Aboard R/V Rachel Carson with her crew of two

June 26, 2017
R/V Rachel Carson's crew is Capt. Michael Hulme (left) and Mate/Engineer Robert Nilsen.
The R/V Rachel Carson is homeported in Solomons.

The University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science's Research Fleet is the backbone of the Center’s coastal science research programs and Research Vessel Rachel Carson is the flagship of that UMCES fleet. But a ship is nothing without her crew.

When the Rachel Carson set out on a research cruise this past spring, we joined Capt. Michael H. Hulme, director of marine operations, in the wheelhouse to learn about his career, his path to it, and the vessel he now mans alongside mate/engineer Robert Nilsen. Back on shore at Research Fleet Operations in Solomons, Maryland, we talk more to this crew of two, what a day is like on the job, and why they love coming to work. We also talk to Chesapeake Biological Laboratory scientists Michael Gonsior, a chemist and assistant professor, and Jessica Wingfield, a faculty research assistant, about their experiences with research cruises and on the Rachel Carson.


Here is the full transcript.

[Chatter on the radio]

That’s Michael Hulme, director of marine operations for the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science and master of the Research Vessel Rachel Carson.

He recently invited us into the Carson’s cabin for a closer look at the flagship of the Center’s research fleet. He wears a few hats, as they say, but today, as we coast over the Chesapeake Bay, he’s wearing his favorite—his captain’s hat, a tan ballcap with a stitched outline of the vessel he mans.

He drives the vessel with a sort of casual vigilance—his eyes somehow simultaneously on the oceanography class aboard, another boat coming up on his portside, and the course ahead. It’s just another day on the water, as we talk about the Carson from her christening to her 183rd cruise and how he became its captain.

Oh, and we’ll try to settle the debate of just who has the best job in the state of Maryland.

But first things first, let’s meet the captain.

MICHAEL HULME: I’ve been in this position, the director’s position, a little over three years and I’ve been running the vessel for a little over six. I’ve been going to sea for 37 years now, joined the Coast Guard in Boston. I was the designated child to follow in his footsteps, so I ran away to sea as any middle child, black sheep, but I joined the Coast Guard and since then, I’ve been paid to work on various ships and boats. I guess I’m one of those unusual kids that discovers what they like when they’re young and sticks with it.

The crew is just two—master and then a mate engineer.

ROB NILSEN: My name’s Rob Nilsen, and I started working here for the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science almost four years ago now.

Nilsen sits behind the desk in his office sipping coffee at Research Fleet Operations, a building that sits next to Chesapeake Biological Laboratory’s campus in Solomons.

A subtle nautical décor isn’t just for show; his passion is in boats, whether he’s doing maintenance on them at work or taking his wife out on one to enjoy a relaxing Sunday on the water.

NILSEN: I came from a recreational marine background. I was the rigging supervisor at Hartge Yacht Yard for almost 30 years and it really dovetailed nicely into this part. Yes, we’re more commercial oriented, but you know boats are boats and the systems are relatively the same except for the size.

It’s been a great ride so far. I think I have the greatest job in the state of Maryland, just because I get to work on boats, do what I like to do. I get out of my car in the morning down here in Solomons, and the facility, as you know, the facility is just, just wonderful. I get out of my car, I look around and think, wow, how lucky am I, you know? And depending on the time of the year, the sunrises are just spectacular down here. So, I’m a lucky guy, I really am.

HULME: We don’t punch clocks here. We work our 8-hour day. We just coincidentally arrive about the same time every day, about a quarter after 7 and then we go about the business of the fleet.

NILSEN: He deals with the business aspect. I deal with the maintenance aspect of the boats.

HULME: When I became director, knowing Rob’s fabrication/welding skills and so on, I put that out on the street that we have a fabrication service and that obviously first goes out to UMCES. It’s a great advertising thing for the fleet because a lot of these researchers, especially the folks over at NAVAIR (Naval Air Station) Patuxent, they’re electrical engineers, they’re physicists; they don’t have boat experience; they don’t have maritime or shipboard experience. We can offer that.

This crew of two may support for UMCES all the nautical and maritime issues that may arise, but their primary task is to manage the Rachel Carson, the newest in an 80-year history of research vessels.

