Skip to content
For WHOI personnel, vendors, and visitors: COVID-19 Guidelines

Major Gift Moves New Regional Coastal Research Vessel Close to Reality

May 15, 2000

Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution’s planned coastal research vessel is much closer to reality with the announcement of a $5 million gift from long-time friend, Trustee and supporter Gratia Rinehart “Topsy” Montgomery of South Dartmouth, MA. Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) Director Robert B. Gagosian said the funds will enable the Institution to proceed with plans to build a 105-foot SWATH research vessel that will serve scientists and students at research laboratories, colleges and universities throughout New England.

“We are extremely pleased with Topsy Montgomery’s support of this project, and very grateful for her long-term commitment to students and to coastal research in general,” Dr. Gagosian said of the gift. “She is a visionary whose love of the New England coast will be shared with countless students and scientists for decades to come. Her contributions to this Institution are allowing us to advance coastal oceanography in a major way. Several years ago her commitment to coastal research was reflected in a $5 million grant to the Gratia Houghton Rinehart Coastal Research Center, which is named in her honor. This recent gift supporting a new kind of research platform supports the sea-going aspect of coastal research. This vessel will add immensely to our capabilities to work safely and productively at sea.”

SWATH (Small Waterplane Area Twin Hull) ships are extremely stable and provide a safe working environment for science and engineering experiments at sea. The Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution’s SWATH has been specifically designed to work year-round in New England coastal waters. The two semi-submerged hulls of a SWATH do not follow surface wave motion like regular mono or single hull ships. Thin struts supporting an above-water platform have small cross sections, or waterplanes, that reduce the ship’s pitch and roll. The result is a stable platform that will permit many types of research that are difficult or impossible to do from standard research vessels because of the ship’s motion.

“I am delighted to be able to continue to support coastal research through this new vessel,” Topsy Montgomery said of the gift. “Going to sea is critical to making the observations necessary to advance our understanding of the coastal environment. There are fewer ships today to take scientists and students, our future scientists, to sea. They need that access. More and more people are moving to the coast, and as a society increasingly dependent on the sea, we must use the coastal zone wisely. I want future generations to be able to enjoy our coast as much as I have.”

Among the kinds of science the new SWATH vessel will undertake will be studies in bays and estuaries from the Gulf of Maine to Long Island Sound, and offshore to Georges Bank in all seasons of the year. The vessel’s design enables it to work close to shore in shallow waters (as little as 18 feet) while providing a stable platform for work in the open sea in all scientific disciplines. The vessel will be able to respond rapidly during storms, oil spills, red tides and other harmful algal blooms, and other oceanographic or atmospheric events. Net tows, deep sampling, diving support, seismic studies, coring and buoy support can all be carried out from the vessel, and instruments and autonomous and remotely operated vehicles can be tested and deployed.

“This is a wonderful gift. It will help us solve one of the greatest challenges facing researchers in the coastal zone — the lack of suitable research vessels from which to work,” notes WHOI Associate Director for Marine Operations Richard Pittenger, who is overseeing the project. “Most are small and lack the seaworthiness and general capabilities to accomplish the scientific tasks required, particularly in the long winter season when routine operations are essential but very difficult and often dangerous. Larger ships are too expensive to operate and are usually assigned by federal sponsors to work in more distant waters, making them unavailable for rapid response to environmental events like major fish kills, hurricanes, and ship or barge groundings. This effort takes on increasing importance in view of the fact that at the moment there are no federal plans to replace the aging research ships in the Northeast.”

“Oceanographers are significantly handicapped in studying coastal and open ocean environments under all but the most benign sea states. Yet a large fraction of the time winds and seas far exceed those in which we can work,” notes Peter Wiebe, a Senior Scientist in WHOI’s Biology Department. Wiebe, who also chairs WHOI’s Marine Operations Committee, says a SWATH vessel will be a “dream come true. It will mean that we are able to work on an extremely stable platform during much higher sea states enabling us to advance our understanding of the upper ocean biology and physics.”

The New England coastal SWATH will comfortably accommodate 16 people (usually 6 crew members and 10 in the scientific party) for 15 days at sea. It will be able to work on Georges Bank in the winter, and will offer a large working deck and at least 500 square feet of laboratory space. The new vessel will have a science payload of 20 tons, and its built-in quietness will enable high quality acoustic measurements.”

Glosten Associates, a firm experienced in the oceanographic research field, and Blue Sea Corporation, experts in SWATH technology and the offshore industry, have worked with WHOI’s Marine Operations staff on the vessel’s design. Input at various stages of the project has been solicited from the broad potential coastal research user community, and the design reviewed by the American Bureau of Shipping.

“Donations permitted a thorough design process including full tank tow tests and computer simulations and analyses to insure that the ship’s design is robust both mission and safety-wise, and that we have confidence in its construction feasibility and estimated cost,” Pittenger said. “We believe there is a niche for a small, inexpensive but robustly capable, all-season research vessel in the Northeast, noted for its harsh coastal environment. It will take several years for the ship to be built, shaken down and introduced into the community. Topsy’s vision and dedication will empower us to change the way we do coastal research in the North Atlantic.”