Marine scientists from across the state and beyond will gather Friday in Beaufort to say goodbye to a research ship that has called North Carolina home for all of its 31 years.
The R/V Cape Hatteras has allowed scientists to do ocean research from the Gulf of Maine to the Caribbean, and was used to track the movement of oil after the Deepwater Horizon spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010. Its retirement this month leaves the organization that operated the ship, the Duke/University of North Carolina Oceanographic Consortium, without an ocean-going vessel.
The recession has reduced funding for marine research, and the National Science Foundation, the R/V Cape Hatteras’ owner, chose to retire the ship as a cost-saving measure, said Dave DeMaster, a marine geochemist who teaches at N.C. State University and has worked on the Cape Hatteras.
“It’s very sad that we’re losing this ship,” DeMaster said. “It’s been something that North Carolina marine scientists identify with. It’s been a national symbol of our prominence.”
Marine scientists in the state hope the science foundation sees fit to replace the Cape Hatteras with another North Carolina-based ship someday. But they’re also hoping to obtain a new, smaller vessel to concentrate on research along the North Carolina coast.
At 135 feet long and requiring 12 feet of water to float, the Cape Hatteras was built for open-ocean research and is too big for the shallow waters of the North Carolina sounds. It’s also expensive, costing $12,000 to $15,000 a day to operate.
What scientists in the state want is a vessel about half as long, capable of working in the state’s inland waters and cheap enough to use for teaching as well as research. They say sea level rise and the potential for oil and gas drilling and off-shore wind turbines, coupled with the state’s tourism and fishing industries, make the capability of doing good marine science more important than ever.
Cheaper to operate
Such a ship probably would cost about $3 million to buy and about $3,000 a day to operate, said John Morrison, a physical oceanographer at UNC-Wilmington.
“Because of the educational needs that are growing in the university system, we think we can keep a vessel busy with our work within the state of North Carolina,” Morrison said.
Where the money to buy the ship would come from isn’t clear yet. But the logical home for it would be DUNCOC, the five-school consortium that includes the Triangle’s big three universities.
DUNCOC was created for the R/V Cape Hatteras, which was christened in fall 1981 at Duke’s marine laboratory in Beaufort. It replaced Duke’s 117-foot Eastward, which was known for discovering the remains of the Civil War ironclad Monitor off North Carolina.
The best-known work by the Cape Hatteras was in the Gulf, looking for oil after the explosion and sinking of the Deepwater Horizon rig in 2010, said Richard Barber, long-time director of DUNCOC. Most of its work has been less glamorous. In January, a researcher from East Carolina University used the ship to tag 800 striped bass, an important game fish, to learn more about their movements, Barber said.
Interest from all over
The R/V Cape Hatteras isn’t headed for the scrap yard.
John Nelson of Nelson Yacht Sales of Beaufort said he’s been surprised by the response he’s received about the ship since it was put on the market about the first of the year, for $1.25 million.
“Within a week, I think, we had half a dozen to 10 inquiries, literally from all over the world,” Nelson said. “Brazil, Singapore, China, Nova Scotia, the U.K.”
Nelson usually sells cruising sailboats and wasn’t sure what to think when he took on the Cape Hatteras. He’s come to believe that the ship’s condition, after 31 years with one meticulous owner, makes it attractive.
“The boat is spotless,” he said. “Everywhere you go, down into the engine room, all the mechanicals, it’s absolutely spotless, and that is what’s hard to find.”
The proceeds from the sale will come to Duke University, but the National Science Foundation has final approval over how that money will be spent, Barber said. It will have to be on something in keeping with the foundation’s basic mission, he said, but the foundation has already made it clear that it can’t be used to buy or build another research vessel.