remember those early morning hours and that breakfast as being relatively relaxing for me.  We were about to recover a glider after it completed its mission, something we had done well over 200 times, and I was confident in our abilities. The others around me in the galley say that they would not have used the word relaxed to describe my mood at that point.


Over breakfast we set the crews for the Zodiac.  There would be three trips.  The first Zodiac run will make a visual inspection of the glider as soon as there was enough light to see.  The primary purpose was to ensure that it was safe for the divers to go into the water.  We wanted to make sure there were no lines or anything else attached that the divers could get entangled in.  We also wanted to make sure that the glider looked to be in good condition for recovery, that we would need no special tools.  We would bring cameras, but the light was expected to still be too faint for quality photographs. If the glider looked to be in trouble, we would tie a line and a float to it, and use that for recovery from the Investigador if necessary.  This Zodiac crew would make the first contact with Scarlet since the Azores.  We gave that honor to Antonio Ramos from Universidad de Las Palmas de Gran Canaries and Enrique Fanjul from Puertos del Estando.  I will be the third passenger on the Zodiac, and Juan, the Investigador’s First Officer, will be the driver.  After first contact, Antonio, Enrique and I would return to the Investigador.  We would be replaced in the Zodiac by the two Rutgers divers Chip Haldeman and Dan Crowell, along with Clayton Jones from Teledyne Webb Research.  Juan would drive them out to the Zodiac, and the two divers would go into the water for a complete video survey of Scarlet.  The decision to not dive Scarlet for the video survey was made.  Too many things could go wrong, and too much time with the glider and divers in the water.  Scarlet will stay at the surface, and the divers will go in with snorkel gear, greatly simplifying the operation.  The Zodiac would return to the Investigador with Clayton to pick up Dena Seidel and myself for the recovery.  Juan would drive and Dena would film while Clayton and I pulled Scarlet on board and placed her in her cart.  Juan would then return Dena, Clayton and me to the Investigador, and then recover the divers.  Scarlet would remain in the Zodiac as it was hoisted aboard by the crane.  During this process, Josh would give the play-by-play account over the Iridium phone to the COOLroom.  Romeo would film from the Investigador.


Sunrise came about 8:30 am on the Investigador.  It’s hard to know exactly since the weather was cloudy.  But that is about when the black night turn to gray and we could final see.  Seas were just under 3 m. We began the approach. The Captain headed the Investigador east towards Scarlet.  All available hands were on the deck in front of the bridge.  Clayton climbed up into the crow’s nest. Enrique, Antonio and I had already dressed for first contact.  We were wearing our orange mustang suits and red Rutgers caps.  We would be highly visible against the gray background of the sea.  The approach was purposely slow, since we can either communicate with Scarlet or get a GPS position, but you can’t do both.  Space is a premium on gliders and satellite communications and satellite GPS both use the same antenna.  Our plan was to go to the most recently reported position, break off communications so Scarlet could acquire a GPS fix, and then have her call back with the new position. When we arrived at the most recent position we had, Chip set Scarlet to call us back with a new position.  When the new position arrived on the Investigador, we saw she had drifted to the south with the currents.  The Captain turned to starboard along a southeast course.  A few minutes later, Antonio called the first sighting. “Over there! Over there!  There she is!” Antonio was pointing just off our starboard side. The Captain turned the Investigador in the direction Antonio was pointing and we were on it in seconds. All aboard had a visual on Scarlet.


The recovery clock had started.  We had a visual, we had to complete an underwater video survey of Scarlet to document her undisturbed condition, and get her safe on board the Investigador before the waves changed.  We called time to go, and the first contact crew headed to the stern of the vessel. The crew craned the Zodiac over the side and Juan dropped down into it, started the engine and droving it around to the aft of the ship.  The ships crew removed the safety line underneath the A-frame, clearing the path from the Investigador to the Zodiac. The waves moved the Zodiac up almost to the deck of the ship to maybe 6 feet below the deck. Boarding the Zodiac required you to time your jump to a rising wave crest. It was better to collide with a Zodiac coming at you then to fall 6 or more feet into Zodiac moving away from you. The crew called out the timing of the jump in Spanish.  I didn’t matter what they said, the instructions were understood by all. Antonio jumped first, followed by Enrique on the next wave, and me on the next.  We arranged ourselves as best we could in the cramped Zodiac in seas that looked much higher from a 3 m Zodiac than the 47 m Investigador.  Enrique took a position in the back with Juan, I in the middle, and Antonio in front.   Juan gunned the engine and we were off in the waves for first contact with Scarlet.