HULME: The first research vessel came in 1937 and through right now, there’s been a research fleet for the University of Maryland working from right here, which is an amazing statistic.

The Rachel Carson has been with the Center for about a decade, and Capt. Hulme followed soon after. Him deciding to take over as captain was an easy decision when the time came, but getting her here? That took a little luck.

HULME: The Rachael Carson is a little over 8 years old now. She replaced the Research Vessel Aquarius, a 65-foot former crew boat from the Gulf of Mexico that was brought up in the 60s. Ten years ago, let’s say, the vessel’s life span, around 40 years, was coming closer and it was decided a new research vessel should be brought in.

A decision was made to go to the General Assembly up in Annapolis to get the funds to build a brand new vessel for the University. Timing is everything. The General Assembly passed a bond for $6.5 million in 2007ish, 2006, right there, but of course, we know what happened in 2008: The economy tanked. So timing is everything.

The University had gotten the bond. The Carson was built up in Ontario. She was christened November 2008 in Annapolis by Judge O’Malley. I think she took four swings of the champagne bottle before it finally broke and then the Carson went right into her first cruise, January of 2009.

I was at that christening with my then-2-year-old son. Rainy, rainy, windy day. They introduced all the dignitaries, of course, then they introduced the crew. They introduced Capt. Michael Reusing and I said to Nick, who was 2 and didn’t really know what I was saying, I said, ‘Nick, that guy’s going to retire soon. I’m going to be the next captain of this boat.’ ‘Oh, daddy, that’s great.’ And two years later, there I was, captain of the Research Vessel Rachel Carson.

Every beloved vessel gets a name and this one is named for renowned ecologist Rachel Carson who may best be known for her book, “Silent Spring.” Through it, she taught the world about the dangers of using chemical pesticides like DDT.

HULME: President of UMCES, Dr. Boesch named the vessel and he credits Rachel Carson with his early interest in marine science. So Rachel Carson did her, this was back in the 30s, her graduate degree at Johns Hopkins in marine zoology, went to work for the federal government, what’s now basically Marine Fisheries Service, as a scientist, but her very prescient boss realized what a brilliant writer she was. Rachel Carson had the unique talent of being able to write about science for non-scientists. So why the Rachel Carson for this then-new research vessel for Maryland? Certainly beyond the fact that she was who she was, she had a lot of connections with the Chesapeake Bay.

Like the scientist she’s named for, the Research Vessel Rachel Carson is built for long days of scientific discovery for the sake of educating scientists and the general public alike about the state of the natural world.

HULME: She’s a multi-purpose, high-speed, dynamically positioned, shallow draft, multi-marine science and ocean engineering platform. All those things make the Carson unique. Eighty-one feet overall in length, just 18 feet across the beam, but significantly she only needs a little under 5 feet of water to keep her afloat, so we spend a lot of time in very shallow water, especially for those mud, ooze and slime scientists, the ecologists.

We’ve had the Carson out as far as work stations off of Cape Cod, Massachusetts. Clearly the Bay is our main focus. We have an on-going project in the North Atlantic Ocean doing acoustic whale mapping. So again, she’s proven in the last eight years to be an extremely versatile vessel, which was the initial goal.

Unlike all the predecessors going back to 1937, I decided to grow the mission scope of the Carson, grow the business, to include ocean work. We’ve got some researchers at UMCES that have a need to be out in the ocean doing work. When the University’s not using the vessel, she’s open to scientific charter. I can’t take you sportfishing unless you have a reason to study the rockfish that you’re going after, but any legitimate research institution can charter the vessel.

As an example, Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Lab, two summers ago, almost three summers ago, chartered the vessel for a project with two legs, working in Cape Cod, Massachusetts. That was a marvelous test for the Carson and how she would do out in the ocean, but for the most part we work in the Bay, and we cover the entire Bay from Havre de Grace down to the Twin Capes and we’ve been in almost every tributary.

Like its captain, the Rachel Carson has more than one job. One week, she can be an introduction to research cruises for students embarking on a career in marine science and the next she can be oceanbound with a seasoned scientist working on a long-term study. The Carson can be rigged to support a wide variety of estuarine and near-coastal oceanographic research projects, including water quality observations, plankton sampling, and buoy deployment.

