William Winner: The NOAA Hydrographic Officer

Q&A with BoatUS Magazine

What is your current role?

I am a Lieutenant in the NOAA Commissioned Officer Corps, one of seven uniformed services of the United States, and I currently serve as the field operations officer on the NOAA Ship Thomas Jefferson. The Thomas Jefferson, one of NOAA's four hydrographic survey ships, is a 208 ft. 1466 ton vessel that operates on the Atlantic Coast and the Gulf of Mexico. As the field operations officer, I manage the day-to-day survey operations of the ship itself and two 31-foot launches. Our surveys supply the data that NOAA's Office of Coast Survey uses to update the Nation's nautical charts. So, essentially, you can say my role is to help NOAA support America's maritime economy.

Each day, I decide where each vessel works, and the types of data they will collect. NOAA nautical charts have a 200 year reputation for accuracy and precision, so a lot of my work is making sure that the data they collect is high quality. But acquisition of depth measurements and other data is only the first step to updating charts. After we acquire the data, we process it. That involves applying tides, correcting for changing sound velocity in the water column, and "cleaning" the data. (We use a multibeam echo sounder to measure the ocean depths, and it is so finely tuned that fish and seaweed can show up in the data. We clean non-essential items like that out of the data). We then begin the initial process of determining any changes that will be made to the charts by identifying significant features or any large changes in the depths.

Is this what you studied for?

Not specifically. I received a Masters of Environmental Science with an emphasis on Geographic Information Systems, which is software used to map things. I went to school in Indiana, which meant that there were few opportunities to study the ocean floor. I primarily focused on terrestrial mapping, but many of the geospatial concepts are the same as hydrographic charting. Hydrographers and topographers use different software but they both work with spatial concepts and they both produce information to make maps and charts. So while I was very land-based in college, my studies definitely helped to prepare me for charting the oceans.

Before joining NOAA, I was an adjunct professor at a small private university in Indiana. It was going well, but I wanted a little more excitement. I knew that I wanted to serve in the public sector and after looking around at various government agencies, I found this career with the NOAA Commissioned Officer Corps. It really provided everything I wanted in a career: excitement, scenery changes, upward mobility, and eventual management roles. I liked the idea of being out to sea for a couple of years at a time and then changing jobs and moving to shore for a few years. I always had a passion for the ocean and this definitely fulfilled those desires to be on the water. It also meant a lot to me that the NOAA Corps' heritage is closely tied to America's oldest scientific and technical agency, the U.S. Coast Survey, which was organized after Thomas Jefferson asked for a survey of the coast in 1807. The application process is very similar to other jobs, except there is the additional hurdle of proving yourself committed to the standards of a uniformed service that quickly entrusts its officers with high levels of responsibility. I made it through the interview process and a physical exam, and NOAA sent me to a 16-week Basic Officer Training Class.

How much time do you spend on the water?

As a NOAA Corps officer, my rotation generally has me on a sea assignment for two years at a time, then to a land assignment for around three years before I get my next sea assignment. The amount of time I spend out to sea while I am assigned to a ship depends on orders from NOAA's Office of Marine and Aviation Operations, which manages the entire NOAA fleet of 19 ships. Typically, the Thomas Jefferson is out to sea between 120 and 220 days each year. When we are sailing, we generally are out for 12 days at a time and then in for a weekend, though we could stay out longer if needed. Personally, I am in the midst of my second sea assignment and this is my fourth year being out to sea. 

— Published: December 2012

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