RV Savannah takes in-depth cruise on COVID-19 pandemic
Savannah, Georgia – The COVID-19 pandemic has thrown a gigantic wrench into John Bichy’s plans and expectations for a successful year for the University of Georgia’s research vessel Savannah Skidaway Institute of Oceanography. As Marine Superintendent, Bichy is responsible for the planning and management of the 92-foot-long research vessel. The RV Savannah is used by scientists at the UGA Skidaway Institute, as well as scientists around the world, to conduct marine research at a beach stretching from Chesapeake Bay to the western Gulf of Mexico. As of mid-March 2020, the RV Savannah had just completed a lengthy maintenance overhaul and was ready to launch a busy research cruise program.
âWe had forecast a solid year with 157 cruise days funded, which is basically our optimal year in terms of number of cruise days,â Bichy said.
RV Savannah only completed 13 of those days before March 16, when all operations were halted.
âThe ship was docked and the crew sent home,â Bichy said.
Bichy and her team, which included RV Savannah Captain TJ Dodge, began working with the University National Oceanography Laboratory (UNOLS) system to develop protocols that allow cruises to resume at some point in the future. UNOLS is an organization of the National Science Foundation that coordinates the nation’s university research fleet, of which the RV Savannah is a part. The result was an eleven-page document that outlined strict measures, starting with a risk assessment before the science team arrived at the dock. The assessment takes into account factors such as travel requirements for scientific personnel; the minimum number of scientists to complete the mission; isolation limits before the cruise; and the duration of the cruise. The plan also established guidelines for COVID-19 testing, social distancing, mask wearing and disinfection.
âThat’s definitely what’s been one of the hardest things about just trying to keep everyone as safe as possible when they’re in those confined spaces,â Dodge said. âWe definitely put up as much as possible. We constantly take everyone’s temperature, make sure they wash their hands, and we have hand sanitizer every ten feet. ”
The team had security protocols in place before June 1, but science cruises did not resume until the end of September. While the Skidaway team is set to resume cruises sooner, the scientists planning the cruises have not been so quick to do so.
âThe problem was that scientists and their institutions also had things stuck,â Bichy said. âEveryone was trying to develop protocols to be safe and protect people.â
The RV Savannah ended up completing a total of 49 days of science cruises in 2020. Additionally, the crew took part in several additional performance cruises.
âThey were funded by the NSF to keep the crews and ships operational,â Bichy said. “They were doing security drills and that sort of thing, so they were basically training cruises.”
Once cruises resumed, they still differed markedly from pre-COVID-19 travel. The maximum size of the science section has been reduced to allow no more than two scientists to share a cabin that would normally have slept three or four. Meals were staggered to allow no more than three people to share a table.
âIt’s been a challenge, because people are tired, they’re hot,â Dodge said. “It’s hard. I mean, even I forget,” oh, my mask, my mask. “He’s still trying to remember to put on his mask.”
However, Dodge said, it received very few complaints and almost no refusals from the scientists who were using the ship. âThey all got it. All of them followed their own protocols at the university in which they worked. ”
Adam Greer, a scientist from the UGA Skidaway Institute, has been on several cruises under COVID-19 protocols. He said the restrictions forced scientists to pay more attention to the little things they normally wouldn’t think of, like wearing masks and being aware of the number of people gathering in a particular part of the ship. However, he said the overall impact on his work was minimal.
âWe were still able to carry out all operations, which mainly involved the deployment and recovery of instruments,â he said. âThe testing requirements and general protocols aboard the ship made everyone confident that we could keep the virus off the ship and continue to conduct our science operations.â
COVID-19 restrictions, both from UNOLS and UGA Skidaway Institute, also affected the ship itself, as the crew found it difficult or impossible to perform some essential routine maintenance. . The crew was limited to only one two people on board at all times, and they had to distance themselves from each other. Much of the equipment is heavy and it takes more than one person to work on it. However, the crew couldn’t just dock the ship and move away.
âIt’s a ship, and you have to work on it all the time,â Dodge said. âIt’s a big piece of steel, sitting in salt water with electricity flowing through it. So this requires constant attention.
The National Science Foundation has recognized the need to maintain both the ship and the crew. Normally, the ship’s operating expenses, including crew salaries, are funded by the fees that funding agencies like the NSF pay to allow scientists to use the ship. However, the RV Savannah did not generate any income when tied to the dock for six months. NSF provided additional funding to keep the crew in service.
All the efforts have paid off. There have been no cases of COVID-19 linked to RV Savannah cruises. As vaccinations become more widespread, Bichy and Dodge plan to make vaccination a requirement to go on future cruises. With 179 cruising days scheduled for 2021, they are optimistic it will be a safe and successful year for RV Savannah.