Barney Peterson: Who Works on NOAA Ship OREGON II? Part 3

NOAA Teacher a Sea

Barney Peterson

Aboard NOAA Ship Oregon II

August 13 – 28, 2016

Mission: Long Line Survey

Geographic Area: Gulf of Mexico

Date: Sunday, August 28, 2016

Weather Data is not available for this post because I am writing from the Biloxi/Gulfport Airport.


Tim Martin, Chief Boatswain, aboard the OREGON II, left his home near the Missouri River in Missouri for a life at sea and has never looked back.  Like many young people from the Central United States, he joined the Navy as a way to travel and see the rest of the world.  He was stationed on Whidbey Island in Washington State and when he left the Navy he became a commercial fisherman working out of Seattle to fish the in Bering Sea from Dutch Harbor, Alaska.

Tim left the west coast and the world of commercial fishing to join NOAA and worked for several years on ships out of NOAA Woods Hole Station in Massachusetts.   Eventually, through connections he made on the job, he was able to transfer to the Southeastern Fisheries group.  He has worked on several ships, but has been on the OREGON II for 12 years.  Tim likes his job for the variety and activity it provides, as well as opportunities to apply his mind to ways to make things work better or more smoothly.  He attributes much of the good working atmosphere on the ship to the stability of many crew members who have worked together for years.   As a long-time civilian mariner with NOAA he appreciates the importance of believing in what you are doing and being committed to being successful.

But, Tim Martin is not so one dimensional that you can know him as just a mariner.  Talking with him I learned that he is a voracious reader with very eclectic tastes in literature.  He devours everything from travel accounts to true adventure, biographies, and historical accounts of exploration and settlement of the world.  He has traveled broadly and uses his reading time to continue to learn about the places he has visited.  He is a licensed diver and enjoys the underwater world as much as sailing on the surface of the sea.   I was fascinated to learn that he has dived to authentic pirate wrecks…quite a change from his underwater beginnings in the dark and brackish Pascagoula River.  Tim is a great example of someone who recognizes that his only limits are the ones he sets for himself.  That is a great legacy to leave for his family.

Chris Nichols, Lead Fisherman, got into marine work for the adventures.  Growing up he read classics like “Captains Courageous” and “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.” His years as a Boy Scout helped empower him with a can-do attitude that kept him from quitting when things got difficult.  After a mediocre high school career and his childhood years in West Palm Beach, Florida, hanging around the docks and fishing, his quest for travel and adventure led him first to commercial fishing and then to join the Navy.

After six years in the service, including training in water rescue, Chris left the Navy and started classes for work in the merchant marine industry.  As he worked toward earning his 100 ton master rating he discovered that using math, which had seemed unimportant and boring in high school, was critical for navigation.  Applying the things he was studying to real world problems made learning important.  The life-style structure of his military years helped him move fairly seamlessly into the shift work that became his routine aboard merchant ships.  The travel fed his sense of exploration and adventure.

Now, after 20 years working either on NOAA ships or for companies that contracted with NOAA, Chris still loves his job and his life style.  His experience in the merchant marine gave him the background to understand working on ships from the viewpoint of the wheel house and the deck.  He patiently explained to me that the job titles of people working on the deck crew are just positions for which eligible Able Bodied Seamen were hired.  They are not classification by skill or experience; they are job descriptions.  Each survey watch requires 3 crew members on deck to work equipment and support the scientists in deployment and retrieval of lines. Cooperation and communication are the most critical skills needed by everyone on the ship for success in carrying out their mission.

“NOAA has recently been experiencing a lack of interested, qualified applicants,” Chris told me.  “I think many young people lack the sense of adventure that makes life at sea attractive.”  He certainly demonstrates that desire for adventure: his eyes light up and an infectious grin spreads across his face as he talks about the places he’s been and the places he still wants to go.

The whole deck crew, including Chris Rawley, Mike Conway, Chuck Godwin, and James Rhue, are a lively, hard-working bunch.  They do their jobs, they have some fun doing them sometimes, and they like what they are doing.  Every time I was around them I could hear John Fogarty’s song “Rambunctious Boy” playing in my head and I ended up smiling and humming along!


The Deck Crew – Chris Nichols, Mike Conway, Tim Martin, James Rhue, and Chris Rawley


Thirty-six years ago Rich Brooks took the advice of his high school math and history teachers and enrolled at the Massachusetts Maritime Academy.  The strict structure of the Academy helped him develop his study habits and learn the discipline needed to raise from a low C student a B+ student who took pride in his work.  He graduated with a degree in Marine Engineering, but spent time as a substitute teacher while deciding where he wanted to go with his career.  Currently he holds 3 chief engineer licenses: steam, motor and gasoline and is qualified to operate any watercraft.


