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Preparing ROPOS for the test run. Preparing ROPOS for the test run.
In the Juan de Fuca Strait
by Peter Tyson
June 27, 1998

"Full speed ahead."


"Come up to surface."

"Comin' up."

Keith Shepherd, leaning over the stern rail in his tan, vigorously stained jumpsuit, is sending commands through his walkie-talkie to his counterpart, Keith Tamburri, up in the control room. So as not to confuse things, the latter Keith, a barrel of a man, is known as "Big Keith." Indeed, he looks like he could lift ROPOS all by himself and place it in the water.

Which is where it is right now, courtesy of the Thompson's fantail crane. After five days of round-the-clock work to get ROPOS back together, Shepherd and his team are now giving it a test run. We're in the middle of the Juan de Fuca Strait, with Vancouver Island to the north, the Olympic Peninsula to the south. The dome of blue sky overhead is clear, but pillowy clouds still hug the horizon all around us, like the last tenacious tufts on a bald head. The warm sun and cool breeze are in perfect balance, and the sea is all but dead calm.

Into the water for the test run. Into the water for the test run.

To the east, I can see a tanker beating towards Seattle, which we finally left last night about 8 p.m. ROPOS was not yet up and running, but with the Thompson costing $18,000 a day, John Delaney felt "the tock clicking," as he put it wth a smile, and thought it prudent to be underway. All hands stood on deck as we passed through the Crittenden Locks ("Serving Seattle since July 4, 1917"). The wind bit right through several layers, but many stayed topside until well after twilight.

Since then, we've had several prep meetings in the ship's library. Captain Gray Drewry gave a safety briefing. Mike Grogan, his technical guru, told us how to set up e-mail accounts and warned us not to be wordy: each kilobyte of data costs $.50 to send via satellite to shore. Ed Mathez described how the black smoker chimney to be pulled up from the seafloor and slated for the museum would fit, conceptually and physically, into the planned Hall of the Planet Earth. Finally, late this morning, chief engineer Le Olson used hand-scrawled drawings to run through his plan for snaring the chimneys. ("My wife is still speaking to me—barely," he said, after explaining how he coerced her into helping him lay the 8,000-foot line in the line basket.)

Despite such efforts to divert our attention, all eyes have been on ROPOS today. I slip up to the control van—as the control room is known—to watch Big Keith in action. He sits before a large console. There are radar and navigational screens, and a computer monitor giving the lowdown on ROPOS in real-time: depth, pitch, roll, attitude, and so on. Two screens show the view from ROPOS' two video cameras (cloudy water, with a glimmering sea surface overhead). Three others collectively supply complete video coverage of the fantail, where Shepherd now stands, finishing up the test.

"Okay, come slow ahead."

"Slow ahead," replies Big Keith.

"Lateral to port."

"Lateral to port."

"Full stop," says Shepherd. "Power down."

Peter Tyson is Online Producer of NOVA.

The Tug of the Thompson (June 23)
The ROPOS Guys (June 25)
In the Juan de Fuca Strait (June 27)
Special Report: A Visit To Atlantis (June 29)
Dive 440 (July 1)
Rescue at Sea (July 2)
What's Your Position? (July 4)
Phang! (July 5)
20,000 Pounds of Tension (July 8)
Four for Four (July 11)
Thrown Overboard (July 13)
Was Grandma a Hyperthermophile? (July 15)
Swing of the Yo-Yo (July 18)

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