A vessel to explore vest-pocket science

Just about every professional mariner dreams of having his or her own marine business, a small inter-island freighter, say, or an old schooner for hire on the New England or the Northwest coast. For Eric Smith, 41, whose background includes running ship-assist tugs in his hometown of Key West, Fla., and working as a commercial diver on numerous high-profile archaeological explorations, the dream was to find a boat he could use as a scientific research platform. He enjoyed the camaraderie of life aboard research vessels, and he also thrived on the excitement that scientific discovery offered.

The boat would need to be small enough to be easily and inexpensively maintained; it would need to be large enough, however, to serve as a functional and stable vessel for offshore work. And it needed to be attractive, not a castle of gray steel like so many research vessels afloat today, since it would need to attract corporate sponsorship to support the science.

Smith recognized that there were many small underfunded scientific projects that tended to get short shrift – or be completely ignored – by expensive research expeditions.

“What happens is you have a scientist with a small research grant, who finally gets a slot on an expedition vessel, only to find that he’s scientist Number 32 and gets just a few minutes of actual research or testing time. That’s because modern research vessels are ridiculously expensive to operate and, therefore, out of necessity, more interested in booking well-funded projects,” Smith said. “I also learned that if we could make life aboard the boat interesting and exciting – and make the science exciting and accessible to the general public – we could at the same time host TV programs, we could cover some of an expedition’s cost, and provide that excited underfunded scientist with a golden opportunity to do science with the full support of the crew.”

He had found his niche: By focusing on smaller projects and seeking corporate and television programming for commercial sponsorship, his boat, Discoverer, could be the catalyst to push back certain barriers of science, making a research vessel available for scientists interested in doing their work their own way.

How it began

Smith holds a 500-ton ocean master’s license and has worked on boats since he was a teenager growing up in the Pacific Northwest. His sailing résumé resembles that of Tristan Jones, the legendary Welsh sailor who wandered the world aboard boats on voyages that sometimes ended in success and other times resulted in total loss, but always a good story.

At 15 years old, Smith and a friend bought a 19-foot scow, made a tent for the cockpit and sailed it around Lake Coeur d’Alene in northern Idaho for two years before it sprung a plank and sank from beneath them. Smith went to Alaska and found work on a fishing boat, and then, at age 19, he bought a 23-person lifeboat and “had great dreams of voyaging once I built a deck and rigging for her.” He spent a winter on the boat, frozen in the ice, only to lose the vessel during a storm. And then he spent seven years living on a St. Pierre dory before buying a 32-foot pilot cutter, with which he cruised Florida and the Bahamas. He sold the boat when he and his wife, Teresa, decided to move ashore and buy and rehabilitate an abandoned church in Key West; the bell tower became their apartment, and the rest was rented out.

Smith said his idea for operating his own business started during one of several trips he made as a diver with legendary archaeologist Franck Goddio, whom he met during an expedition in Havana in 1996. He later worked for Goddio in the Philippines and Egypt, a trip during which the team discovered and mapped Cleopatra’s royal quarters in sunken Alexandria and the lost city of Heraklion in the waters off Abu Kir at the mouth of the Nile. Smith’s job was to locate and tag sunken antiquities. (His first major discovery, he said, was an intact stone sphinx about the size of a lion, lying on its side on the bottom of the harbor, an artifact attributed to Ptolemy XII, the famous Cleopatra’s father.)

Smith was on the team that excavated the remains of Napoleon’s flagship L’Orient, which exploded and sank when Nelson defeated the French fleet at the Battle of the Nile.

“In working for Franck, I participated in many documentary films and news pieces based on his extraordinary finds,” Smith said. “I noticed that there (was) a real explosion in the interest in ocean exploration, but that there wasn’t a ship that (was) widely recognized to represent the spirit of this exploration.

“Most of the ships supporting research these days are fabulous to work on, but the public perception is lacking. People see these big steel buildings, bristling with technology, pushing madly about the sea but without the most important ingredients that are the reason mankind explores: curiosity and passion.”

Finding the boat

When researching his project, Smith first considered building a boat from scratch, since he could design the boat to be suited specifically for its work. He called his project Discoverer, and spoke to numerous naval architects, TV producers and scientists, and soon crafted a business plan. But he discovered that this would require raising in excess of $2 million – just to get started – and it would take years of fundraising effort, all with an uncertain outcome.

