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A Trip to Remember!

Posted 11/21/2011

Click on photo to enlarge and launch slide show. The 46-foot disabled sailing vessel Elle is sited (Photo by Chris Melrose, NEFSC/NOAA)

Chris Melrose’s third trip as a rider aboard the M/V Oleander is one he won’t soon forget.  After departing November 4 to begin its weekly round-trip New York (via Port Newark-Elizabeth Marine Terminal) to Bermuda run, the 389-foot commercial cargo ship had to divert its course due to poor weather.  That meant Melrose, an oceanographer at the NEFSC’s Narragansett Laboratory who was aboard to collect data, such as sea surface temperature and salinity, surface currents, zooplankton and phytoplankton along a track line between New Jersey and Hamilton, Bermuda, had to delay much of his sampling until the return trip because the vessel had diverted outside of the study area.

Although the Oleander managed to skirt the brunt of the storm, gale force winds and high seas had taken a toll on much smaller vessels participating in the Newport to Bermuda leg of the 12th annual North American Rally to the Caribbean (NARC).  Unaware of the rally and wondering when the vessel would arrive in Hamilton, Melrose went up to the Oleander’s bridge on Sunday morning, November 6, and was told by the Captain that they had diverted  their course again to rescue a disabled vessel.

The 46-foot sailboat Elle and its crew of four had lost steering about 200 miles northwest of Bermuda and issued a distress call. The sailboat, a participant in the NARC rally, also had problems with a loose mast, had little fuel left and an injured crew member, who appeared to have bruised or cracked ribs. 

Instead of collecting routine oceanographic data on the outbound trip to Hamilton, Melrose documented the rescue operations (see slide show) for the Elle crew. Over several hours and in high wind and sea conditions, Melrose says the Oleander’s captain and crew did a superb job of maneuvering the cargo ship into position and shielding the Elle from the wind and seas as much as possible while they brought each crew member aboard.  He put the sailboat off to the starboard side of the ship and carefully went about getting everyone safely aboard.  The sailboat was abandoned at sea after the rescue. 

“It was amazing, and a bit nerve-wracking to watch,” Melrose recalled.  “Luckily the water was warm since we were in the Sargasso Sea.  One crew member fell in during the rescue operation and was in the water for a bit with a line secured to him while the captain got everyone else off.   He could have easily been caught between the Oleander and the Elle when he fell in the water but was quickly pulled out of the dangerous area between the two vessels thanks to the quick action of his shipmates and the Oleander’s crew.  The sailboat’s mast was hitting the Oleander as it bounced up and down, and hit the emergency smoke signal on the top of the bridge at one point, which filled the bridge with orange smoke until the signal device was cut free.

Melrose says the Elle crew was rescued Sunday afternoon, and the Oleander arrived in Hamilton the next morning, November 7, about 8 a.m.  The sailboat crew was met at the dock by officials from Bermuda Container Lines, which operates the Oleander, and offered cab rides wherever they needed to go, along with other support.

“Bermuda Container Lines was fantastic in the way they helped those sailors,” Melrose said of the experience. “They made sure everyone was taken care of once they got to Hamilton.  By Tuesday we were heading back to Port Elizabeth, with more favorable weather , so I was able to work on the return trip, conducting XBT (expendable bathythermograph) drops, towing the continuous plankton recorder, and maintaining other equipment on the ship.”

Melrose and the Oleander arrived in Port Elizabeth on November 10, completing another “routine” run.

Background :
M/V Oleander, a 389-foot roll-on/roll-off cargo and container ship operated by Bermuda Container Lines, operates regular weekly service between New York (Port Newark-Elizabeth Marine Terminal, New Jersey) and Hamilton, Bermuda.  As a participant in NOAA’S Ship of Opportunity Program, the Oleander and its predecessors have had a long association with the NEFSC, and particularly with the Narragansett Laboratory and the Oceanography Branch, dating back to 1981.  Once a month, staff and volunteers ride the ship to collect a variety of oceanographic data along established track lines and maintain equipment, some of it on behalf of NOAA’s Atlantic Oceanographic and Meteorological Laboratory in Miami. The decades-long time series includes XBT casts, continuous plankton recorder tows and more recently thermosalinograph (TSG) measurements.  Bermuda Container Lines and the M/V Oleander’s contributions were recognized in 2010 with a NOAA Environmental Hero Award (see links below).

Other partners in the Ship of Opportunity project include the University of Rhode Island, and Stony Brook State University of New York.

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