In The Harbour: RRS Discovery

Summertime in St. John’s is my favourite time of year for just so, so many reasons. The sun shines, the trees get their leaves, flowers bloom and for a few short months, we can forget how quickly this beautiful place will change into a frozen hellscape. The best part of summer, of course, is that new ships start to arrive in the harbour.

You’ve seen me write about this before, usually in reference to “Cruise Ship Season”. While I do appreciate the technological and architectural marvels that are the massive passenger liners, it’s the research, naval, and other more unique ships that always catch my eye. One such ship, the RRS Discovery, sailed through the Narrows last month and I was lucky enough to get on board and get a tour.

RRS Discovery moored in St. John's.

Ship Stats

  • Nationality: British

  • Length: 99.7 metres

  • Beam: 18 metres

  • Draught: 6.5 metres

  • Weight: 5,952 gross tonnes

  • Crew: 52 (24 crew, 28 scientists)

  • Year: 2012

I was out for a walk on Canada Day when I spotted the Discovery tied off near Atlantic Place (truth be told, it was the National Environment Research Council (NERC) flag that really caught my eye). I managed to flag down a crew member on the gangway - a nice gentleman named Andy - to ask what the vessel was doing in St. John’s, where had she come from, how long would she be in, etc. After chatting for a bit, I was told that if I came back to the ship the following day someone would be happy to show me around and tell me all about the ship. I excitedly returned to the harbourfront the next afternoon and arrived at the security kiosk to check in. Of course, all I had was "A nice crew member named Andy said I could have a tour", and the guard was understandably skeptical of my story. After convincing him to radio the ship and confirming with the crew that yes, I had permission to be there and no, I wasn’t just trying to sneak on board, I was handed a pass and off I went. One of the ship's officers, Tom, brought me aboard and was gracious enough to act as tour guide and show me around.

One of the brightest bridges I think I've ever stepped on.

Built by C.N.P. Freire in Vigo, Spain, the Discovery arrived at NERC in 2013 to replace her predecessor of the same name. One of four research vessels operated by NERC (and one of the most advanced) she is used for deep sea “blue ocean” research and is considered a “multi-disciplinary ship… specifically designed for the challenges of 21st  Century oceanography”. Her cranes, winches, lab space, and onboard equipment mean she can be used to explore a variety of scientific fields, including marine geology, oceanography, geophysics, ocean engineering, and atmospheric sciences, and is customizable to the needs of each research team. Her mission, according to the NERC website, is to undertake research of “national and global importance”.

Once I was on board we headed to the bridge. Heading up the stairs, I commented how bright and clean the ship was. As is the case with most vessels, you come to expect a bit of wear and tear on the walls, the doors, scuffs on the floor, that kind of a thing. Discovery could have been on her maiden voyage from what I could see -  the halls still had a “new ship” smell (yes, it’s a thing), and it was clear that the crew took great pride in maintaining their home.

Looking out over the stern of the Discovery.

Arriving on the bridge, the first thing I noticed was how bright it was. Large windows lined each of the four walls, letting natural light to pour in and giving the crew a 360o view around their ship. The next thing that caught my attention was the amount of space each station had; more than I had seen on some of the other vessels I’ve been on and allowing the crew to move about without constantly being in each other's way. This is the brain of the ship - where each turn, course, and instrument launch is planned and carried out with accuracy and efficiency - and where Tom spends his time when on duty.

The ship's advanced propulsion systems mean that she is a highly maneuverable vessel, with two azimuth thrusters, one retractable azimuth thruster, and one water jet thruster. Each azimuth thruster is able to move independently and rotate 360o so repositioning the ship takes less effort and time than it would if she had a fixed propulsion system, keeping her more fuel efficient than some of her contemporaries in the fleet. Similar to some of the other ships I’ve seen, she has a remote that allows whoever is at the helm to move around the bridge while piloting the vessel, making it easier when navigating through narrow straits or coming alongside in a harbour. She’s also more environmentally friendly than other vessels, with minimized CO2 emissions, low radiated noise, and minimum internal vibration, helping minimize her impact on the environment that her crew works to research and protect.

Looking out from the bridge towards the stern, I asked Tom what the most interesting expedition for him had been since he’d joined the Discovery. He replied that it would have to have been the one they had just completed before arriving in Newfoundland. The study had been that of sea birds and their diets - scientists had captured sea birds, tested their stomach contents, and then released them back into the wild. After a trying a couple of different ideas to get the birds to approach the vessel, the crew found a winner; covering the stern with fish oil, waiting for the birds to land, and then scooping them up and bringing them into the wet lab just off the stern. Tom had been skeptical of this plan when it was first proposed, but to his surprise, it worked! The birds would be so distracted by the oil that the scientists could pick them up, test, and release them with minimal trouble. Since many of the expeditions the Discovery embarks on involve launching and retrieving research buoys, this was a welcome change of pace and new experience for everyone on board.

The common room of the Discovery.

