The Rachel Carson is the pride of the University of Maryland’s Chesapeake Biological Laboratory in Solomons. Launched in 2009, this fast and versatile 81-footer is the go-to research vessel for Chesapeake scientists of all stripes.

by T. F. Sayles
photographs by David Owen Hawxhurst

This is very exciting. The trawl net is close now, drawn steadily toward the wide-open aft deck of the Rachel Carson by a powerful oceanographic winch, and we can see that it is quite full. Quite full. The word "teeming" comes to mind. As the net emerges at last from the water, it looks very much like a lavishly decorated Christmas tree, its ornaments being the glittering heads of small white perch, caught by their gills in the one-inch mesh.

We've been under way since sunrise on the Rachel Carson, the big, brawny jet-drive research vessel owned and operated by the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Studies (UMCES).  Now, after steaming north from Sandy Point State Park for an hour or so on a glassy Bay, frozen white at its edges, we are five or so miles up the Elk River, off Town Point and the mouth of the Bohemia. And we're hauling in our first netful of the day.

By we I mean they—a team of six biologists from the fisheries service of the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, led by Paul Piavis, the DNR's specialist in perch and catfish, among other species. Today is one of the many outings that comprise the department's annual winter trawl survey of finfish populations in the Chesapeake, the "species of interest" being rockfish, native catfish, yellow perch and white perch.

With the help of a hoisting winch, four of the scientists—a seriously bulky quartet in their puffy orange survival suits—wrestle the net into place and dump its contents into a bathtub-size Rubbermaid brand container, filling it nearly to the halfway point. It is about 300 pounds of small fish, I would guess, the vast majority of them white perch in the three- to six-inch range.

Now begins the science, which in this case is spelled c-o-u-n-t-i-n-g. Biologist Matt Rinehimer transfers bucketful after bucketful of fish onto a large belly-high culling table. Three of his colleagues, Carrie Hoover, Kate Messer and Butch Webb, stand at the table, working it like a trio of veteran blackjack dealers, shuffling, sorting, and measuring the fish before unceremoniously shoving them, pile after pile, off the board and back into the Bay. They are also flinging individual fish overboard as they work, so regularly that there is rarely a moment when there isn't at least one wriggling, glittering fish flying through the air, back to freedom. And during all of this they call out sizes and species to Piavis, the pit boss, who is hovering nearby, holding a dog-eared notebook inches from his face. He scribbles the numbers as fast as they come, his pencil jumping quickly from one spot on the page to another.

"White perch, one forty-two [millimeters] . . . striper, one seventy . . . yellow perch, one forty-five," Hoover calls out. Then, following some well-practiced protocol that keeps them from interrupting one another, Messer chimes in from the other side of the board, reciting a batch from memory: "Channel cat, one eighty; three white perch, one forty-five, one forty-two and one sixty-one." Then Hoover again: "White perch, one thirty-five, white perch, one thirty-five, striper one sixty. . . ." Now Butch Webb: "Striper, one seventy-one, yellow perch, one fifty. . . ." And on and on it goes, bucketful after bucketful, pile after pile. Sorted, measured, counted and then shoved or flung overboard. 

After a solid half-hour of this, the tub is finally empty—and now it's time to set the net again, because while they were sorting and counting and flinging, Rachel Carson skipper Michael Hulme was cruising to the next spot, a mile downstream on the Elk, just off Cabin John Creek, following the plan he and Piavis worked out in advance for today's outing. Out goes the net again, and, after about ten minutes of trawling at just under two knots, in it comes again. Another big haul. No, make that a huge haul, bigger than Piavis has seen in a long time—maybe the biggest ever. So big that they worry out loud it might tear the net. It fills the Rubbermaid tub to the brim.

If you're going to get a big haul, Piavis tells me, this is where it'll happen, in the comparatively deep water, where winter fish prefer to be. The later shallow-water trawls, he says, will be much smaller. But for now there are a lot of fish to count. (Much later I learned from Piavis that the tally for this haul alone, this one net full, was 12,703 white perch. Yes, twelve thousand; that's not a typo. Plus 148 yellow perch, 42 striped bass, 59 channel catfish, 1 white catfish, 57 gizzard shad and 8 spot-tail shiners.) After struggling mightily to empty the net into the tub—this time filling it right to the brim, the DNR crew, without so much as a collective deep breath, settles back into its counting routine.

