FALL 2017

Duke Marine Lab to Get its Dream Ocean Research and Teaching Vessel

by Laura Ertel

Some lucky people get to design their “dream home.” Faculty at the Duke University Marine Laboratory are getting to design their “dream research vessel.”

Thanks to a $11 million gift from the Grainger Family Descendants Fund, the Marine Lab will have a state-of-the-art oceangoing research vessel, and when it hits the water in 2019, it will expand Duke’s marine science research and teaching capabilities significantly in fields such as marine ecology and conservation, biological oceanography and renewable ocean energy development.

The new, 65-foot catamaran will enable Marine Lab faculty and students to travel several hundred nautical miles offshore (from Beaufort, N.C., to the Bahamas, for instance) and to stay at sea for several days—something they have not been able to do since 2014, when the 50-foot R/V Susan Hudson was retired after decades of service.

The Marine Lab’s primary research vessel right now, the 30-foot R/V Richard Barber, is great for daylong research trips near the shore, but is not large enough to support overnight operations. As a result, Duke faculty members have been unable to regularly take students offshore or conduct deepwater oceanographic research on the lab’s own vessel for several years.

“This new vessel, which will be more than twice the size of our current boat, will give us the ability to conduct research further offshore and to stay out for days at a time. That will significantly expand our reach along the Atlantic seaboard where we can work safely and efficiently,” says Andy Read, the Marine Lab’s director and Stephen A. Toth Professor of Marine Biology.

“This is especially important for our teaching mission, because we’ll be able to expose our undergraduate and graduate students to a broader variety of marine environments than we currently can.”


Students who set sail on the new vessel will have a living and learning experience unlike any other at Duke. They will bunk along with teachers and crew in small, shared cabins, with enough space to sleep and store a few clothes, but not much else. After rolling out of their bunks, students can grab a bite and some coffee in the full galley kitchen, and then head out on deck for the day’s activities.

On most research vessels, work is conducted 24/7, so someone always is up. Life at sea revolves around food—and good coffee—and mealtimes mark the passage of time, provide opportunities for informal learning and forge memories and bonds that will last a lifetime.

Nicholas School professional environmental master’s and PhD students and Duke undergrads will have a variety of opportunities to study or conduct research on the ship. A new “Semester at Sea,” based at the Marine Lab’s Beaufort campus, will include an open ocean research voyage where undergraduates will hone their oceanographic research skills and learn about marine policy and marine biology.

Students in Oceanography, Biology of Marine Mammals, Marine Ecology, Bioacoustics and a variety of other classes will spend time on the vessel to gain field experience.


A well-maintained ship’s lifespan is about 30 years, so the Duke Marine Lab faculty is thinking carefully about current needs as well as how marine science research capabilities may evolve in the future.

They favor a catamaran design, with a main deck and bridge above, because of its speed and stability. The vessel likely will have propulsive jets rather than propellers, which will allow it to navigate some of North Carolina’s shallow inlets. Read and his colleagues have toured similar research vessels in Texas and California, and are working with a naval architect to custom-design Duke’s ship.

“We’re going through details large and small, thinking about living quarters, about scientific equipment we want to be able to deploy, what capabilities are we going to need. This is an oceangoing classroom, so we know we want sufficient living space to take a dozen students at a time out to sea for several days,” says Read, who can’t wait to take students in his Marine Mammals course out to observe the sperm whales that live 50 nautical miles off the North Carolina coast.

Zackary Johnson, the Arthur P. Kaupe Associate Professor of Molecular Biology in Marine Science, is planning a weeklong trip to the Bahamas with his Biological Oceanography class to study the dynamics of the Gulf Stream and the ecology of plankton in the North Atlantic.

“In addition to the sleeping quarters and galley, we’ll need wet and dry labs and oceanographic equipment. We know we want to fly Dave Johnston’s drones off the boat; launch remotely operated underwater vehicles for Cindy Van Dover’s deep-sea studies; and deploy Doug Nowacek’s oceanographic gliders, for example. So, this is all very exciting to plan and consider the possibilities,” Read says.

“The tricky part is to build in enough flexibility so that, in the future, we can take advantage of things that we can’t even imagine now. I mean, 20 years ago, if you told people you were going to fly drones off an oceanographic research vessel, they would’ve said you were crazy—and here we are!”

Once the ship’s specs are finalized, Duke will contract with a shipyard. The actual building process will take about a year. When complete, it will be the only research vessel of its size and capabilities in North Carolina and one of a small number in the Mid-Atlantic.

The boat will be available for charter by researchers from other academic institutions and organizations for research and teaching, providing a valuable resource to UNC Systems and other regional partners.

The gift from the Grainger Family Descendants provides $5 million to build the new vessel and an additional $6 million to create an endowment to support operating costs, including a full-time captain and mate/technician proficient at both sailing and marine research. There also will be a part-time mate for longer trips.

The operating endowment also will support science outreach programs for local K-12 teachers, students and community members, enabling the Marine Lab to take local groups and students out on day trips.

“We are extraordinarily thankful for this visionary gift because it allows us to fulfill the Duke Marine Lab’s potential as one of the world’s best research and teaching centers for marine science and conservation,” says Jeff Vincent, Stanback Dean of the Nicholas School.

“Having a world-class oceangoing research vessel is essential our ability to address the many issues that affect our marine ecosystems and the people who rely on them. This gift gives us the flexibility to design and operate exactly what we need. As a result, it will truly be our ‘dream boat.’”

Laura Ertel is a freelance writer living in Durham, NC, and is a longtime contributor to Dukenvironment magazine.