Why Navigating the R/V Marion Dufresne is a Challenge

Earth Observatory Blog

Why Navigating the R/V Marion Dufresne is a Challenge

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Stepping onto the bridge of the R/V Marion Dufresne is an intimidating experience, or at least it was for me. I had been there once before with a friend, climbing the stairs to “H” deck before making a quick jog into a small hallway that leads to several more steps and a door that bears the following sign: “RESTRICTED AREA”.

The last time I was here, my guide had nonchalantly ignored this warning, unconcerned that doing so might “constitute a breach of the ship’s security arrangement” or that he might be “reported to the port state authority” for his transgression, as the words below the warning promised he would. But this time, I was on my own, at 4:45 in the morning, no less.

From the bridge of the Marion Dufresne, the navigation officer and helmsman have an unobstructed view of the seas ahead

For a moment, I wondered if perhaps I had lost my way and was about to open the wrong door and get myself into some deeply serious trouble. It didn’t help when I pulled the door’s handle and the light in the hallway immediately went from hospital white to darkroom red. I hesitated, but forged on. And there before me was, well, nothing, just darkness. But the room was obviously not empty. Off in the distance, I could hear the unmistakable sound of Keith Richards’ jangly guitar belting out the chords to a Rolling Stones song, and then I noticed faint glow of coloured lights.

“Hello?” I called out tentatively. “Bonjour?”

“Bonjour” came the faint reply, and as I moved closer to the soft, Romanian-accented voice, I noticed the outlines of two men—one standing at a podium, the other illuminated by those coloured lights. 

It was Navigation Officer Paul Baschir at the lights and Helmsman Ionel Marcu at the wheel, rockin’ to the sounds of Radio Romanian on the 4am shift. I can’t remember the last time I was so happy to see two perfect strangers.

During a turn, Navigation Officer Mr Paul Bashir (above) will call out headings to Helmsman Mr Ionel Marcu

Mr Baschir and Mr Marcu, along with two other pairs of navigation officers and helmsmen who work the rotating 4-hour shifts on the bridge, are essential to the mission of the MIRAGE. After all, our course is mostly north to south and south to north as we map this largely unknown patch of Indian Ocean seafloor. Mr Baschir’s and Mr Marcu’s mission is to steer the Marion Dufresne in as straight a line as possible, to “mow the lawn,” as one scientist put it to me, so that the mapping is as effective as possible.

Naturally, I wanted to be on the bridge when the ship made its turns north or south. Before taking this trip, I had imagined these turns might be treated as mini-events, perhaps marked by a small ceremony involving the raising of flags or the ringing of bells. Surely that would be something to see, right?

In fact, making the turn is all in a day’s work for Mr Baschir and Mr Marcu, who like many of the officers on the French-flagged Marion Dufresne are Romanian and have years of experience steering enormous container ships through places like the nearby Strait of Malacca between Malaysia and Sumatra. “The traffic is so dense there,” Mr Baschir said, “you must be very careful. Container ships are not that easy to control. The key to navigating them is anticipation.”

Helmsman, Mr Ionel Marcu, at the wheel of the Marion Dufresne

Making a few turns to starboard or port every 20 hours or so is nothing compared to that. But according to Mr Baschir, navigating the Marion Dufresne still poses a challenge. “Like all ships,” Mr Baschir said, “it will drift, that’s its nature. Everything depends on the wind, the current, the tides. You might have 20 degrees of drift to contend with, so it will look like you are heading straight ahead but the ship is really going off to one side.”

Staying on the lines plotted by the MIRAGE scientists is actually quite important since the multi-beam echosounder producing the expedition’s bathymetry is set to overlap about a kilometre of seafloor with each pass — too much overlap produces lots of noisy data; not enough could leave gaps. As for the turns, the ship’s navigators have been asked to complete each line without cutting any corners, which means they must overshoot the end of one line in order to make a wide enough turn to allow them to hit the next line head on.

“This ship has more maneuverability than a container ship,” Mr Baschir concluded, “but you need to be more precise.”

To continue to follow the progress of MIRAGE, please check the EOS blog throughout the month of July, and spread the word using #MIRAGEcruise.

All photographs are taken by Ben Marks, unless otherwise stated.