Leaving the bridge, Tom and I headed downstairs and into the common area. Our first stop was the mess; a long room with tables bolted to the floor and chairs resting in brackets to keep them from sliding along the floor at sea. According to Tom, the ship’s design means she has a bit of a lazy roll when at sea, so it’s crucial to keep everything secure. Considering that she was designed with the ability to travel to remote and extreme oceanic environments and sail in high sea states (up to a sea-state 6), it's easy to see why this would be necessary.

Of course, her ability to sail in these conditions doesn’t guarantee a comfortable ride for all people (and things) aboard. Once, during a particularly heavy storm, Tom returned to his cabin and was surprised to find not only his MacBook waiting for him in the hall but a MacBook-sized hole in his door. During a heavy swell, the computer had launched itself off his desk with such force that it has torpedoed through the door and landed in the hallway! Since then, he's been careful to secure his cabin when he knows they're headed for weather.

We left the mess and crossed the hall into the crew lounge. With comfortable chairs and a full bar, this is where scientists and crew alike come to kick back, have a drink, and relax. A television at the end of the lounge will play movies or videos, and above the bar, portraits of Discovery’s three namesakes are prominently visible. The closer you look around the room, the more you notice plaques, pictures, and other artifacts of importance to the vessel and her crew. Like most officer's clubs, this space feels steeped in tradition, despite the ship that it occupies being so young. It doesn't take much to see why everyone on board retires to this space when they want some down time.

Books, puzzles, and computers offer just some of the entertainment for the sailors when they're at sea.

Another few strides down the hall brought us into the library/conference room. Books lined the shelves on to the right of the room, and a Smart Screen hung at the end of the long board-style table. Tom explained that not only is this where teams will call meetings or debrief following an exercise, but it’s also a quiet space for someone to come and relax, read, or work on a puzzle (one was out on the table when we walked in, about a quarter of the way done). The table had a textured surface, so the pieces wouldn’t slip and slide while at sea. According to Tom, puzzles are quite popular on board, and the library is stocked with many different ones for the crew to choose from. Discovery is designed as much for comfort as she is for research and function, with the crew also having access to an on board fitness centre, video room, hospital, and their own laundries.

(If you want to learn more about what it’s like on board Discovery, take a look at this video “Life on Board a Research Ship” )

One of the dry labs on board the Discovery.

Next, we headed into the heart of the vessel and her research - the labs. Discovery is sub-divided into ultra clean, clean, normal and temperature-controlled areas that have the flexibility to be used for multiple types of experiments. This lab space is further subdivided into, “dry” and “wet” labs; dry labs are used to house electronic equipment, while wet labs are where some of the messier experiments occur (like analyzing the stomach contents of sea birds, for example). The Discovery also has the ability to house specialized “container labs”. Similar to those that I wrote about on the Polar Prince, container labs are lifted onto the deck of the ship and secured there. Scientists have usually had these labs outfitted specifically for whatever experiments they are conducting, and will work out of this custom space while on board. There were no container labs on board when I visited, but I was able to see both the dry and wet labs; both were much larger than I was expecting, with plenty of space for scientists to work and move around. The wet lab was bright, clean and quiet; a stark contrast, Tom said, to when it was filled with the sounds of scientists and sea birds.

The wet lab, clean and quiet after being filled with sea birds.

Just across from the wet lab we headed into a storage hanger and then out onto the deck, where much of the deployable equipment for Discovery is kept. The wide range of cranes, over-side gantries, and associated equipment on board mean that Discovery can launch and tow different instruments her deck - the National Oceanographic Centre's (NOC) ROUV Isis included. These instruments can include systems for testing conductivity, temperature and depth of a water column, taking core samples from the seabed and sub-seabed, seabed mapping, measuring water properties while the ships underway, and towing deep sea trawls and nets for biological experiments. Discovery’s crew can also collect other types of data using her echosounders, hydrophones, a below surface CCTV camera, and Ultra Short Base Line (USBL) - a system that is used to measure the position of an object underwater relative to the ship. All of this data is useful to both the onboard researchers and the crew in their day-to-day operation of the ship.

The ROUV Isis under a protective tarp on deck.

As we walked towards the stern, I asked Tom where the Discovery would be heading after they left St. John’s. The next mission, he said, was to sail off the coast of Greenland. There, Isis would be used to inspect and retrieve some data buoys that Discovery had launched on a previous trip. These buoys record important stats such as ocean temperature and currents and are crucial for the climate change research being conducted on board. The most common type of trip that Discovery makes is also one of the most important when it comes to learning about our changing oceans.

The Discovery set sail from St. John’s a couple of days later, and at the time of this writing she has returned to the United Kingdom and is moored safely in her home port of Southampton. She is quite a unique vessel - one of the most interesting that I have ever toured - and it was a pleasure to be given the opportunity to go aboard. I wish her crew all the best, and hope to see them again sometime in St. John’s!

(To see all my photos from my visit to Discovery, click here.)