R/V Melville docked at the Broadway Pier in downtown San Diego.
R/V Melville is named after Henry Wallace Melville, a pioneer Arctic explorer and an innovative U.S. Navy engineer who served in the early 1900s.
Old ships, unlike old soldiers, don't just fade away, they're sold away, to foreign navies for more years of service, or to manufacturers for scrap. The fate of the research vessel Melville will likely be the same, but it had a long and fruitful life with Scripps Institution of Oceanography, which has retired the ship from its oceangoing fleet after 46 years of service.
What can you say about a boat that has traveled more than 1.5 million nautical miles and seen everything? Is there a gold watch that could fit around it?
Scripps decided to give R/V Melville a proper sendoff on Saturday at the Broadway Pier in downtown, to not only showcase its four decades of global ocean exploration by holding an open house for the public, but to give former crew members a chance to visit the vessel one more time.
“I’ve been on about 80 expeditions over a career of almost 50 years but the two cruises on the R/V Melville were both unique and inspiring experiences,” said Bob Embley, a marine geologist/geophysicist with NOAA.
The ship served the U.S. scientific community as a shared-use research vessel, which allowed access for scientists throughout the country. Melville was a jack-of-all-trades and master of them all – chemistry, physics, acoustics, geology, geophysics, atmospheric science, and biology.
The global class ship compiled 391 research cruises since 1970, crossed the equator more than 90 times, and averaged 284 operational days per year. Oh yeah, it was also cut in half in the1980s.
“We began planning for a midlife refit of Melville in the late ’80s,” said Bob Knox, physical oceanographer, and former head of Scripps Oceanography ship operations. “The propulsion system caused sound, which could interfere with sonar. It was decided the propulsion system had to be changed. But how?”
A naval architect proposed cutting the ship in half and lengthening it by 34 feet, which would allow space for a new propulsion system. Scripps agreed. The ship was brought to the naval shipyard where a huge crane lifted it out of the water and put it on blocks. Then they pulled it apart, and through a precise process, added the new propulsion system.
“It was an even better ship when it went back into service,” Knox said.
R/V Melville often spent years away from San Diego, often working in remote and extreme conditions. In 1987, during the Helios I expedition in the south-central Pacific to trace deep flowing currents along the seafloor and to collect geological specimens, including volcanic rock, the ship traveled over an erupting undersea volcano, the MacDonald Seamount, previously thought to be extinct.
“I was on the bridge and noticed that the water ahead looked like it was boiling,” said Eric Buck, Scripps Oceanography port captain and the former captain of Melville. “The ocean went from clear blue to looking like chocolate.”
Buck called chief scientist Dr. Harmon Craig to the bridge, and Craig decided they needed to take samples. “We didn’t know if it was safe to take the ship into there, but we cautiously maneuvered into the area and were able to take samples for 24 hours,” Buck said.
That night, the ship was hit by shock waves caused from collapsing steam bubbles generated from the volcanic eruption. “It sounded like someone was underneath the ship hitting the keel with a sledge hammer,” Buck said.
Traveling over this volcanic hot spot enabled researchers to learn more about how islands are created and how old they are. R/V Melville took many similar expeditions as part of Scripps’s century-long history to fully explore the oceans for the benefit of society and the environment. But now it’s time to say goodbye.
Scripps will remain as caretaker for Melville in San Diego while its owner (U.S. Navy) resolves the disposition of the ship. The Navy has offered the ship for foreign military sale and expects it to be sold later this year.
The last major vessel retired from Scripps was R/V Thomas Washington, which was transferred to Chile, where it served for many more years as an oceanographic research vessel renamed R/V Vidal Gormaz.
“I’ll always remember the remarkable research cruises I spent aboard Melville,” said Bruce Applegate, geologist, Scripps Oceanography associate director and head of ship operations. “It’s a terrific ship that had outstanding mariners and technicians.”
Length: 279 feet
Owner: U.S. Navy
Science Party: 38
Endurance: 60 days
-Named after Henry Wallace Melville, a pioneer Arctic explorer and an innovative U.S. Navy engineer who served in the early 1900s.
-The oldest vessel in the U.S. academic research fleet, R/V Melville has served as one of the most capable general-purpose, global-class ships in the world.