She isn’t the only vessel Center scientists use. Research vessels of all kinds play a vital role in our scientist’s work, whether they’re on board icebreakers in the Arctic or going off Ocean City to catch and tag fish. As Michael Gonsior put it, every vessel has its strength…

MICHAEL GONSIOR: I’m Michael Gonsior. I’m an assistant professor here at the Chesapeake Biological Lab. I’m a trained analytical chemist, but my interest is in biogeochemistry, meaning element cycling, specifically carbon, but also nitrogen sulphur and others. So I have been working a lot in marine environments, but also freshwater systems.

Research cruises are an integral part of marine chemistry. I have to go out there to take samples and it’s not easy to get ship time so we are opportunistic, getting the changes to collaborate with people. I’ve been on several large research vessels, ocean going, like really crossing the Atlantic, for example or going out in the North Pacific or even the Arctics. Then we have smaller, regional vessels.

Every vessel has its strength depending which area they’re operating in. For example, if you want to really cross the large ocean basins, you need a ship that can take a lot of swells, so these tend to be larger vessels. If you’re working in coastal environments you would not necessarily need larger vessels, and in some cases, it’s not good to have a larger vessel. For example, the Rachel Carson has a really shallow hull, that means you can go in shallower areas.

The Chesapeake Bay, for example, has a lot of shallow coastal parts, which a ship like the Sharp would not be able to go, but the Rachel Carson can. And of course we can also design ships when they’re smaller, they tend to be faster as well, meaning you can cover a larger area in a shorter time frame. We have also cruises of opportunities. So for example, when our new REU students, for example, Research Experience for Undergraduate students, they’re going out for one day, so we help out. They’re usually coring sediment for example, which can be done from the Rachel Carson with that nice A frame on the back of the ship.

So it’s nice being out on the Rachel Carson, and we are planning now at least a once a year trip into the Patuxent to establish different stations and then sample on those stations, as well. We’re just creating the research plan for that.

JESSICA WINGFIELD: My name is Jessica Wingfield.

Wingfield is a faculty research assistant who works with ecologist Helen Bailey at Chesapeake Biological Laboratory. The Rachel Carson is helping in their mission to study the habits of porpoises, dolphins and whales offshore of Ocean City where a wind farm is planned. Construction noise could be disruptive for animals which rely on sound for communication, finding food, and navigation.

WINGFIELD: We go on the Rachel Carson every two to three months and what we do is we pick up our acoustic instruments that we put down on the previous cruise. So they come up on deck. We take the old instrument off and put a new one on and we put that mooring back down on the same day.

So the wind energy area is going to be 20-40 kilometers off shore, but our instruments are deployed, so we have one at about 12 kilometers up to about 63 kilometers off shore.

So we leave the dock at about 6:30 a.m. and it actually takes about an hour and a half, two hours to get out to that furthest site, so there’s definitely a lot of down time traveling between sites. So when I’m chief scientist I’m just making sure that all of the equipment is ready, that we’re going to the right site and everyone knows what site’s next and who has to do what. Some people nap, there’s a lot of napping. If it’s a nice day, we’ll sit out on the deck or someone will be reading. And then once we get on station, it’s only about 45 minutes total from the time we signal the instruments to when it’s on deck to when we replace it and then re-deploy it.

And we’ll do about two to three of those stations a day, but it just depends on what type of trip it is, but typically down time is between stations and then once we’re on station, everything goes pretty quick and we’re pretty busy. It is fun. It’s fun to get out of the office and out of the lab to see the species you’re studying. We’ve seen a few dolphins on our trips, no whales yet, but hopefully soon. It’s nice just to be out there and remind yourself why you’re doing this.

But let’s face it, even the luckiest scientists don’t get on the water as much as Capt. Hulme, which brings us back to the Rachel Carson and the debate about the best job in Maryland.

HULME: The best days are a day like today, it’s gorgeous here on the Choptank River. It’s 64 degrees, we’ve got 70-almost-2 degrees water temperature. I say loudly, even with the mate engineer standing behind me, that I’ve got the best job in the state of Maryland.

[Chatter on the radio]