By Eric Gallimore, Doctoral Candidate, Scripps Institution of Oceanography
July 24, 2018
One of the disadvantages of working at sea is that returning broken stuff to the manufacturer for service isn’t really an option. Home Depot isn’t a drive away, and you usually have lousy or totally nonexistent Internet access. Furthermore, you can’t allow an equipment failure to derail the expedition. So, if something breaks, you need to fix it yourself with whatever you have.
You try to be prepared. For this expedition, we packed spares for everything that we thought might break. Of course, everything might break. So, the spares kit is pretty big, but it can’t contain everything that we might need.
We also pack enough tools and test equipment to (hopefully) figure out what is broken and then make the repairs. We have everything from wrenches to electronic test equipment, like a spectrum analyzer and oscilloscope.
Even with all this preparation, we still end up improvising...a lot. We’ve stolen less-necessary parts from one piece of equipment to fix another. A lot of things that would be replaced in an ideal world are patched up and sent out. We sometimes joke that oceanography runs on electrical tape, which is surprisingly versatile stuff (we packed at least 40 rolls).
Since you can’t rely on the Internet, we also travel with a few hundred gigabytes of software, including complete copies of software repositories we use often. We also try to save copies of all the manuals and documentation that we might need. Even that isn’t everything. Yesterday, someone sent us a new firmware update for one of our sonars, and we were literally cheering for a download to finish using the satellite Internet connection.
With this much gear, something is usually broken. As I was writing this, I asked the room if we've had to open a pressure housing to repair anything today (pressure housings are the waterproof instrument cases that go in the ocean). The answer was yes and it turns out that I was the person who opened it, but I had already forgotten.
This isn’t to say that the gear is unreliable. We’re a research and development lab, so by definition, some of the equipment we’re using is bleeding-edge and is going to do weird stuff when we use it in new ways. We’re also operating in some hairy conditions, and we accept that some of the gear is going to get dinged up on rocks or caught in kelp while we get the data we need.
It might sound like a bad time, but it really isn’t. We have a lot of engineers on this cruise, and we like to fix stuff. It’s fun to try to solve a problem without asking Google and using only the tools, spare parts, and electrical tape you have at hand. It also gives us a reason to take gadgets apart, which is a not-so-secret obsession for most engineers.
As of right now, all of our equipment is currently operational (knock on wood). I’m not going to say in a mission log how many “warranty void if removed” stickers were removed to make that happen, but it was worth it.