US Navy research vessel R/V Thomas G. Thompson back at sea after mid life refit

The newly refurbished R/V Thomas G. Thompson on its way back to its home dock at the University of Washington School of Oceanography. Photo: University of Washington

The US Navy-owned research vessel (R/V) Thomas G. Thompson returned to sea recently following an 18-month mid-life refit at Vigor Marine’s Harbor Island shipyard in Seattle.

The vessel was “was refurbished from stem to stern”, according to Vigor Marine, and has received new operating systems and technology aimed at improving its research capabilities.

R/V Thomas G. Thompson has been operated and maintained by the University of Washington since 1991, under a charter lease agreement with the Office of Naval Research (ONR)—which manages the ship on behalf of the service.

“The refit of the R/V Thompson provides a continued global capability of support to Navy and national oceanographic research objectives,” said Dr. Tom Drake, head of ONR’s Ocean Battlespace Sensing Department. “It also enables additional years of service, hundreds of thousands of ocean miles sailed, research opportunities for thousands of scientists, and the training of the next generation of sea-going scientists and technicians.”

The Thompson received new diesel engines, navigation and ship-positioning systems—as well as sophisticated sonar, allowing it to map the ocean floor in sharper detail and even differentiate between species of fish and other marine life.

The vessel’s laboratories were updated to include advanced IT infrastructure to better support scientific data collection and analysis at sea, while also enabling improved real-time communications with shore. Several critical sensor systems also were replaced, providing upgraded scientific capabilities and increased reliability.

The $52 million refit, sponsored by ONR, the University of Washington and the National Science Foundation, will extend the Thompson’s life by another 15-20 years.

Since finishing the refit earlier this year, the revamped Thompson has sailed to New Zealand and Taiwan—and will travel to India, Sri Lanka, the Philippines, South Africa and Australia in coming months. Research projects include using special floats to measure the ocean’s temperature and salinity, mapping underwater mountains, and studying the heat flow generated by an aquatic volcano and hot springs.

“The R/V Thompson has performed very well since its refit, and the crew has provided positive feedback,” said Douglas Russell, the University of Washington’s manager of marine operations. “They especially appreciate things like the improved air conditioning and heating systems, water-making and sewage plants, and the new drainage system—things you don’t think about until you’re out at sea and really need them to work well.”

The Thompson is one of three Navy-owned research vessels up for refit in coming years. The R/V Roger Revelle, operated by Scripps Institution of Oceanography since 1996, will begin its refit in 2019. The R/V Atlantis, operated by the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution since 1997, is scheduled for refit in 2020.

Currently, the Navy owns six of these vessels—part of the U.S. Academic Research Fleet, whose research at sea supports Navy and national oceanographic research objectives and trains the next generation of oceanographers.

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