Anyone who has ever considered starting his or her own boat business is familiar with the marine publication Boats & Harbors. Its yellow pages are loaded with classified ads describing industrial marine equipment and work vessels of all variety lying in exotic posts the world over. The poetic ads beckon to dreamers who are drawn to the marine life. A typical ad might read: “180-foot steel freighter, 300-gt, twin 400-hp Caterpillar diesels, DNV-certified, 40-by-100-foot cargo hold, built Norway, 1961, currently lying Jakarta. Strong vessel in fine condition, $210k.”

Boats & Harbors is where Smith found the ad that seemed to speak directly to him. Ketty Lund was built in 1964 in Denmark as a fishing boat. Its 73-by-20-foot wooden hull was heavily built; it had broad decks suitable for scientific equipment, and a spacious, comfortable interior that could accommodate 10 people. Powered by a slow-turning Burmeister & Wain diesel, the vessel had a 2,000-mile range. And it had a stout ketch sailing rig, which would appeal to television audiences and provide attractive ambiance when the winds were up and blowing from the right direction.

Most recently Ketty had been used by Capt. Hamilton “Ham” Carter, whose Antarctic voyages aboard the research vessel Abel J on North America’s east coast from Miami to Northern Labrador were well known to Smith. The vessel was lying in Lunenburg, Nova Scotia. Smith booked a flight to Halifax and “two weeks later, after having crawled all over her, investigating her history and reputation, I gave him a deposit,” Smith said.

To Key West

Smith, accompanied by Teresa, his father, and the owner and his companion, set out across the Bay of Fundy in the summer of 2002, just as the first of the season’s hurricanes spun across from Africa to flirt with the North American coast. They arrived in Bar Harbor, Maine, and dropped anchor behind the breakwater just as the remnants of a hurricane swept in and 50-knot winds screamed through the harbor. The experience provided Smith with an appreciation for the effects of the boat’s high freeboard as they dragged a 17,000-lb granite mooring block across the harbor to the other before finding a secure mooring and waiting out the storm.

In New York, Ketty Lund’s stack caught fire, which Smith extinguished by jamming a blanket into the pipe. But he said the cruise was a valuable learning experience in operating his new boat, and it was a chance to explore the East Coast, visiting friends along the way and performing some basic scientific tasks, including testing the lifting capacity of the deck gear during bottom-sampling outside New York Harbor.

Once back in Key West, Smith rechristened the boat Discoverer Ketty Lund and was soon ready for small-scale science.

The business of science

In the past two years since buying the boat, Smith has also been a part of several expeditions aboard Ketty Lund, as well as being the subject of several television programs, including one for the History Channel for a show called Deep Sea Detectives, a high-tech diving show in which the hosts investigate mysterious or infamous shipwrecks; and a PBS documentary, featuring the boat’s resident scientist Dr. Kelly Rankin, entitled Women in Technology. He has hosted the shark scientist Wes Pratt on a hammerhead-tagging voyage off the Marquesas, and between operating tugs and performing freelance dive contracts, is busy promoting the boat to scientists whose work is well suited to the spirit – and modest budget – of his operation.

He has an international crew on call for Discoverer Ketty Lund’s voyages. They are multitalented companions – doctorate-wielding scientists, chefs, free divers, technophiles – whom he has met on his far-flung diving expeditions. The crew have day jobs, but they, too, are drawn to the boat for its quirky energy, Smith said, which contributes to the colorful nature of life aboard – and makes it an attractive set for the screen.

In the scientific community, Discoverer Ketty Lund is gaining notice and respect. Ken Hayes, president of Aqua Survey, a scientific research and consulting company based in Flemington, N.J., has sponsored several scientific missions. Hayes said that Smith’s boat and approach to the business is a refreshing alternative to other operations. “Aqua Survey is looking forward to a long-term relationship with Eric,” Hayes said.

Edward Little, a NOAA scientist who assists Smith in connecting with various agencies in need of marine-science-related services, said that Smith’s program will likely fill a valuable niche in the scientific community because of its versatility and small size. “Almost as soon as I first toured the Ketty, I could see that it offered possibilities as a vest-pocket research vessel. It was seaworthy, roomy and cheap to run. That’s something that many other research vessels often fall short of,” Little said.

Well into their second year in business, Smith said that his programs are on schedule and operating under budget. He’s not drawn to running the boat as a tourist venue on the bustling docks of Key West, since the boat needs to be ready to sail on a moment’s notice if it is to gain momentum in the scientific community.

Meanwhile, he’ll be true to his mission, he said: “We have to recognize that the public is the customer. Scientists who sail with us need to engage the customer, make their work accessible and interesting. That’s my challenge, too, to always keep it interesting.”

By Ocean Navigator