Thursday, 6 June 2013

4 - Interview with the Captain

Captain John Leask, how long have you been working on ships, for how long as a captain and for how many years have you been captain of the RRS James Cook?

I first started as an Officer in September 1987. Since then I have been working on different types of ships. In August 2010 I became Captain on the old RRS Discovery  and since September 2011 on-board the RRS James Cook.

What do you like most about “your” ship?

The RRS James Cook  is a new and capable ship (built in 2006). The size and design of the ship allows her to be a very stable working platform. This is of great advantage not only to the scientists, but it also makes the work for the crew much easier and safer. The RRS James Cook  is a twin screw ship equipped with bow and stern tunnel thrusters which make her very manoeuvrable, and allows her to support very different scientific tasks. Another advantage is that she was built as a very spacious ship. In comparison with other ships the labs are big and well arranged, the hallways are fairly wide and the single cabins are comfortable.

What is the greatest challenge on a research vessel (in comparison to other types of ship)?

On a research vessel the main challenge is the diversity of different tasks and regions that we work in. On a container ship, fishing boat or a drilling vessel the function of the ship is very well defined. On a research vessel the scientific goal changes every few weeks and so do the tasks that go along with it. Also, we are at home from the ice shelf to the Caribbean depending on the expedition. This diversity is nice, but also requires different approaches in terms of how to deal with the equipment.

In what way do you follow the science on board? Do you have special scientific interests that you follow when possible?

Different types of cruises can be interesting in different ways. On more biologically orientated cruises fauna and flora can be observed directly. But often scientific findings are not available until sometime after the cruise. From a navigator’s point of view, physical cruises are interesting, because they provide more information about physical features like water currents and waves. I particularly like cruises where ROVs (Remotely Operated Vehicles) are deployed. Being equipped with cameras they allow for direct in-situ observation of the underwater environment.

What type of cruise do you find most challenging (e.g. physically, biogeochemical or benthic) and why do you find the respective types of work more challenging, from a captains perspective?

Every cruise is different and therefore poses different challenges. In general, the more multidisciplinary the cruise is the more management is required to satisfy all demands. This can be very challenging.

The deployment of larger equipment (e.g. ROV) can be quite challenging. The larger the equipment the more caution has to be taken to avoid collisions with the ship’s hull. Underwater currents can make it hard to steer ROV’s. So care must be taken to not get them too close to the ships propeller. Setting out or retrieving mooring requires a lot of skill for similar reasons. Here you have to be particularly careful to avoid interference with the thrusters. On the RRS James Cook  that has never happened, but there are reported incidences where moorings got sucked into the propellers. This is of cause a very serious issue, since it not only destroys the mooring but also, more importantly, can damage the propeller.

How do you oversee such a diverse and ever changing group of people confined on a ship like this?

Most of the people that work on research vessels have being going to sea for many years and therefore know how things are done. The crew normally work out little issues by themselves. To be overly controlling is not helpful in these situations. But of course, if required I will step in and make sure that people respect the rules and each other. As a captain you have to have authority. But it is similarly important that you can rely on senior staff and scientists. It is important to keep people busy and to take an interest in the people on-board and what is happening during the cruises. This can avoid a lot of unpleasant situations. But most importantly you have to be honest!

Do you have a lot of free time on-board? How do you like to spend you free time on-board?

Yes and no. I am on call all of the time (24 hours a day, seven days a week) and as Captain I have the overall responsibility for the ship and the crew. Every day at 08:30 there is a morning meeting with the PI (principal investigator/chief scientist) and the chiefs of the other departments (e.g. chief engineer) on-board, where we discuss previous work days and the tasks of the day. The rest of the morning I normally spend doing paper work. I also have a bit of an educator role for the younger officers. In my free time I enjoy watching DVDs and going to the ship's gym. But most of the time I spend reading.

Thank you very much Captain John Leask for the interview! 

Find out more about the RRS James Cook  on our Ship page.

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