There’s a saying among oceanographers that the bigger your ship, the better your research.
The Annapolis-based Ocean Research Project would like to prove that adage wrong. Saturday at City Dock, the nonprofit commissioned its newest research vessel, the R/V Marie Tharp, a 72-foot, steel-hulled sailboat named for a 20th century marine cartographer who received little credit for her work mapping the ocean floor and developing the theory of continental drift.
Because of arcane rules forbidding women onboard ships, Tharp did much of her groundbreaking work on land while her research partners took credit. Her namesake, by contrast, will sail around the world.
The Marie Tharp departs later this month for Paamuit, Greenland, an Inuit village of 1,800 that will serve as home base while a team and crew of about 10 spends the summer conducting experiments and tracking glacial melt on the southern tip of the world’s largest island. Captain Matthew Rutherford and chief scientist Nicole Trenholm will guide their agile sailboat up fjords that larger research vessels cannot navigate. And more importantly, they’ll conduct studies with minimal negative impact on the environment.
“We are trying to change the paradigm,” Trenholm said. “We can have a low carbon footprint while we continue to push ocean discovery.”
Rutherford cited the internet-infamous, $300 million British research vessel that 124,000 people voted to name “Boaty McBoatface” as a good example of a goodwill gas-guzzler. (When the Duchess of Cambridge crashed a Champagne bottle against the hull to christen the boat in 2019, it was instead named after explorer David Attenborough.) Powering the 400-foot research vessel through Arctic and Antarctic waters must be “unbelievably expensive,” Rutherford said, perhaps burning more than $100,000 in diesel fuel each day.
“They can do some killer research on that vessel, don’t get me wrong,” Rutherford said. “But for the same price, you probably could have built 100 sailboats like this.”
Rutherford, Trenholm and a handful of volunteers spent to pandemic prepping the Marie Tharp for cold-water voyages. Built in 2000 by Chesapeake Bay craftsman Howdy Bailey, the boat was originally owned by a Delaware engineer who planned on sailing north as a retirement hobby. But his health declined and the boat sat deteriorating on the Chesapeake & Delaware Canal for 15 years before it was donated to Ocean Research Project and brought to Herrington Harbour for a major refit.
“We kind of built half the boat,” Rutherford said of his two-year project at the Tracys Landing marina.
A Dutch-made, curved steel haul makes the Marie Tharp much more storm-worthy than the average schooner. “You could waltz on this,” Trenholm says of the wide, stable deck where she’ll be conducting experiments.
Below deck there’s a captain’s cabin, sleeping quarters for a crew of four, and a separate berth for Trenholm and a fellow scientist from the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science, where she is a Ph.D. candidate. There’s also a mini-laboratory where they’ll examine plankton under microscopes and store samples in a freezer set to -80 F.
Human creature comforts include a sauna in the shower room, a bread maker and $1,000 worth of coffee donated to Ocean Research Project, a supply Rutherford called “crucial.”
“Every four hours you change watch, so every eight hours you’re making another pot of coffee,” he said.
Rutherford is no stranger to polar sailing. In 2011, he left Annapolis and became the first person to complete a nonstop, solo voyage around North and South America. In the past decade, however, he has changed his aim from making the Guinness Book of World Records to solving global climate change.
In 2012, Rutherford founded Ocean Research Project. Trenholm joined the effort shortly after. Their first research expedition was to map and collect samples of micro plastics from a North Atlantic garbage patch aboard the R/V Ault, a steel schooner, in 2013.
This summer’s trip, Rutherford and Trenholm hope, is the first mission of a 10-year project they call GO-MARIE: Glacier-Ocean Mapping and Research Interdisciplinary Effort.
Climate hawks often point to melting glaciers as the canary in a coal mine sign of global warming. But it is one thing to warn of melting glaciers and another to measure those changes in real time and study how ice melt is changing ocean habitats. Greenland is warming more rapidly than the rest of planet, and its 27,000 miles of coastline are not just an ideal laboratory; the waters remain important for commercial fishing of char, cod and halibut. Plus they are home to narwhals, seals, polar bears and other threatened arctic wildlife.
(If they see any polar bears, the plan is to sail the other way, Trenholm said. She and Rutherford have completed professional polar bear training with a zoologist from Alaska.)
The Evening Sun
The Marie Tharp is equipped with sophisticated mapping technology. As the boat sails up fjords, Trenholm uploads data to the Danish Hydrographic Office, as well as a global crowdsourced grid. Greenland has been a Danish territory since 1814, so she often confers with local and national government officials before targeting which coastlines to map.
“We don’t want to map the same fjord twice, when there’s 80 percent of the world still to map,” she said.
Other experiments include taking synchronized water samples while research satellites fly high overhead of the Marie Tharp. If Trenholm can identify an algae bloom or plankton cloud, it will be easier to spot those phenomena from satellites in the future.
“There are many gaps in climate models related to missing seabed data,” Trenholm said. “There is so much pressure right now to gather environmental and ocean information to understand the warming going on. But there’s not enough money, boats and expertise.”
Local and national boating industries have been supportive of the Ocean Research Project, Rutherford said, but they are still seeking financial support for this summer’s mission, especially given the rising costs of fuel and food in remote places like Paamuit. The crew plans to return to port in Annapolis in time for the annual Chesapeake Bay Schooner race, winter in Herrington, and sail back to Greenland in 2023.
“Sailboats have been largely relegated to pleasure craft,” Rutherford said. “We’re trying to show the sailboats actually have a place in the professional world as cost-effective, environmentally friendly data collection platforms. And ultimately, the long-term goal will be to try to create a fleet of research-ready sailboats that can operate all over the world at a fraction of the cost and the environmental impact.”
This weekend’s commissioning, Rutherford said, “is one step in the right direction.”