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Meet the Crew: Commander Sarah Duncan, NOAA Ship Oscar Dyson

Sep 26, 2019

Long before she was Commander Sarah Duncan, the commanding officer of NOAA Ship Oscar Dyson, she was just Sarah. She and her cousins, seated around the dining room table playing cribbage with her grandfather, hung onto his every word as he shared tales from his adventures at sea. Working as a tugboat captain who navigated the British Columbia Inside Passage with regularity, her grandfather planted a seed of inspiration that he may never imagined would bloom into a seafaring career for his granddaughter.

During her high school years, Duncan set her sights on becoming a forecaster for the National Weather Service. Growing up in the landlocked Midwest, her love for the sea, as inspired by her grandfather, began to wane until she stumbled upon her calling.

“During my senior year of college, a classmate showed me the website for the NOAA Commissioned Officer Corps and I instantly became fascinated with the idea of working on a research ship,” she says. “Looking back on it, I really just jumped into this epic adventure head first without knowing what to expect.”

Her passion led her to pursue a career in the maritime industry, but it was her preparation that allowed her to excel. Duncan earned a Bachelor of Science degree in meteorology from the University of Oklahoma, as well as an Executive Master of Public Administration from the University of Washington. She also holds a U.S. Coast Guard merchant mariner license (2nd Mate Unlimited Tonnage, Oceans) and intends to continue to work her way up to Master.

NOAA Basic Officer Training Class (BOTC) was her “hands-on crash course” in all things nautical.

“BOTC was four intense months of seamanship, navigation, ship handling, and all the necessary training to prepare my classmates and me to become qualified deck officers,” Duncan explains.

Training such as these have provided her with a wealth of knowledge to prepare her for almost anything that she may encounter at sea. However, sometimes in an industry like this where things can change drastically “depending on the way the wind blows,” experience can be the best teacher.

“Each of my prior ship assignments has provided new challenges, perspectives, and experiences to help prepare me for this command assignment,” says Duncan.

Prior to taking command of NOAA Ship Oscar Dyson on Oct. 19, 2018, she worked aboard several other NOAA vessels as navigation officer, operations officer, and executive officer.

“On some sleepless nights, I might get multiple phone calls about weather, gear issues, machinery problems, traffic, fog, etc.,” says Duncan. “There are just some days when nothing goes as planned, and you have to figure out a way to adjust on the fly and lead through it.”

Sometimes leadership requires that she looks beyond the mission at hand. Duncan must not only manage scientific objectives, but also her crew as well--sometimes under difficult circumstances. Earlier this year, on the morning the ship was scheduled to get underway for a project, she and her crew received word that one of our crew members had passed away in a tragic accident while on vacation. She made the decision to delay departure by a day, bring a chaplain aboard for grief counseling, and hold an at-sea memorial service to celebrate the life of their fallen shipmate.

The NOAA ship fleet is comprised of a variety of research and survey vessels that are equipped with some of the best technology available in the industry, but if you were to ask Duncan what her ship’s greatest asset was she would be quick to tell you it’s the people.

“My first executive officer on my first ship had a profoundly positive impact on me as a junior officer,” she explains. “He made it a priority to frequently check in on me, even after we had both completed our assignments and transferred off the ship.” Duncan took that genuine action to heart and has continued the practice herself by checking in with past shipmates. When she first began BOTC, Duncan may have jumped in without knowing what to expect, but today she is certain about the impression she wants to leave. “Growing, mentoring, and looking out for people. I want that to be my legacy!”