Life Aboard Ship, Dispatches From South of the "Roaring Forties"
Sunday, June 27, 2004
I don’t know if you’ve wondered or not about the technicians aboard the NBP, or for that matter, how this entire operation functions. I’ll try to explain briefly how it works. The National Science Foundation (NSF), the sponsor of this trip, does not directly operate any of its Antarctic facilities, including the two ships and the bases on Antarctica at the South Pole, McMurdo, and Palmer. It contracts with the Raytheon Polar Services Company (RPSC) to manage all of it. NSF does not own the ships, either - they are owned and operated by Edison Chouest Offshore, a large Louisiana-based field operations company that also manages oilfield operations and support. So, there are really three semi-independent groups aboard the NBP: RPSC employees (the techs), Chouest employees (the ship’s crew), and the scientists (each of whom is an independent investigator responsible for their own research).
The technicians are an interesting group - as far as I can determine, with one exception (that one is doing only this cruise in 2004 because he is full-time at the Denver office of RPSC) none of those on board are married or have strong shoreside ties. I don’t think many of them maintain a home ashore. On this cruise, we have nine men and one woman, almost all of them fairly young (from my perspective, most folks look young now!). One told me he considered himself “gainfully employed but homeless.” Several, at least, have most of their belongings in semi-permanent storage. They are on contract to RPSC. Some of them have also worked at the shore bases in Antarctica for varying periods of time. When they are at sea they are available for duty 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Normally they each stand a 12-hour watch, but usually work longer. Because they get no breaks while at sea, they get to “save” their weekends. This can result in having large blocks of time free (add up 52 weeks of weekends), which they value highly because it allows them the freedom to do things that take large blocks of time.
There are five categories of technicians aboard the NBP: MTs (Marine Technicians), MSTs (Marine Science Technicians), ETs (Electronics Technicians) ITs (Information Technicians), and an MPC (Marine Projects Coordinator). MTs handle equipment maintenance, back deck safety, and handle deck equipment and over the side operations, MSTs take care of laboratory operations and equipment and chemicals; ETs manage electronics maintenance and repair; ITs are the computer and LAN guys, and the MPC manages the interactions between the scientists, technicians, and the ship. Complicated division of labor, isn’t it? But it works well, and there doesn’t seem to be any of that “I don’t do this, it’s your responsibility” stuff that often occurs when responsibilities are divided. This is partly because they get a fair amount of cross training that allows them to overlap their responsibilities. The main objective of everyone, including the ship’s crew, is “to get the science done” and they all work very hard to see that we accomplish what we came out to do.
The marine section is relatively small compared to what’s needed to manage and run the shore bases. The company has a pool of each category, and (as I understand it) fills out the need for the different specialties on an ad hoc basis. Although they are on contract, techs do not necessarily work full time for the length of the contract and have a fair amount of flexibility to request assignment on certain cruises or not, as they wish. Some also work on other ships on contract. Not all wish to work all year, some want to work on one cruise but not another, and so on. I know that some of “our” techs specifically requested the ICEFISH cruise because of where it is going and because it is a “fishing” cruise, and will take time off to explore South Africa. Salaries are similar to others in oceanographic research, and the company can add bonuses as negotiated. When you consider that many have very reduced expenses either when they are at sea or ashore in Antarctica, you can see opportunities for significant savings. Of course, they have to spend long periods at sea or in a small Antarctic community, where competence and the ability to get along are critical. Not a bad arrangement for a single person (a more or less self-sufficient one who doesn’t mind or likes being at sea for long periods) - save money, arrange your own schedule, do interesting work and go interesting places!
PS: Many thanks to Brent, Dave, Eric, Herb, Jamee, Jeff, Jim, Marc, TJ, and Toby!
For more info, see http://www.icefish.neu.edu/onboard/thecrew/