Believe it or not, there is such a thing as “new ship smell.” It’s an arresting mix of salty air and newly welded steel, glistening paint, freshly oiled wood and layers upon layers of protective plastic shielding brand-new instrumentation. It’s the unmistakable whiff of promise and potential, two things that mark the coming expeditions of UC San Diego’s latest research vessel, the R/V Sally Ride.

Owned by the U.S. Navy and operated under charter agreement by Scripps Institution of Oceanography, the 238-foot Sally Ride is the latest addition to the U.S. Academic Research Fleet, a collection of ships that conduct experiments across the globe, each of which is a rare privilege among research institutions to operate.

The Sally Ride is a true seagoing laboratory, offering cutting-edge technologies for sampling, data collection, computing, analysis and communications. These resources will be made available not only to Scripps scientists, but to the entire national ocean science community. Esteemed researchers across the country will be able to apply for ship time through the University-National Oceanographic Laboratory System (UNOLS) in order to understand how our world’s oceans play an active role in answering the defining questions of our day—from food supply to climate change. R/V Sally Ride will also provide unparalleled educational opportunities for the country’s future forward thinkers.

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Scripps is no stranger to operating the nation’s research vessels—its partnership with the Office of Naval Research (ONR) began in in the mid-20th century. In 1946, Roger Revelle, then on Navy duty with the Bureau of Ships, played a role in founding ONR, whose original purpose was to pursue promising leads from wartime research. Scripps’ first ONR contract for oceangoing research was awarded that same year.

UNOLS, which was founded in 1971 and has 61 member institutions, coordinates and regulates research vessel use for federally funded research. The Sally Ride will be the third UNOLS ship operated by Scripps, making its fleet the largest among U.S. research institutions.

Scripps’ associate director Bruce Appelgate oversees the research fleet and has been working on bringing the Sally Ride to UC San Diego for roughly a decade. Photo: Chad Coleman

Operations for the fleet and marine technical support are overseen by Scripps’ associate director, Bruce Appelgate, whom I met at the Sally Ride’s birthplace of Anacortes, Wash., in a bustling shipyard set against snow-capped mountains and the glittering Puget Sound.

Appelgate is simultaneously intense and easygoing, a friendly tour guide in a sun-faded Hawaiian shirt, ready to delve into his encyclopedic knowledge of research vessels and Scripps history. A career geophysicist, Appelgate has more than 80 oceanographic missions under his belt, making him an ideal caretaker for the fleet. He’s come to the shipyard on one of countless visits before UC San Diego finally takes possession of the Sally Ride; that evening, he’d head out to sea to test how much sound the ship’s machinery radiates into the water, just one of many examinations the ship will undergo before passing inspection. Though test trials like these make it seem like the ship’s journey has yet to begin, for Appelgate, the task of acquiring the Sally Ride is well in midstream.

After years of intense competition, receiving the ship was a major coup for UC San Diego. It was roughly a decade ago when the ONR announced its intention to build new vessels to replace two slated for retirement, one of which, the R/V Melville, had been operated by Scripps for more than four decades.

“It was a once-in-a-40-year opportunity,” says Appelgate, who jumped on the chance, along with many other preeminent oceanographic institutions across the nation. “It wasn’t just us pulling out all the stops. All of the institutions were interested. Everybody wanted it and everybody put on their A-game.”

Adding to the excitement was the cutting-edge nature of the ship. The Navy sought to increase the fleet’s flexibility by debuting a new Ocean Class of vessel meant to replace an aging Intermediate Class. The two new energy-efficient ships would feature increased endurance, technological capability and a greater number of science berths. They’d also perform better in rough seas, opening up a wider seasonal window for research. Though fully oceangoing, they wouldn’t have quite the geographical reach of larger Global Class vessels, which travel to the most remote corners of the world, but would be nimble enough to perform an impressively broad range of research under variable conditions.

Appelgate spearheaded the Scripps proposal to operate one of the new ships. “We started with the leadership at Scripps and went all the way up through UC San Diego to the chancellor, and even to the president of the University of California,” he explains. “Their support was great recognition that Scripps Institution of Oceanography really is a marquee program of the UC system. It’s very unique. There’s nothing else like it.”

Online extras: Dispatches from sea aboard the Sally Ride and connect with the ship on Facebook and Twitter

Scripps Oceanography Director Margaret Leinen echoes the sentiment, and agrees that Scripps was the right place for the Sally Ride. “The proposal had a lot of information about our infrastructure and capabilities for operating ships as part of the national fleet, as well as an expectation that we would provide resources for it—our pier facilities, as well as some institutional resources,” she says, highlighting how the Sally Ride’s future home port at Scripps’ Nimitz Marine Facility in Point Loma includes berthing facilities that received a $25 million upgrade last year to enable the next century of expeditionary ocean research.

But it wasn’t just university leaders offering their unwavering support. “The real work was done by the women and men here at Scripps who go to sea,” says Appelgate. “They contributed a lot of time and effort to writing the proposal. They understood that this was something important for us.”

