We arrived in San Francisco on November 7 to an unusual sight: clear skies, calm seas, and very little ship traffic. It was so calm, in fact, that I woke up in a panic thinking that I’d missed our passage through the Golden Gate and that we’d already docked. But when I checked my watch, it was 5:30 a.m. Sleep was going to be impossible with all the adrenaline still pumping through my veins, so I got dressed, skipped coffee in the mess, and went out on deck to watch the sun come up.
Aside from sailing under one of the most iconic bridges in the world, the passage into San Francisco Harbor was uneventful. Memorable, stunning, and beautiful, but uneventful. We nudged up to the pier just south of the Bay Bridge, passed our lines to a few helping hands on shore, and suddenly the inaugural voyage of R/V Neil Armstrong was over.
The rest of our time in San Francisco was occupied with either getting the ship ready to host a parade of guests or watching the faces of our guests beam as they looked out from the bridge over the waterfront or stood on deck and listened to the crew describe science at sea.
As commonplace and everyday that life aboard a ship can quickly become, all it takes is a handful of visitors to remind us that there really is something romantic and other worldly about a ship, especially a research vessel. Even if that ship is functional and business-like, as this one is, the Neil Armstrong radiates a sense that its job is special. Add that special name to the bow and put “R/V” in front of it and you can understand why four pilots came out to guide us in, why more then 100 people streamed up the gangplank on Sunday and a rainy Monday and left only grudgingly, and why watching the video of us steaming under that bridge still brings chills.
There’s something about this ship
This weekend, the Neil Armstrong will be dropping anchor in the approach to the Panama Canal, where it will await a new group of visitors—and its turn to pass through to the Caribbean. After that, it will turn north for Charleston, S.C., and another shipyard, where it will receive much of its science equipment and truly become a research ship. Our work with the cranes and winches and our time living on board also revealed some small changes that could help make the ship even more workable and livable.
After shakedown cruises and tests of its new systems, Neil Armstrong will begin a series of science verification cruises in early March designed to assess the ship’s ability to support the full range of oceanographic work that will form its mission for decades to come. After that, or actually in the middle of all that, the ship will make its way north.
It’s not every day that an institution like WHOI gets to welcome the arrival of a new ship. In fact, it’s quite rare, so it will almost certainly be an exciting time in Woods Hole when the ship rounds Naushon Island and makes its approach to the WHOI dock that first time. Probably even more exciting than the trip into San Francisco.