Richard Brooks

Eventually he started working on ships, spending a number of years in the Merchant Marine.   He worked on merchant transport ships contracted to our government to support Operation Desert Storm and Operation Iraqi Freedom in the Persian Gulf. For 10 years he worked on independent oil tankers on the West Coast, transporting oil and gasoline to and from various ports. He has been a 1st Engineer for NOAA for 2 years.

Rich enjoys the travel and adventure that are part of his career.  He likes visiting different cities and has been through both the Suez and Panama Canals in his travels.  It has been a long journey around the world from his childhood home in Haverhill, Massachusetts to Mobile, Alabama where he made his home base for the last 25 years.  He is proud that his work as an engineer has influenced his son to pursue a career in engineering, following his father’s example of hard work and sacrifice as the way to get ahead in life. Rich hopes to see more young people turn to careers in engineering, knowing as he does that the average age of marine engineers in this country is 58 years which means there will be openings for young people as they complete their training.  As for him, when he retires several years in the future he looks forward to moving closer to his father in Florida, going fishing and playing golf.



My roommate, Chrissy Stepongzi, is a marine biologist and the person of whom I saw the least on this cruise.  She knows her job and was always eager to answer questions.  We just did not see each other often to talk because of being on opposite shifts and sharing the room.  She slept while I worked and visa-versa.  I appreciated her quick smile and well-developed sense of humor and wish we had been able to get better acquainted.


The Night Crew before a shift change – Trey, Chrissy, Lydia, and Toni

Fisherman Mike Conway has been working on ships for a long time.  He loves the ocean and loves the travel.  His willingness to make sure I learned and got opportunity to see things was really helpful and made me feel welcome.  Mike was always willing to grab my iPad and take pictures so I could be in them and he was the one that made sure I got to see the sky at night and appreciate the beauty of being on the ocean in one more way.

Fisherman Chris Rawley, quick to grin, but slow to talk, took some effort to get to know.  Chris was a fisherman on our shift and helped with everything from running the crane to pulling lines to wrestling sharks.  He was “born under a wandering star,” and loves to travel.  He’s a gypsy at heart.

James Rhue is another fisherman working on the deck crew.  He too was with the night shift so we didn’t cross paths often.  When we did talk he could always answer my questions and made me feel welcome.

Mike, Chris, and James are pictured in the Deck Crew photo above.

Mary Stratford was filling in on the deck crew this cruise.  She lives in Puerto Rico where she is a ceramic artist, but much of her life has been spent working in jobs that allow her to see the world.  Mary was helpful and friendly and always interesting to talk to.

2nd Engineer Darnell Doe, the quiet, friendly guy I ate breakfast with most mornings.  We shared a little conversation and watch the news over a quick bite to eat and a cup of coffee.  I never turned out into a formal interview and didn’t take notes on our casual conversations.


2nd Engineer Darnell Doe

3rd Engineer Sam Bessey was filling in a temporary vacancy.  He is a recent graduate of an academy in Maine and worked the opposite shift of mine so we had a few chances to talk a little, but not enough to call an interview.  I do know he wants to head for Hawaii and try to find work there after this cruise, but will head home to Maine to see family first.  Good luck in your new career Sam.

Roy Tolliver was our tech person.  I most often saw him walking from place to place on the decks, checking on electronic equipment and trying to troubleshoot computer problems when they arose.  Roy has worked on ships for many years and has been many places around the world.


Roy Tolliver and Sam Bessey on the flying bridge as we moved into the harbor at Gulfport

O C Hill, Listed on the staff roster as a “wiper” was another one of the people who kept the ship running.  Our interactions were limited to friendly smiles and greetings.  When folks work in the engine room it is hard to find a time to talk with them, especially if shifts don’t match.


Otha (O.C.) Hill

Valerie McCaskill, our cook and one of the most important people on the ship.  I know she has a daughter she was eager to get home to see.  I know she had very little warning that the previous cook would not be on this voyage so she had to step in in a hurry.  I know that she has a beautiful smile and makes legendary macaroni and cheese!  She kept us very happy!

Chuck Godwin would normally be working on this ship as a skilled fisherman on the deck crew, but he worked in the kitchen with Valerie this trip to fill an important empty spot and keep us all well-fed.  His irrepressible sense of fun and lively conversation kept us all hopping.  His career has spanned time in the Coast Guard as well as years with NOAA.  His is a proud new grandpa.


Valerie McCaskill and Chuck Godwin in the galley of NOAA Ship OREGON II

That I did not get to know everyone on the ship is my loss.  Everyone that I met was friendly and helpful.  It was a true pleasure to meet and work with these great people.

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