The immense efforts paid off. In May 2010, the Navy announced that Scripps would operate one of the still-unnamed Auxiliary General Oceanographic Research Vessels, or AGORs. Now they just had to build it.

Sally Ride
(L–R) R/V Sally Ride mariners Buck Sampson, the ship’s oiler, and First Engineer Matthew Peer make final inspections before setting sail. Photo: Erik Jepsen, ’10, UC San Diego Publications

R/V Sally Ride came together in six years, painstakingly assembled piece by piece from a skeletal frame to sturdy seafarer. What once was a patchwork of mottled steel plates now boasts a gleaming coat of red, white and blue paint. And if that doesn’t inspire national pride on behalf of American scientific exploration, the ship’s commitment to the most cutting-edge equipment and lab spaces should.

No one knows more about that equipment than Paul Bueren, the Sally Ride’s senior chief engineer, who has been with Scripps for 35 years. Though Bueren spends more than half his year at sea, he was stationed dockside in Anacortes throughout construction of the Sally Ride.

“It was my first time being part of a new ship being built from scratch,” says Bueren. Working closely with representatives from the Navy and other government entities, Bueren was tasked with overseeing the ship’s construction, offering his expertise at every stage.

Bueren is intimately familiar with every last nut and bolt on the Sally Ride, which is especially evident when it comes to the ship’s scientific equipment. “Watch your step,” he warned as we descended a narrow ladder from a computer room humming with servers to the bowels of the ship. A narrow bridge with railings floats above the floor, where various pieces of sensitive equipment below are hidden beneath protective metal sheaths. Here below the waterline, an array of advanced sonar and other sensor systems will enable scientists to do everything from mapping the seafloor to measuring colossal underwater waves. 

The efficiency-minded ship is designed for oceanographic research of every variety, including biological, physical, chemical and geological. The Sally Ride features 25 berths for scientists, along with 2,000 square feet of configurable lab space and 3,000 square feet of deck space. The support equipment is especially eye-catching. A 70-foot telescoping knuckle boom crane stands poised like its namesake finger joint at the ship’s stern, ready to lift and transfer up to 22,000 pounds of gear or samples from the seafloor. Nearby, a pair of robotic load-handling cranes can deploy and recover heavy equipment over the side of the ship, from electronic instrumentation to towed instrument packages. Fully computer-controlled, it’s much more sophisticated than the winch-and-pulley systems used on older ships. Whoever maneuvers the pair of robotic arms does so while perched above them in a glass-pod control station that can best be described as extremely cool.

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R/V Sally Ride’s cutting-edge technology includes this control station for operating robotic cranes that deploy and recover heavy equipment—a step up from the winch-and-pulley systems used on older ships. Photo: Erik Jepsen, ’10, UC San Diego Publications

The Sally Ride accommodates a crew of 20, which includes the ship’s captain, the engineers who work under Bueren, and other support staff, including the galley cooks who feed everyone three square meals a day.

“The ship is like a building on water,” says Bueren. “Once we leave the dock, we have to deal with sewage, lights, water and power. The goal is that nobody realizes that this is all going on down in the engine room. We try to make it seamless.”

Stints at sea will last up to 40 days, which requires an immense amount of planning, from the paperwork needed to enter global ports to stocking the kitchen with fresh food. Its operations are as ship-shape as the physical space, with every inch of the Sally Ride serving a purpose, from the maze of interior passageways and ladders to the tidy break room. The best view in the place by far is the pilot house, a commanding headquarters filled with digital displays and other modern equipment juxtaposed against classic wood cabinets holding rolls of paper maps. A huge expanse of window glass frames whatever panoramic view might lie ahead as the ship carries out scientific missions across the globe.

As for the forward view on the scientific front, this fall Scripps professor David Checkley will head out on the Sally Ride’s inaugural research cruise. A biological oceanographer, Checkley’s primary area of focus is on fisheries, including the ongoing impact that climate change is having on marine populations. Checkley, who will be retiring to emeritus this year, also is the current director of the California Cooperative Oceanic Fisheries Investigations, or CalCOFI. The multi-agency organization was founded in 1949 to investigate the collapse of the sardine population in California, an event famously documented in John Steinbeck’s classic novel Cannery Row. The research conducted since continues to prove invaluable for resource management and fisheries conservation.

A CalCOFI team heads out to sea quarterly to take a variety of measurements at 114 stations set up in a grid stretching from the California coast to nearly 300 miles offshore. Scientists look at temperature, salinity, pressure, oxygen concentration and more, in addition to netting samples of plankton and other sea life from the water column. All of the routinely collected data is publicly accessible for anyone to analyze.

“We’ve used smaller ships until now, so my group is very much looking forward to sailing on the Sally Ride,” says Checkley, who also weighed in on the ship’s design as part of the UNOLS Fleet Improvement Committee. “The craftsmanship of the ship impressed the heck out of me. The welding is extraordinary. Looking at it, you have real confidence that this ship was built well.”

Scripps distinguished professor Lisa Levin, a marine ecologist, does much of her benthic-zone research on biodiversity and ocean acidification onboard larger global ships that can accommodate additional scientists and submersible vehicles, but she too is eager for the Sally Ride’s arrival for a reason equally important to a research institution: the profound educational opportunities it affords for her students.

