NOAA operates a wide variety of hydrographic survey, oceanographic research and fisheries survey vessels. NOAA’s larger vessels, including the 16 ocean-going ships in the agency’s fleet, garner the most attention given their size, speed and high-profile nature of their missions. But NOAA’s small vessels are also essential to getting the job done.
Today, we introduce you to a NOAA Corps officer who is at the helm of one of these smaller vessels: Lt.j.g. Sarah Chappel, the officer in charge of R/V Bay Hydro II. This 57-foot hydrographic survey vessel is perfect for operating in smaller waterways such as the Chesapeake Bay and the Hudson River. Don’t let the size of this vessel deceive you. Its capabilities are anything but small. The Bay Hydro II is equipped with state-of-the-art seafloor mapping technology that calculates water depths, locates sunken debris, and characterizes the shape of the sea floor.
Chappel’s entire professional career has been spent in the maritime and environmental communities, but her passion for the water can be identified before she even set foot on a college campus. As a high school student, Sarah enjoyed recreational sailing and spending time near the ocean. Chappel first graduated from James Madison University with a bachelor's degree in geographic science. She then moved on to earn a master's of science degree in coastal, marine, and wetland studies from Coastal Carolina University.
After completing her undergraduate studies, Chappel couldn't wait to get her feet wet in her chosen career field. Taking on the role as program coordinator for the Center for Science Solutions at the National Council for Science and the Environment was her first introduction. After gaining valuable experience in wildlife habitat policy and sustainable forestry and completing her second degree Chappel was ready to jump into the deep end. She joined the NOAA Commissioned Officer Corps and after completing Basic Officer Training Class she served a stint aboard NOAA Ship Rainier prior to taking on her current role aboard R/V Bay Hydro II.
Training and safety are key
When setting out on a survey mission, safety is always the number one priority.
“We start immediately with safety and maintenance checks for the vessel and concurrently checking weather conditions,” says Chappel. Weather conditions can severely impact a day’s work and being able to adjust on the fly to the ripples it can create is a must. “For example, if the forecast calls for severe thunderstorms in the afternoon, we will keep an eye on the radar throughout the day and finish survey operations in enough time to safely return to the dock and find shelter off the vessel,” she explains.
Sarah recalls one time when she had to rely on her training to safely navigate the vessel and her crew to safety. During a planned transit from Solomons, Maryland, to Portsmouth, Virginia, weather and sea state deteriorated unexpectedly. “As conditions dwindled and the waves increased to over six feet, we found ourselves increasingly less comfortable,” says Chappel.
It was her training that not only led her to the decision to quickly locate a nearby marina where they could seek shelter, but to also remember to communicate the change in plans to headquarters to ensure they would have external assistance in the event of a greater emergency.
As the officer in charge, Lt.j.g. Chappel is in charge of the safety of the crew and vessel and this was her decision to make. “Overall, it was a valuable learning experience, where luckily, no injuries or damage occurred and we strengthened individually and as a team,” says Chappel.
Being a NOAA Corps officer isn't just a “line of work” for Chappel, it’s a lifestyle. She wants to continue to develop as not only a hydrographer and mariner, but also as a leader. She excitedly explains that, “With each assignment comes new challenges and opportunities, which consistently push me to reassess the best way excel in my current position and strengthen for the future.”