Then there's another haul, not quite so big, off Worth Point. Then, after dodging ice floes along the way, another trawl just southwest of Turkey Point. And another. And another. And, working our way south, past the iced-in mouth of the Sassafras, another and another. Then another. It's all very . . . exciting.

All right, maybe exciting isn't exactly the right word. "Welcome to fisheries science," says the gregarious Hulme a few hours later as he carefully steers the big but nimble boat (twin 1200-hp diesels with Hamilton jet drives) through a field of ice floes off the mouth of the Sassafras River. "It's not always exciting," he adds, as if reading my mind, "but it is always important." 

And it's all in a day's work for Hulme, who has been master of the Rachel Carson for going on two years, having taken the helm from retiring captain Michael Reusing, who worked his way up from deckhand in the course of a 44-year career with the Chesapeake Bay Laboratory (CBL)—once an independent lab but now part of the ever-growing University of Maryland system. 

Built order by Hike Metal of Ontario, Canada, the burly, aluminum-hulled 81-footer is the latest and by far the most capable in a long line of research vessels that have served the lab. Longtime Chesapeake denizens may recall her immediate predecessors—the 52-foot Orion, which served CBL for nearly half a century, and the 65-foot Aquarius, a repurposed Gulf of Mexico crew boat that was the lab's flagship from 1972 to 2008.

Though Hulme was not around for the design and commissioning of the Carson (at the time he was working as a hydrographic surveyor for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers) he can rattle off the boat's Roger Long design pedigree as if he were there for the whole process. It began, he tells me, in the early 1990s with the University of New Hampshire's Gulf Challenger, a 50-foot purpose built research vessel designed by Roger Long Marine Architecture of Portsmouth, Me. A few years later Virginia's Old Dominion University, impressed by the UNH boat, hired Long to build a 55-foot version, named the Fay Slover in honor of an ODU benefactor. "Then came Woods Hole [Oceanographic Institute]," Hulme continues, "and they said, ‘What a great boat! We want a 60-foot version. So the Tioga was drawn and built."

Finally, he says, came the University of Maryland, needing a replacement for the Aquarus. "And they weren't messing around with five-foot increments; they said, ‘No, no, no, we want an eighty-foot boat!' And the 81-foot version came to be." And the Carson was the first to have jet drives, he adds, which means that, although she's the largest of what has come be called the Challenger class of research vessels, she has the shallowest draft—truly an advantage on the Bay.

She has her own built-in wet lab, with 50 square feet of counter space, fresh water, a vacuum system, and a large refrigerator and freezer side by side below the counter. "This is the all-important wet lab," Hulme says during a quick tour of the boat's "science outfit. "If it involves blood, mud, ooze, slime or what have you, it happens here." Below deck, in addition to a full galley and saloon amidships, and sleeping accommodations for five, plus the captain and mate, is a smaller dry lab with storage and another 20 square feet of counter space.

With her massive twin diesels, she's more expensive to operate on a per-hour basis than was Aquarius, Hulme says, but her 20-knot-plus cruising speed can more than make up for that. "They may balk at the hourly rate at first, but then when they factor in the efficiency of it, it more or less evens out," Hulme says. "At 22 knots she can get them to and from a location really fast, and that can make a big difference when you're talking about a crew of, say, four scientists, having to overnight at a hotel somewhere, instead of knocking it out in a single day.

If you really want to hear Hulme wax rhapsodic, get him to talk about the Carson's Kongsberg dynamic positioning system, a "cyber anchoring" system that allows him to choose a very precise location and then leave it to the boat's computers to stay there. "It's really pretty remarkable what it can do," he says, demonstrating the system for me during the DNR crew's lunch break. "Once I find the sweet spot, if you will [an ideal heading, given wind and current conditions], then I just turn it over to the computer, which takes thirty seconds or so, never more than a couple of minutes, to do all the algorithms, and then it will keep us right on that spot. Kongsberg, the vendor, literally created a model of the ship in code—the length, the breadth, the height, horsepower and so on, and all these elements go into allowing me to find that sweet spot."

With the DP system in full command of the boat's position, Hulme steps back from the helm. "The heading is now being held by the computer," he says, "the surge is now being held by the computer, and the sway is now being held by the computer. So now I can step away from the helm, I can go supervise on deck." Onboard safety is a big issue for Hulme, who not only keeps a close eye on the action on deck (to keep missteps from "snowballing" out of control) but also is a stickler about not being under way for more than 12 hours in a given day, which is the Coast Guard mandated limit, given the small crew. "I carry a lot of licenses, and I don't want to jeopardize them, so I'm pretty strict about it. If the chief scientist says, oh, come on, just another half hour . . . I have to say no. It's just not worth it to me, or to the university, because we fall under their insurance and liability."