“It’s an incredibly unique opportunity,” says Levin. “In just one day, students get to see many of the concepts we’ve discussed in class. It’s their first and possibly only exposure to communities in the open ocean.”

This exposure is made possible by the UC Ships Funds Program, which affords ship time to students and early-career scientists. Since 1995, UC Ship Funds have supported an average of 57 days at sea per year on cruises that range from one-day field trips to months-long expeditions, all for those students who make up the future of oceanographic research.

“One of the great pleasures of my job is administering this program,” says Appelgate. “It’s rewarding to see the quality of work that our young scientists perform on these cruises.”

In addition to hands-on experience, students and teachers around the world also will be able to take part in ocean exploration by interacting with scientists at sea via the ship’s robust satellite telepresence.

R/V Sally Ride will interface with UC San Diego’s existing K–12 outreach efforts, to demonstrate how STEM fields are exciting, meaningful and accessible for everyone.

While technology can bring the oceangoing experience to those on land, there’s no substitute for field work when it comes to oceanographic research. And with a field as vast and still mysterious as the world’s oceans, the ability to make an impact is entirely dependent on what can get you there. “Climate change and ocean acidification are real and happening because of things we as a society do,” says Appelgate. “It’s the key area of research of our time. When you send someone to sea, there’s no telling what they’ll discover.”

For Appelgate, all that remains unknown is the most exciting part of oceanography. “We scientists sometimes sound like we know it all, but we really don’t. You have to go out there and take samples and make observations and be continually surprised. Ocean research will always require a human presence, even as we develop more robots and autonomous tools. We’ll always need women and men out at sea, and that’s what the Sally Ride will make possible.”

The Namesake – Sally Ride’s Educational Legacy

sally-two-girlsb-wNot only was Sally Ride the first American woman to venture into space, the UC San Diego professor emeritus of physics was a firm believer in promoting youth science education. Her nonprofit organization, Sally Ride Science, recently partnered with UC San Diego to encourage students to pursue careers in science, technology, engineering, art and math (STEAM). This July, Sally Ride Science at UC San Diego launched its inaugural summer program teaching more than 600 middle and high school students about robotics, virtual reality, the science of earthquakes and, of course, space exploration.

But that’s just the beginning. Plans are under way to expand the program beyond summer workshops and make them available year-round at local schools and libraries. “We want to reach as many students as we can and be a consistent presence in their lives,” said Ed Abeyta, director of pre-college programs and assistant dean of community outreach for UC San Diego Extension.

And the mission of Sally Ride Science doesn’t stop at students, either. To inspire the next generation of leaders, the organization plans to empower teachers with the tools and training they need to help ignite an interest and a passion for these fields and attract more diverse students to these careers. They’ve already begun with a new online video series, The Constellation: Sally Ride Science Conversations, featuring interviews with highly accomplished women throughout the UC system in science, technology, engineering, art and math.

Learn more at


Precise maneuverability: Dual controllable-pitch propellers, assisted by an azimuthing bow thruster and a stern tunnel thruster, afford remarkable control. Sally Ride can do an in-place 360, which is important when the ship has a $500,000 instrument hanging at the end of 6,000 meters of wire over the starboard side — and the seas change. Turning the vessel in place may be the difference between a successful mission and the catastrophic loss of an instrument.

Where science meets the sea: Researchers get down to business on R/V Sally Ride’s fantail and work deck — where instruments are launched and recovered, temporary science systems are installed and portable seagoing laboratory vans can be secured. Heavy lifting devices (like the stern A-frame) handle the ship’s special scientific cables, which are used to lower equipment to the deepest points in the ocean — as deep as 10,000 meters (more than six miles) below.

Robot arms and heaveless winches: Deploying and recovering oceanographic instruments and sampling systems is the lifeblood of a research vessel. Sally Ride carries specialized heavy cranes, articulating booms and motion-compensated winches that enable our marine technicians to get instruments into and out of the water safely and carefully.

Wayfinding – Anytime, anywhere: Global positioning systems are integrated with Sally Ride’s onboard navigation and sensor suite so that scientists can find and revisit any spot on the ocean, time after time. And with its dynamic positioning system, Sally Ride can hold position on that spot within the length of a pickup truck — even when faced with tremendous waves and winds.

Surfing on the high seas: Scientists need an innovative solution to enable web communications for transmitting data and research results ashore. Enter HiSeaNet, a satellite broadband system developed by scientists at Scripps and UC San Diego, which uses motion-stabilized antennas to beam data to a ground station at UC San Diego’s supercomputing center via geosynchronous satellites.

Serving America’s seagoing scientists: This newest addition to the U.S. oceanographic research fleet was built by the U.S. Navy to be operated by Scripps, for the benefit of U.S. seagoing scientists whose research is supported by federal and state agencies and private foundations. Any scientist can schedule projects aboard Sally Ride, because ship assignments are managed through the University-National Oceanographic Laboratory System (UNOLS), which coordinates America’s academic research fleet to ensure fair and equal access and efficient, cost-effective ship use.