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R/V LONGHORN to be retired after 35 years

R/V LONGHORN to be retired after 35 years
Cassette tapes go. VHS technology fades away. And so goes the R/V LONGHORN, the ship used by the University of Texas Marine Science Institute (UTMSI) for over 30 years to conduct research in the Gulf of Mexico.

Changes in oceanographic research and drops in funding levels led to UTMSI’s decision to discontinue use of their largest research vessel sometime this fall.

The LONGHORN has had a distinguished career. She’s been serving the oceanographic research community around the western Gulf since arriving in Port Aransas in 1971.

She’s delivered SCUBA divers to investigate artificial reefs around oil platforms, chugged up to Delaware, and graced the waters as far down the Gulf Coast as the Yucatan peninsula. Researchers from around the world have used the LONGHORN to, among many things, test autonomous underwater vehicles, explore the water column in the Orca Basin, service weather buoys, and long-line for sharks to collect shark migratory data.

Most recently, she was one of the first research ships to respond after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita.

Despite the ship’s service over the years and her rank as the largest of UTMSI’s 16-boat fleet, she’s too small to keep up with new research trends, says Steve Lanoux, assistant director of operations at UTMSI.

Most cutting-edge research in the Gulf occurs in waters over 2000 meters deep, which requires larger, heavier equipment and longer trips. Performing at her best, the 103-foot LONGHORN is capable of research in water around 1500 meters deep, and her size limits the kind of equipment she can carry. Deep-water marine researchers use a lot of equipment larger than the LONGHORN can deploy, including new autonomous underwater vehicles (mini-submarines that don’t carry humans).

Modern research ships also use dynamic positioning technology to maintain their position in the water while gathering deep-water data. Captains plug GPS coordinates into shipboard computers and the boats maintain their position automatically. Although equipped with multiple GPS receivers, the LONGHORN stays put in the old-fashioned (and sometimes less precise) way: by the actions of her crew.

“The technology has gone where the ship is not designed to go,” says Lanoux. In other words, science marches on.

A second problem for the boat is that research funding, particularly for research in the western Gulf, is slipping away.

“There are decreases in funding for oceanographic research at the federal level,” says Lanoux. “Everybody’s feeling the pinch. Texas A&M retired their research vessel last year. Louisiana is concerned too. What research there is is going into deeper and deeper water.”

The LONGHORN is a member of the National Science Foundation’s (NSF) fleet of boats; meaning that NSF funding supports many of the boat’s scientific cruises. As part of the NSF fleet, the ship would reach her mandatory governmentally imposed retirement age in 2013, after which UTMSI would not be eligible to receive NSF research business or grant funding to operate the ship.

UTMSI was faced with the decision to upgrade the LONGHORN for her remaining 7 years, a price tag of $1.5 million, or retire her early from service.

The decision was not easy, says Lanoux, a sentiment best gleaned from a eulogistic report of her retirement on the UTMSI website.

“The R/V LONGHORN has had a long, proud career,” Lanoux notes on the site. “She will be missed.”

Lanoux says several potential buyers are already interested in the ship. “We’re not going to fill her full of cement and turn her into a museum,” he says. “She’s going to be brokered and sold.” Many of the potential buyers are private oceanographic research companies doing oil research. Another group wants to use the LONGHORN as a mother ship for their commercial diving operations in Costa Rica.

While her official last cruise date is yet to be determined, Lanoux projects that UTMSI researchers and staff will step on her deck for the very last time sometime in October.
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Tuesday, 21 November 2017

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