As we approached, we could see the expected rings of barnacles on Scarlet that marked the seams between the major sections. Something we had seen before in the Azores. We saw that the top was coated with brown algae.  Something new. Juan slowed the engine and started a quick loop around Scarlet. We could see that barnacles had also grown on the wings, another new development.  Juan was a sailing champion in Spain, and was a master at handling the Zodiac in the rough seas. He completed the first lap in what seemed like no time.  Scarlet was free of any lines or debris. We headed in for first contact, bow first.  Antonio reached over the side, and touched Scarlet’s tail fin, giving her what seemed like a gentle push.  She responded as expected, submerging a bit and returning to the surface.  Juan pulled the Zodiac alongside Scarlet.  We could clearly see she was safe for the divers and ready for recover.  I touched her on the pick point, and gave her a good push away from the boat and down into the water.  Again the response was as expected, a submergence and a quick resurfacing. No need for a safety line.  On her own, she was ready for the divers and for recovery. 


Juan returned us to the stern of the Investigador.  Getting back on the ship was an even greater challenge than entering the Zodiac.  Again, you had to time your jump to the rising crest of a wave, but instead of jumping down into a Zodiac, you had to jump up onto the ship.  Antonio tossed the Zodiac’s bow line to the ships crew, and they pulled us in.  Antonio was the first to jump.  The Zodiac rose on a wave crest, and he was hauled aboard the Investigador.  My turn.  The Zodiac rose on the wave crest and I started my jump.  I remember what looked like the big hands of several crew members coming at me, grabbing my mustang suit by the shoulders and hauling me in.  I was back on board the Investigador due much more to the crew’s ability to pluck me out of a bouncing Zodiac than for me to jump on my own.  Enrique was the next to experience the weightless feeling of returning to the Investigador, and we were all three on board.


The deck was all emotions all at once. We had made first contact with the glider that flew across the Atlantic.  Everyone was hugging and cheering. Josh called out the play-by-play to the COOLroom. Enrique was called aside by the Captain.  The winds were picking up from the northeast, and so were the seas.  In the short time of our first contact Zodiac trip, the weather had changed, and new concerns were changing the schedule.  Our few hour window of time had expired.  What was expected to be an unconstrained video survey of Scarlet had to be completed right now or be cancelled.  And our divers were not yet fully dressed.


The jubilation of seconds ago turned to business. Everyone on board was a professional, the best in the business, and we had a task with a limited time line to complete. Diver safety was paramount.  They needed time to prepare themselves, and their equipment.  Clayton worked with the crew to prepare the orange marker buoy with a line attached that the divers would use as a safety line.  Clayton entered the Zodiac as we did and was handed the camera equipment.  The divers, now ready, went to the aft deck and entered the water from the Investigador, swimming over to the Zodiac and boarding from the water.  Jaun headed the Zodiac over to the glider and the divers were in the water, a transition that again seemed to occur in seconds.  The Captain was relaying his concern for the divers in the growing waves to Enrique, and Enrique was relaying it to me.  They wanted the divers out of the water as soon as possible. We called the Zodiac on the radio.  The Captain talked to Juan, and then to Clayton.  Clayton talked to the divers.  Clayton then assured the Captain that the divers felt sufficiently safe to continue the video operation.  They had been in similar seas, and were comfortable in the water.  The Captain agreed that if the divers felt safe, Juan was approved to complete the next step of the recovery.


Juan left the divers with Scarlet and the large orange safety buoy, and returned with Clayton to the Zodiac.  It was Dena’s turn to jump.  Her camera equipment was lowered over the side, along with Scarlet’s cart. I made the jump, bringing the Zodiac crew back up to 4.  Seas were picking up.  As Juan pulled the Zodiac away from the Investigador, a large wave moved the Investigador high above us.  As the wave fell away, I saw the bottom of the Investigador.  I had never seen the bottom of a ship from that angle before, and noted that the seas had definitely increased since our first Zodiac run. Juan headed us over to Scarlet.  Our job was to get Scarlet on the Zodiac and in the cart as soon as possible.  Any precise biological sampling would be reserved for another glider on another day. As we approached, diver Chip was holding Scarlet by the nose, and diver Dan was filming.  Dena was filming from the back of the Zodiac.  I was again in the middle of the Zodiac, and Clayton in the bow.  Juan pulled the Zodiac alongside Scarlet, placing her directly in between me and Clayton. From the water, Chip pointed Scarlet’s tailfin at us in the Zodiac, and pushed. I grabbed the tailfin in my left hand and pulled her half way on board, in between me and Clayton, passing the tail fin to Clayton.  Clayton grabbed the fin with both hands, and with Chip pushing from the water, completed the lift.  Scarlet was on board the Zodiac. 


