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The Improbable Voyage of Al Woodcock

The Improbable Voyage of Al Woodcock

Through keen observation, a high school dropout became a highly respected scientist


Al Woodcock, perhaps the last man to sail on the maiden voyage of WHOI’s first research vessel Atlantis in 1931, died Feb. 26. He was 99.

Woodcock was “a farm boy from Georgia, a high school dropout, an immigrant to Lawrence, Mass., where he worked in the mills and then to Hudson, Mass., where he worked on an apple farm and where, improbably, through the friendship of his boss, he developed a fondness for sailing, and so found himself one day stopping in Woods Hole to get a haircut,” said WHOI Senior Scientist Joe Pedlosky (who married Woodcock’s stepdaughter).

While waiting for the haircut, Woodcock asked about the large brick building under construction across the street on the waterfront and was told it would be an oceanographic institution that needed a crew to go to Copenhagen to bring the lab’s new research vessel back to Woods Hole. Woodcock tracked down Columbus Iselin, who was to be the captain of the vessel, and asked for a job.

Years later, Iselin said of Woodcock: “I liked him at once, and signed him on as an ordinary seaman at $45 a month, feeling that he would be a steadying influence among what looked like a rather turbulent crew. …From the outset it was obvious that Woodcock was much more than a young sailor.”

Always on deck

From 1931 to 1940, Woodcock was a laboratory and ship’s technician aboard Atlantis. In her 1978 book On Almost Any Wind, author Susan Schlee recalled: “Under either condition, mild or miserable, Woodcock appeared in the deck lab for every station. In the highly unusual role of single scientist, he felt himself responsible for all data gathered. As if his scientific responsibilities were not enough, he chose to spend hours standing watch. Huddled in the bow or clinging halfway up the mast, he watched all that moved through sea and air.”

“While most sailors, in Al’s words, were eager to get from port to port,” Pedlosky said. “Al spent a good deal of time observing his surroundings. As Sherlock Holmes would say, some people look, but only some really see. Al was the keenest observer of the natural world I have ever known. By 1942, the farm boy was on the scientific staff at Woods Hole.”

During the 1940s, Woodcock published seminal papers on “Observations of Herring Gull Soaring,” “The Swimming of Dolphins,” and “Sea Salt in a Tropical Storm.” He was the first to observe Langmuir cells and circulation at sea, which helped him explain why the Portuguese Man-of-War sailed to the left of the wind in the Northern Hemisphere and to the right in the Southern Hemisphere by the Coriolis effect.

A scientific rainmaker

Starting in 1949, he published a series of seven pioneering papers on sea-salt particles and their role in the formation of fog and rain. He even chased hurricanes to collect particles.

In an airplane trip over Hawaii in the 1950s with colleague Duncan Blanchard, he is reported to have remarked to a flight attendant that “If God does make it rain, we want to know exactly how He does it.” In 1963, he joined the faculty of the University of Hawaii, a scientifically strategic locale to study rainfall processes.

In the same year, Long Island University awarded him an honorary degree. Its citation reads in part: “Here is a scientist daily unraveling the mysteries of that which is most around us—ocean and atmosphere. His research has gained the profound respect of the nation’s foremost scientists. Here is a disciplined, inquiring mind, nurtured not by formalized higher education but rather by that intellectual curiosity, which is the mother of invention, and that persistency, which is the father of lasting works.”