Test Driving the Okeanos Explorer

Do you know anyone who recently bought a car? Chances are you do. Most likely, your acquaintance gave the car a good look over - looked under the hood, turned on the lights, took it out for a test drive and had an independent auto mechanic inspect it for structural or mechanical problems and to ensure it met regulatory requirements, such as emissions and safety laws. If they were really serious buyers, perhaps they even read the owner's manual before driving off with the car to be sure they understood everything about the car (how to lock the doors, what pressure to fill the tires, etc.).

As with any major purchase, it is important to ensure the work or product paid for is actually delivered as promised and meets your expectations. You wouldn't buy or accept a car with only two tires would you? That would be a motorcycle! For this same reason, we will undertake a series of tests and trials to ensure the conversion or refit work that was done on the NOAA Ship Okeanos Explorer is delivered as promised and meets our expectations. We will kick the tires, look under the hood and have a mechanic inspect it, so to speak. But, not exactly.

Let us suppose in car design there are a few basic rules that every designer uses when designing even the newest and sleekest cars:

  • A car must roll
  • A car must stop
  • A car must not fall apart
  • A car must perform its function(s) well

To test the basic four design rules of a car you might: take the car for a test drive to ensure the engine worked (A car must roll), ensure that the brakes worked (a car must stop), go over some bumps and take some tight turns (a car must not fall apart), and carry people and 'stuff' safely (a car must perform its functions well).

Since a ship is clearly different from a car, there are a few differences in function and design. In ship design, the four basic rules are:

  • A ship must float
  • A ship must float upright
  • A ship must not break in half
  • A ship must perform its function(s) well

These major differences between a ship and a car design require us to take a different approach to testing the ship before we accept it from the shipyard as complete.

We already know that the ship floats and it floats upright because it is currently tied up to a pier in Seattle, WA. But, how well it floats upright is another story. Here's why: during the refit process, lots of old equipment and steel was removed from the ship and new equipment was loaded in different places. This makes the weight distribution on the ship different from when it was originally design and last sailed on a voyage. Using mathematical models, engineers calculated the stability of the ship and have confidence the ship will float upright; but, when you ask them how well the ship will ride, they are the first to tell you, "We'll see." So, testing the ship's stability (how well it floats upright in different sea and weather conditions) is an important test. In a future log, we'll report out on the progress of stability testing.

Will the ship break in half? That is very unlikely. While a lot of structurally important steel was removed, lots reinforcement was added to ensure it met current industry standards. Since the ship was built in the 1980's and regulations and standards were different then than now, quite a bit of work was done to ensure it meets the letter of the law today, in 2007. We do not expect to be reporting out on this item, but if we do, you can be sure it only means one thing - that the ship broke in two - and that will make for some very interesting reading.

Perhaps the most complex testing involved will be to see if the ship performs its functions well. So what are these "functions"? Before the first torch was set to the ship to remove steel, a group of scientists, explorers and engineers met to decide the key functions of the ship.

First, they determined the ship should be able to map the ocean bottom in very deep water, down to 6,000 meters (19,685 feet or 3.73 miles) deep. The second function of the ship is to provide a platform and "mothership" for ROV operations. Third, they decided the ship would provide real-time video, audio and data from the ship to shore based explorers via what is known as telepresence. Finally, the most important function of any ship is to serve as a floating home for its crew members and explorers - in this case 46 people.

In order to conduct deep ocean mapping, we purchased and had installed a new multibeam mapping system. During sea trials we will conduct preliminary tests of this system and report out on how well it is working. We expect there will be some changes made to the system in our second shipyard period later this year but the basic functionality of the system will still be tested.

For the vessel to be an ROV operations platform, it needed a lot of changes and new equipment, such as new cranes, winches, working spaces, and propulsion systems to name just a few. Although we do not yet have an ROV to test all of this completely, we will be testing the basic functionality of each of these systems during sea trials.

We will be installing telepresence over the next six months during a second shipyard period, so we won't be testing that quite yet.

Finally, we will be testing everything on the ship that makes it part of a floating home for all the crew members and explorers who will sail on the Okeanos Explorer. Think about everything in your home that you depend on each day. All of these things are also on a ship: clean water to drink, cook and bathe with, air conditioning or heating, a stove and oven to cook, someplace to eat your meals, a place to have fun and be entertained, and most importantly a comfortable place to sleep, especially after a long hard day at work.

During the conversion, we upgraded the galley (kitchen) with new appliances, installed new tables, seats and serving equipment in the mess deck (dining room), refurbished the Heating Ventilation and [okeanos_shipyard_seattle] Air Conditioning (HVAC) system, and many, many other things that needed replacement, repair or refurbishment. We will also be doing more of these upgrades later this year, but during this period of trials and testing we will test most of these systems to ensure they will make the Okeanos Explorer a comfortable home for 46 people as it sails the globe exploring the vast ocean.

Keep checking back for updates during August to read about how sea trials are going and see photos and video clips of trials in action. Until then, consider checking the car tire pressure, brakes, and fluid levels, give the engine a wipe down, and take it for a test spin to listen real closely how well it performs. That's what we'll be doing with the Okeanos Explorer.