WOODS HOLE – It has taken scientists to the iceberg-laden waters off Newfoundland, where they located the wreckage of the RMS Titanic, and to the volcanic seafloor near the Galapagos Islands, where they discovered six-foot-long tube worms thriving in dark, frigid depths previously thought inhospitable to life.
The R/V Knorr has sailed nearly 1.4 million miles from the Arctic Circle to the Southern Ocean, and crossed the equator 43 times. Its crews have taken more samples from different oceans than any other research vessel in the United States.
On Wednesday, after 44 years of ferrying scientists to some of the 20th century’s greatest ocean discoveries, the Knorr pulled into port for the last time, a deeply emotional moment for the former crew and their loved ones, who came to witness the ship’s final berthing.
With drones hovering overhead and celebratory cannon fire from the dock, Captain Kent Sheasley demonstrated the dexterity of the old ship, maneuvering its propellers to turn the bow 180 degrees and serenading admirers on shore by blasting its fog-piercing horn.
“It’s the end of an era,” said Sheasley, who has steered the ship through 70-foot seas, hurricanes, and forbidding waters that would devour lesser vessels. “It’s hard to really, fully comprehend that this is it.”
For all the celebration of the final voyage of the Knorr, which was named for a cartographer who led the Navy’s first systematic effort to chart the world’s oceans, its retirement reflects a bittersweet reality: federal budget cuts and the government’s shifting priorities.
The retirement of the Knorr and its sister ship, the R/V Melville, based in San Diego, leaves the United States with only seven remaining “global class” ships for academic research — those designed to remain at sea for prolonged periods and to operate in nearly any climate.
In all, until the Knorr and Melville are replaced next year with smaller ships, the US academic community now has just 17 research vessels, down from a peak of 28 ships in 2001, according to the University National Oceanographic Laboratory System.
“We’re losing science,” said Susan Avery, president of Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, which has operated the Knorr as the flagship of its small fleet since 1970. “What we’re losing is the capacity to speed up our understanding and knowledge of a changing ocean. People don’t realize that our whole climate system depends on the ocean.”
Retired Navy Rear Admiral Richard Pittenger, who also served as vice president of marine operations at Woods Hole, said the Knorr is a “victim of federal agencies intent on downsizing the fleet.”
“We all have a lot of blood, sweat, and tears that have gone into keeping this ship running,” he said as he watched the Knorr sail in. “It’s a sad day.”
Next summer, Woods Hole is scheduled to receive the R/V Armstrong, a more energy-efficient vessel with more sophisticated technology. The ship will carry out many of the same research missions as the Knorr, but it can remain at sea only 40 days at a time – 20 days fewer than the Knorr – and has less space for equipment, scientists, and crew.
Woods Hole officials say they hope the improved technology on the Armstrong, including more robotic tools and better communications gear, will allow scientists to oversee research from afar and make up for the differences.
Old hands in Woods Hole said it would likely take years for the crew to learn how to operate the new ship properly and assess whether it measures up to the Knorr, which they have revered for its ability to remain steady through storms and allow experiments to proceed in the worst conditions.
Dutch Wegman, who served as an engineer on the Knorr for five years and spent many more looking after it in port, called the ship the “heart and soul” of the Woods Hole fleet.
He recalled the rank, poisonous gas emitted by clams pulled up from the deep near a volcanic ridge in the Pacific in 1977. The clams and other sea creatures were surviving as a result of hydrothermal vents rather than sunlight, as if they were aliens.
Others remembered how the Knorr was monitored closely through the Cold War by Soviet spy ships, and how it plied ice-encrusted waters near the Arctic Circle, even when it should have skirted the ice.
The Knorr made headlines around the world in 1985 when it found the Titanic’s final resting place in the North Atlantic. It was a chance discovery: the Knorr had been on a classified Navy mission to find a sunken nuclear submarine. About 400 miles south of Newfoundland, two and half miles below the surface, a submersible dispatched by the Knorr discovered baggage, cases of wine, and intact china on the ocean floor.
“There are so many memories,” Wegman said. “It’s like losing a best friend.”
Another loss will be the Knorr’s unique ability to plumb the seas for undisturbed sediment, which has allowed scientists to better understand climate change.
On the ship’s last voyage, which took the crew to seas east of the southern Antilles for more than a month, they used massive winches and thousands of feet of rope to drive special tubes deep into the seabed. They hope their so-called “long core” samples will yield insight into what ocean life and the climate was like tens of thousands of years ago.
“The future of this research is about as uncertain now as the future of the Knorr,” said Jim Broda, a senior research specialist aboard the ship who designed the long core system. “It would take millions of dollars to put this on another ship.”
No one knows what will become of the Knorr, but the 279-foot ship, which has been updated with the latest navigational equipment and new propulsion systems, is unlikely to be headed to the scrap heap. Some Woods Hole staff said the federal government could provide the Knorr, which is owned by the US Navy, as a gift to another country.
Standing on the bridge, Captain Sheasley pointed to accouterments of the Knorr unlikely to be found on its successor – fine wood railings sheathed in brass, dot matrix printers, and 1960s-era fire control and public announcement systems.
There’s also a trove of paper navigational charts; the Armstrong will only have only digital versions.
After Wednesday’s ceremony ended, and many of the crew of 55 disembarked to hug awaiting relatives, several signs they left on the deck flapped in the breeze.
One read: “For Sale.”
Another: “1,360,630 miles for science.”
And another: “So long old girl.”
Sheasley said he was reluctant to leave.
“I trust this boat,” he said. “We’re going to miss her.”