Chasing storms (Or being chased!)
Storms come with the territory of working in the North Atlantic. As safety is a top priority on board, we always have to be adaptive to changes in the weather. As such, plans throughout the cruise change constantly.
The porthole resembling a washing machine is a common sight on this trip. Not a welcomed one if you’re feeling seasick!
We have experienced this many times throughout the cruise, beginning with an initial two-day departure delay due to late cargo. During that period, there was a storm brewing in our first research area. Once we had our gear we could leave port, but we had to sit in Galway Bay and wait for the swell to die down in our research area. Recently we had to shelter in Bantry Bay,Co. Cork, from a large storm in our second research area.
Safety is the number one priority aboard the ship and so we’re sometimes at the mercy of the elements. It is the swell more so than the weather that is the crucial factor.
The back deck of the RV Celtic Explorer is currently full of stacked containers, which include storage containers, a workshop container & even our monitoring station.
Nicknamed “Per’s container”, after Chief Technician Per Trinhammer, this container is fully kitted out (it even has a Nespresso machine!) to monitor our experiments. In Per’s container we observe our results in real-time and keep an eye on the health of our instruments.
The container is quite an intrepid explorer, having been on many Arctic surveys aboard the Swedish Icebreaker RV Oden; it has even been down to Lake Nyasa (also called Lake Malawi). After its trip aboard the RV Celtic Explorer, it is off to Alaska for another expedition in the later summer.
Night shifts in Per’s container. Each screen displays different information about our experiments. Note the Nespresso machine in the bottom right; it’s arguably the most vital piece of kit (especially when on night shift)!
Due to the loaded back deck, it is an important safety issue that we aren’t travelling in swells that are too high. I spoke to our Captain, Denis Rowan, about the various safety procedures we have to comply with aboard the RV Celtic Explorer.
Niamh: Why is it important to constantly keep up to date on the weather?
Denis: Weather can seriously impact our operations and it can also be a safety issue on the ship and so it is important that we monitor the weather forecast at all times. That will tell us if we can continue working or it’ll tell us if we need to run for shelter.
Niamh: How do we track the weather?
Denis: We’re using a program overlaid on our maxy plotter that gives us a 10-day forecast, and we draw that in from the internet four times a day. It gives us weather charts, synoptic charts (map that summarises atmospheric conditions-temperature, precipitation, wind speed, direction, etc.) and displays the isobars and expected wind speed and direction.
Many weather meetings had screens like this! The purple lines are our profiles, which are heavily in the danger zones!
Niamh: How do we work around bad weather?
Denis: You would have seen some examples this trip. Initially we delayed sailing because of the weather, then when we did sail we waited in the bay for the weather to settle. Then when we did start working, the weather got bad again and we had to stop up. We put our head into wind and rode out the storm - you call this heaving to weather. When it settles enough to resume operations, that’s what you do. If it’s going to be too bad you would run for shelter, and we did that on one part of this trip where we went into Bantry Bay for shelter. So if weather is going to be extreme you would always run for shelter. Be somewhere else - either away from the pressure system that is causing the bad weather or into the shelter of land.
Niamh: How bad does the situation have to be to start thinking about bailing? Denis: When you see wind speeds in excess of 50 knots, perhaps causing wave heights in excess of 7m, then you really need to get out of that area because that’s bad, so that’s when you’d think about bailing. Anything above 7m wave height is very difficult for us even to ride out, that is nasty weather. That is when you’re looking to be somewhere else or in shelter.
Niamh: What is the worst weather situation that you have experienced? Denis: Probably up to 8 or 9m (waves) but that was very unusual, it was an exception. Forecasts are reasonably accurate nowadays, but you have to take into consideration that the weather could become worse than has been forecasted, so you have to allow a safety tolerance. So I have been caught out in some bad weather, but it’s very rare that that would happen.
On the morning of Saturday 22nd May, we managed to deploy our instruments for our second profile. We even started acquiring data before having to hightail it out of the area in the evening and seek shelter from the storm behind Bere Island in Bantry Bay, Co.Cork.
The calm water in Bantry Bay bears no resemblance to the stormy conditions out in our research area, where the waves were up to 10 metres high!
I caught up with our chief scientist Dr. Steve Jones to ask about contingency plans during the cruise and how we adapt to the weather.
Niamh: What we’ve ended up doing is very different to what was on the proposal, why is that?
Steve: I don’t think there has been a marine expedition yet that has done exactly what it proposed. Partly because of the weather, the weather never does exactly what you expect and there are often problems with equipment. We’ve mainly suffered weather problems. Actually, our equipment has worked pretty well. There have been minor issues, for example, one of our OBS failed to work completely, so we couldn’t deploy it.
Niamh: How many contingency plans have you gone through?
Steve: We change the plan every day, sometimes multiple times a day. There are two main weather forecast meetings a day (with Captain Denis) and sometimes I’ve had two versions of the plan, one in the morning, one in the evening. I’ve been through 16 different maps (3 were in proposal development and the rest were on the voyage).
Lego Niamh & Erica trying to find their sealegs while the ship is rolling around in the storm.
Niamh: When planning a cruise, how much of it goes into contingency planning?
Steve: Proposals will always demand that you pay some attention to contingency. You are expected to put in some time for weather, so you end up dialing in a couple of extra days for weather. You say what you will sacrifice if you get unusually large amounts of weather. So that’s what we did here, we had a ranked order that we wanted to collect the profiles in and that’s what we did - we prioritized the most important thing.
Niamh: How does this compare with other cruises you’ve been on? Steve: It’s been pretty bad for weather, it’s probably equal with my previous worse cruise weather-wise, in terms of percentage of time that we’ve lost. Maybe it’s not the worst. I’ve been on a worse one in Rockall, which was a shorter cruise, only a week and a half, and more than half of that got washed away. I’ve known colleagues that have pretty much had complete washouts.
I’ve been on cruises before where there has been significant illness & we’ve had to divert. The very first cruise I went on we lost a day. A crewmember had suspected internal bleeding, so we had to divert, actually it was the previous time I was in Bantry Bay. The Coast Guard came out to the ship in a rib and took the crewmember away to Cork hospital.
It’s not all doom and gloom, though. While we were sheltering in Bantry Bay we had some downtime. Matt had a chance to take out the drone and get some stunning footage (stay tuned!) and we even had a table quiz night.
We departed Bantry Bay slowly on Monday at noon and had some dolphins wave us off as we headed back out to sea.
These dolphins are Short-beaked Common Dolphins (Delphinus delphis). They are fast swimmers, and typically found in large boisterous schools. They like to leap out of the water and display aerial acrobatics. They have a black spot or stripe marking around the eye, which stands out against their paler side panels.