Most of the Carson's outings are on behalf of researchers and academics in the UMCES system, specifically the CBL in Solomons, where the boat is based, and the Horn Point Laboratory (HPL) across the Bay in Cambridge, Md. Not including educational day trips for college students and occasional demonstration cruises for university brass, the vessel put in some 65 sea days in 2012, nearly half of them on behalf of the two UMCES labs.

DNR is an active client too, having booked the Carson for some 15 days since last April—more like 20 if you include a DNR/UMCES "joint venture" last August in Atlantic waters off Ocean City. Researchers from both organizations took part in that water-quality expedition. "That happened to be the week of Ocean City's big [Labor Day white marlin tournament]," Hulme says with a laugh. "It hadn't occurred to any of us that all the marinas would be booked. But we were very lucky. When we called the guy said, ‘Oh yeah, we have one spot left that can handle you, out on the T-dock. Come on over!' That was a great trip. It was the boat's first time in ocean water, and she handled it like a dream." For the most part, however, the DNR stuck to the Bay last year, using the Carson for the aforementioned winter trawl survey and, in the spring and summer, for water-quality sampling in the Bay's main stem and on the Patuxent River.

UMCES researchers, the boat's primary clientele, as you might imagine, are all over the map—both geographically and in terms of scientific discipline. William Boicourt, a physical oceanography professor at HPL, used the Carson several times last May to deploy a complex array of measuring devices in the Bay's main stem off Calvert Cliffs. With funding from the National Science Foundation, Boicourt is studying the effects of physical processes—wind being the least understood—on water circulation and stratification in estuaries. The centerpiece of the measuring array deployed last spring is a 50-foot "tower" that reached from the Bay floor to the surface, measuring water velocity, temperature and salinity all along its length.

Though Boicourt's primary focus, as a physical oceanographer, is on the physical processes themselves, there is also an important biological dimension—namely dissolved oxygen, or lack thereof, in deep water. That is greatly influenced by the mixing effect of the physical forces—perhaps more so by wind that previously thought, Boicourt says, particularly in large estuaries like the Bay, where the fetch is greater. Zeroing in on that aspect of it has been Malcolm Scully, formerly an assistant professor at Virginia's Old Dominion University and now on staff at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts. Scully used the Carson in April specifically to measure hypoxia and anoxia in the lower Bay. 

Professors Ed Houde and David Secor, CBL fisheries experts whose work in recent years has been crucial in estimating the abundance, or lack thereof, of Atlantic menhaden in the Bay, put the Carson to work on three separate occasions last summer. Those outings, says Houde, were part of their project comparing the effectiveness of mid-water trawling (dragging a net behind a boat, in this case the Carson) to that of beach seining—encircling fish with a seine net in shallow water. Houde and Secor have booked the boat for more outings this spring and summer to continue collecting the comparative data.

I can go on. There's Professor Lora Harris, an ecologist at CBL, who took the Carson up the Potomac River to Washington, where she was studying effluent water quality on behalf of the Washington's Blue Plains Wastewater Treatment Plant. There's Professor Hongsheng Bi, who used the vessel to tow a high-tech camera that captures detailed—pictures that will "blow you away," says Hulme—of jellyfish, ctenophores, chaetognaths and other microscopic, hard-to-pronounce things.

And there was the "tiny bubbles cruise," as Hulme calls it—Professor Laura Lapham's June methane-sniffing cruise, in partnership U.S. Geological Survey, measuring "greenhouse gas flux" in the upper, middle and lower Bay. 

I can go on, but I won't, because I've just heard the word "doors" crackle on the pilothouse intercom. Hulme repeats the word into his microphone and throttles down to a stop. "Doors" means that trawl is done; the net's trawl doors have surfaced and the DNR crew is ready to haul the gear aboard. Paul Piavis, who has been quietly hunched over the pilothouse table,  reviewing numbers and making notes, straightens up and head to the aft deck.

Time to count the fish, I think to myself, remembering the old Dunkin' Donuts commercial. The captain, reading my mind again, repeats his mantra: "It's not always exciting, but it is always important." 

For more information on the Rachel Carson and her activities, visit the UCMES website at www.umces.edu and click on "research fleet" under the Research & Discovery tab.  The boat also has her own Facebook page, with regular postings on the her own activities as well as those of other research vessels.

[4.13 issue]