Josh announced this on the iridium phone link to the COOLroom. But we still had work to do on the Zodiac.  Scarlet was now sitting across the Zodiac resting on the two pontoons.  We had to turn her 90 degrees and place her in the bottom of the Zodiac and on her cart where she could be strapped in.  Space was already tight for 4 people, and we were now 4 people plus one 7-foot long robot.  Do we take off the wings? No. There was no time.  They want us back on the ship now.  If we break a wing, we break a wing.  Clayton and I rotate Scarlet and place her in the cart.  Clayton attaches the strap, and she is locked in the cart.  We leave the divers with their safety buoy and line, and Juan heads us back to the ship. 


We repeat the boarding process.  Wait for a rising wave crest, jump, and be plucked out of the air by the big hands of the crew.  Clayton hauled me back on the Zodiac when the first wave did not rise as far as I hoped.  The second wave was taller, and I was delivered into the hands of the ships crew and onto the deck of the Investigador.  Dena was next, followed by the camera equipment and Clayton.  Juan took the Zodiac back to the divers and their safety buoy, and returned them to the ship.  The divers went from the Zodiac, jumping into the water and the boarding ladders on the stern of the ship.  Chip and Dan were both able to climb aboard.  The full scientific crew was back on board and safe.  Still in the water was Juan with the Zodiac and Scarlet.


Juan circled the Zodiac around to the starboard side of the vessel where a new crane would lift the Zodiac out of the water and over the uncluttered rail onto the open aft deck.  The port side crane had too many obstructions to miss in wavy seas.   I also noticed Juan made the circle much wider than he did with me on the recovery.  He also must have seen the bottom of the Investigador, and felt as I did, that it was a good place to avoid in these conditions.  Juan pulled the Zodiac up to the side of the Investigador and tossed the bow and stern lines to the ships crew.  He started rigging the normal lifting sling, but it was too short with Scarlet inside.  It was touching Scarlet’s sides, and if we lifted with it, the force could break something on her. The crew on the Investigador found another web sling that could be used.  Juan attached the longer sling to the Zodiac and tied a loop in the web as a pick point. The cable from the crane was lowered, and clipped to the pick.  The glider was lashed to the bottom to the Zodiac.  We were ready for the lift, except for getting Juan out of the Zodiac.   Juan would not have the easy jump to the flat aft deck that we made.  He would have to scale the side wall of the ship.  The crew leaned over the rail and reached down to meet him. They made it look easy.  The wave crest rose up, Juan jumped and a swarm of hands hauled him over the rail and onto the aft deck.  Now all crew members where safe on board, and the Zodiac carrying Scarlet was read for the lift.


The lift began with a gasp of concern.  The web slings are set up to lift an empty Zodiac with the heavy engine in the back.  The weight in this Zodiac was shifted, with Scarlet moved more to the front.  As the Zodiac came out of the water, its nose went down.  We were easily at a 45 degree nose down angle instead of the level lift we all had envisioned.  But Juan had done his job and Scarlet did not slip an inch. The Zodiac came over the rail and was now hanging over the deck.  The crew grabbed an old tire to set underneath the back of the Zodiac to keep the engine from slamming onto the deck.  She was lowered into her makeshift cradle and the lift line went slack.  I heard Josh call over the Iridium phone to the COOLroom, “I think it is now safe to say, The Bear is in the Igloo!  I repeat, The Bear is in the Igloo!”  The coded message used in any glider recovery means the operation is over and the glider, along with everyone else on the boat, are safe on the deck of the recovery vessel.  Josh heard simultaneous cheers from the deck of the Investigador off Spain, the COOLroom at Rutgers in New Jersey, and from the scientific crew at Palmer Station in Antarctica.  The COOLroom noted the time, 1 hour and 6 minutes from first sighting to having Scarlet on deck. Tina at Palmer was given the honor of hitting send on the text message email sent out to the glider-ops list, “RU27: The Bear is in the Igloo!”  With that, Scarlet was back.  Scarlet was with her people.  Scarlet was home.