James Brennan, Atlantis ComET

James Brennan, Atlantis ComET on the deck.

What’s your job like on a daily basis?
I maintain all of the communication and navigation equipment of the ship. Basically, all shipboard electronics, except for scientific stuff. My average day usually involves doing equipment checks around the ship. I test it all to make sure everything is running smoothly, and do maintenance when it isn’t. I also check the GMDSS [Global Maritime Distress Security System], which is our radio and satellite communications equipment, every day. The job is sort of like being a firefighter: You sit around a lot, but when something goes wrong, you have to jump into action. But hopefully nothing breaks.

I noticed you were up on the mast fixing something the other day, though—what went wrong?
We had an antenna mount fail, and the antenna was hanging by a wire. So you have to go up there and resolve that very quickly. A break like that usually only happens in rough seas, but this time, it was a metal fatigue failure.

Have you had to climb up there to fix something while the ship is pitching and rolling in rough weather?
Usually you wait until after it’s really bad, unless the thing that broke is extremely critical. It’s like anything else—you weigh the risk to people against the risk to the ship and decide what needs to be done.

So how’d you get started doing this?
Dumb luck. I actually started as an electronics tech and pilot in training for Alvin. I had four dives with the sub over two years, and I also sailed with Jason as a navigation tech for a while. Before that, I learned avionics in the Marine Corps and was fixing radios and navigational systems on aircraft. I’ve always been around electronics. I started out doing ham radio in eighth grade and was a full-blown journeyman electrician by the time I was 14. My dad had an electrical contracting company, and he used to throw the blueprints on the table after dinner, and say, “order your house.” So I could read schematics and blueprints at a pretty young age. After I got out of the Marines, I went back to wiring houses for a while, then got a job fixing radios for the State of Florida’s law enforcement, when a friend of mine at WHOI convinced me to apply to the Alvin job.

Was that something you had wanted to do for a long time?
No! That was something that I didn’t even think was something I was qualified to do. I thought Alvin was for people from MIT, not a country bumpkin from Florida like me. But I got an interview, and they were impressed with my electronics skills, so eventually I got the job. It was really cool to be able to work with the sub, but after about two years, I moved into the ComET position, which seemed like it was more tailor-made for me.

Do you see yourself doing this for the long haul?
We’ll see. I’m reaching a turning point where I have to decide what my future plans are. My wife and I own a bait shop called Center Bait & Tackle back home in Pine Island, Florida. It’s been growing in size over the years, so at some point I might turn my attention to that. It started as a little 250-square-foot shop that my wife ran while I was at sea, but now, we’ve got an 1,800-square-foot space and business is booming. So talk to me in a few years.


[Back to top]