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what's to eat?

Ship Shape

January 13, 2014 (posted January 14, 2014)
by David Levin

For a few hours each day, a ringing drone fills the air around the Atlantis. It comes in bursts: a few seconds of metallic noise, followed by a moment of silence. Then the rattling and buzzing starts again, violently, as if someone threw a beehive into a washing machine.

The racket is unavoidable, and it's actually a little reassuring. It's the sound of the constant upkeep needed for Atlantis—or any other ship, for that matter—to stay in working order.

Walking toward the noise, I quickly find its source: Ordinary Seaman Mark Anderson. He sits on an overturned bucket on the deck, poking at a railing with what looks like some sort of torture device. It's called a “needle gun,” and its sole job is to chip the paint off around tiny rust spots that form all around the ship.

Saltwater and steel, which inevitably meet when a ship goes to sea, don't play well together. Rust develops quickly, and to stop it from eating through railings and other fixtures, the crew must constantly grind and scrape rusted areas and re-cover them with primer and paint. It sure looked like paint to me, but Anderson is quick to correct me on its official name. “Technically, it's not paint,” he said. “It's a 'protective coating system.' It's made specifically to use on ships, which means it's way more expensive," he added, laughing.

Although this sort of routine maintenance is constantly under way on the Atlantis, it's only a small fraction of the work needed to keep the ship running.

Power up

Chris Morgan, the Atlantis’ chief engineer, leads me through a gray steel door, where a staircase leads to the heart of the ship: the engine room.

From here, Morgan said, he and the other engineers aboard can control almost all of the ship’s key systems, from engines to electrical transformers, air-conditioning, and water purification—basically, everything we take for granted on the upper decks. All of it is provided by Morgan and his team down here.

In the next room, he shows me how it all works. Morgan hands me a pair of earplugs and motions to follow him onto a catwalk that looks out over the ship's six engines. At the moment, Morgan is running only three of these engines, but the noise is still deafening. Each engine is a yellow monster the size of a small truck, tucked away inside a tangled web of pipes and tubing. Their fuel tanks are equally huge—at the bottom of the ship, the room-sized spaces hold more than 260,000 gallons of diesel fuel, enough to keep us going for roughly three  to four months.

The ship’s engines act as giant power plants. As they spin, they create electricity for Atlantis, providing enough juice to run lights, lab equipment, computers, and more. Their main job, however, is to power a pair of huge electrical motors in the ship’s stern. The motors connect to two thick metal shafts, each nearly 11 inches across, which run through a gearbox, turn 90 degrees, and disappear through the hull. There, they connect to a pair of 10½-foot-wide propellers that move the ship. Each propeller is mounted on a giant rotating pod that can turn in a complete circle, moving the Atlantis in any direction needed, including backward.

For the next half-hour, Morgan leads me around the rest of the engine room, a sprawling space filled with machinery. In all, space for machinery takes up most of the lower half of the ship. We pick our way around electrical transformers, control boxes, sewage treatment tanks, and finally, in a far corner, reach the ship's desalination machinery—a series of devices that remove salt from seawater to provide water fit for drinking, cooking, and lab work, and, after heating it (thankfully), for our showers.


R/V Atlantis


Do it yourself

With all this machinery in constant use, keeping it running smoothly is a full-time job. Morgan oversees a team of seven people who work around the clock to monitor all the systems, and if something breaks, they jump into action to fix it.

At sea, there’s no place to go for parts, so Atlantis keeps a big collection of spares. They’re everywhere—a whole engine’s worth of them, each carefully wrapped in individual cardboard boxes. The engine collection fills an entire corner of the propulsion room, and that’s just a fraction of it.

“We need to be able to fix anything out here, from an engine to a washing machine,” said Morgan. To do that, the ship not only carries parts, but raw materials—enough pipe, tubing, and raw metal to make whatever they need in their well-stocked machine shop.

On this trip, the shop has been used for machinery repairs and to fix scientific gear. Just two days ago, Morgan and his team worked on a broken section of the Large Volume Pump (LVP), which was bent during use. (You might remember the LVP from the January 8 dispatch.) It’s rare that the engineers need to build new critical parts for the ship from scratch, since the spares cover almost anything they could need. Beyond that, he said, the ship has certain safety measures built in. Almost all the essential systems aboard Atlantis come in pairs, so if one fails, the backup kicks in automatically.

“Ships are made for redundancy,” Morgan said. “The sole purpose is to get people home safely.”


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