University of Delaware lays keel for new research vessel

February 23, 2004

The University of Delaware officially launched the construction of its new, 146-foot coastal research vessel on Tuesday evening, February 17, when UD President David Roselle signed a symbolic "keel" -- a four-foot-long metal beam that will become part of the ship.

Provost Dan Rich and Carolyn Thoroughgood, dean of the College of Marine Studies, also participated in the signing, which was held at the Goodstay Center in Wilmington.

Years ago, when ships were made of wood, the laying of the keel -- the long timber forming the ship's "backbone" -- was the first step in building a new vessel. In modern ship construction, the keel is no longer the principal structural component. However, shipbuilders still honor the keel-laying tradition.

The new ship will replace UD's 120-foot research vessel Cape Henlopen, which has been in service to the oceanographic community since 1976.

Dakota Creek Industries in Anacortes, Washington, will build the new ship. The company was awarded the contract in December 2003. It has been in business since 1975 and specializes in the construction and repair of steel and aluminum ships ranging from fishing and oil recovery vessels to ferries and barges.

Heralded as the "first in the next generation of coastal research vessels," UD's new ship will feature a state-of-the-art modular design and clean, quiet operation. It will be the first ship in the U.S. academic research fleet to meet international underwater noise standards, which are based on the hearing ability of fish.

The total cost of constructing the vessel and outfitting it with scientific instrumentation and communications systems is estimated at $17.6 million. Funding for the new ship will be provided by the University of Delaware, the National Science Foundation, the U.S. Office of Naval Research, and private donations.

In his formal remarks, President Roselle noted that building and operating a new research vessel "is not an inexpensive proposition" but that UD's current ship is fast approaching its retirement age and "not having a research vessel at our College of Marine Studies would seem about as logical as a race car driver without a car.

"At a time when the importance of marine science is growing nationally," Roselle said, "I believe the University of Delaware needs to stand tall and continue its mission of discovery with the best facilities we can provide."

While UD's new vessel will assist scientists in the College of Marine Studies, Provost Rich pointed out that the vessel also will play a major role in helping scientists at other U.S. institutions accomplish their ocean research.

"The University of Delaware is a member of the University-National Oceanographic Laboratory System, an organization of 63 institutions that work together to coordinate oceanographic ship schedules and research facilities," he said. "UD is one of 20 institutions that operate a research vessel. In the past 28 years, over 30,000 scientists in the Mid-Atlantic region, funded by federal grants, have conducted research aboard our vessel."

Carolyn Thoroughgood, dean of the College of Marine Studies, told the audience how important the ship has been to scientific discovery by highlighting several past and current projects. Using the ship, the college's scientists identified the Delaware Coastal Current, a strong current that flows out of Delaware Bay, takes a right turn, and then continues to hug the coast until it diminishes along the northern shores of North Carolina.

"Discovering this current and understanding how it works has resulted in a number of applications and benefits," she said, "from improving search-and-rescue operations to better gauging how natural forces affect the population size of the blue crab fishery." During the crab's early life stages, it travels the sea at the mercy of the currents, tides, and winds.

In other research, UD scientists are using the ship to examine the water quality of the Delaware Bay, to research how sediments are transported through the system, and to learn if naturally occurring microbes in the estuary can degrade toxic contaminants. The ship also is helping scientists outfit lighthouses in Delaware Bay as data nodes in a novel ocean observing system designed to improve the forecasting and resolution of oil spills, blooms of harmful algae, and other problems.

According to David Longdale, general manager of Dakota Creek Industries, the University of Delaware's vessel will be constructed from five steel modules forming the hull, topped by a lighter, aluminum superstructure that includes the pilothouse. The modules will be constructed in various buildings at Dakota Creek's shipyard and outfitted with equipment.

"When these modules are completed, they will be fitted together like a huge jigsaw puzzle, and the ship will take shape," Longdale said.

Once the vessel is completed in the autumn of 2005, it will be delivered to the East Coast aboard a larger commercial ship equipped with cradles for transporting other vessels to ports afar.

"This will save on any wear-and-tear the brand-new vessel might otherwise experience going from the West Coast to the East Coast through the Panama Canal," Longdale noted.

The new research vessel will operate primarily in the Mid-Atlantic region, including the Delaware and Chesapeake bays, with occasional research missions as far north as the Gulf of Maine, as far south as Florida, and as far east as Bermuda. Its "endurance," or maximum time at sea on a single expedition, will be 21 days. The vessel is expected to spend an average of 200 days at sea per year.

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