William Winner : The NOAA Hydrographic Officer
Q&A with BoatUS MagazinePublished: December 2012
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.
BoatUS Magazine: 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.
BoatUS Magazine: How did you get into this job?
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.
BoatUS Magazine: 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.
BoatUS Magazine: What's a typical day for you?
My typical day starts out in the early morning. The first part of my day is preparing for that day's ship and launch operations. I look at the previous day's data and determine where to send the two survey launches that day. We decide whether they will use their specialized echo sounders, multibeam sonars, or side scan sonars, depending on where we are surveying and what kind of data we need, and then they deploy around 0800 hours. Thomas Jefferson is already surveying. I spend the rest of my morning and afternoon preparing for upcoming surveys, reviewing surveys that we have completed and preparing to submit those surveys to our processing branch. In my spare time, I update our Standard Operating Procedures, investigate new methods for acquisition or processing, or determine what methods we can discontinue. Of course, all of that takes a back seat if one of our vessels has problems with any of the survey equipment -- then I become primary troubleshooter. As anyone who has been at sea can testify, equipment malfunctions can be challenging! At the end of the day, the launches are brought back aboard and the ship will either anchor for the night or continue acquiring hydrographic data through the night. At this point, I consult with our night processors, who must process the millions points of data that we acquired that day. I also help them troubleshoot any data issues they may find during processing.
BoatUS Magazine: Where are you based?
Our ship is homeported in Norfolk, VA. Our working grounds extend along the coast from Texas to Maine.
BoatUS Magazine: Any hazards/extreme climates/dangerous animals associated with your job?
Our primary job is to update the charts. NOAA is responsible for the entire U.S. coastline and maintains over 1000 nautical charts. In order to update them, we sometimes have to work in areas with charted depths from surveys completed in the early 1900s. On the east coast, the ocean floor can change with a hurricane and can be drastically different from what was charted 100 years ago. And quite often, we have to take our launches right up next to the shoreline and sometimes they may only have a few meters of clearance underneath their keel. We use side scan sonar to see 50 to 100 meters to either side of the boat looking for dangerous rocks. We are careful to survey shoal shoreline areas on rising tides. We work from March to November, which sometimes means that we work in heavier seas and during hurricane season.
One of our primary functions is to stand ready to deploy during maritime emergencies, so that commerce can resume as soon as possible. If shipping slows or stops, the country's economy can take a big hit, so we move quickly. Thomas Jefferson has responded to Nor'Easters and hurricanes, including Katrina. This means that we work in areas where shoals have shifted or where underwater debris poses real dangers to mariners. It's our job to find these dangers so that commercial ships, fishing vessels, or recreational sailors don't have to.
BoatUS Magazine: What's the best part of your job?
Periodically, I have to stand a bridge watch as the Officer of the Deck. Normally, this means that I stand the 0400-0800 watch. This gives me ample opportunities to see some pretty remarkable sunrises. There really is nothing like seeing the sunrise over the ocean.
BoatUS Magazine: What's the best part of being on the water regularly?
Being out on the water, you get away from the hustle and bustle of city-life. Many times, it's just you and the water (with the occasional bird, whale, shark, dolphin or school of flying fish). It can be very peaceful out here and the sunrises and sunsets can be quite spectacular.
BoatUS Magazine: Did you boat growing up?
I grew up among the cornfields of Indiana, so no I spent very little time boating! The little boating I did was tubing on smaller lakes. But we would often visit the different coasts and I would get a little taste of being on the ocean while on a whale cruise or harbor cruise.
BoatUS Magazine: Do you have your own boat?
No… no boat. As a NOAA Corps officer, we move frequently (as of next May, I will have moved three times in two years) and that makes it really hard to own a boat. It can be done, but it's not high on my priorities right now. I have a beautiful two-year old daughter who deserves the best that her mom and I can offer, and that is my priority right now. When she is a little older, we will all enjoy
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