This one-of-a-kind vessel turns vertical

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Head over heels above the rest

FLIP is a one-of-a-kind vessel that turns vertical to offer a stable platform for research

Marine scientists with the University of California’s Scripps Institute of Oceanography in San Diego have been conducting research at sea aboard a vessel unlike any other.


The vessel, known as FLIP — for floating instrument platform — measures 355 feet and can “flip” into a vertical position, acting more like a manned spar buoy than a ship. The university designed the vessel more than four decades ago so that scientists could have a stable research platform that doesn’t pitch and roll with the sea.

“There are no other vessels like FLIP … anywhere in the world,” says Bill Gaines, assistant director of the university’s Marine Physical Laboratory. A retired Navy captain, Gaines, 70, has been working aboard FLIP for 13 years. “The cylindrical hull section, or the ‘tail,’ is 315 feet long, and the bow, or ‘boat,’ section is 40 feet long. When vertical, 300 feet of the hull is below the waterline as ballast, while the bow section is above water.”

The aft 270 feet of FLIP’s “tail” comprises a series of ballast tanks, Gaines


says. When the vessel is horizontal the tanks are filled with air. With the flip of a switch, vent valves open, the air escapes, and ocean water fills the tanks through flood ports. About 20 minutes later the stern sinks below the surface, flipping the bow section — which contains the working areas — into a vertical position above the surface. During the change, crewmembers stand on external weather decks. (As the vessel becomes vertical, the decks become bulkheads and the bulkheads become decks.) The process is reversed by blowing the water out of the tanks using a high-pressure air system.

“Needless to say, there is some tension as we flip up and begin to work,” says Robert Pinkel, 61, a professor of oceanography at the university and associate director of the marine laboratory.

FLIP’s bow section consists of the pilothouse, three cabins, a galley, two heads and main laboratory. There are doors in the soles and tables and sinks bolted both sideways and normally on bulkheads so crew can use the equipment and facilities whether the vessel is horizontal or vertical.

A number of booms mounted on external decks are used for deploying sensors and other equipment. Because FLIP has no propulsion system, the vessel is towed to research locations. It has one 40- and two 150-kW generators to provide electrical power. Research missions generally last up to a month.


Pinkel studies ocean waves aboard FLIP. “It’s very hard to study wave movements from a conventional ship, even using sophisticated instruments,” he says. “Waves at the sea surface rock the ship so much that it’s hard to get a clear picture of the natural variations. FLIP, being stable in the water, is a near-ideal platform for this work.”

FLIP was designed in the early 1960s by university professors Dr. F.N. Spiess and Dr. F.H. Fisher, according to information on the school’s Web site ( ). The professors wanted to create a research platform for studying the effects of sound waves in the water that was more stable than a traditional boat or submarine. What they came up with enabled researchers to simultaneously collect accurate measurements above and below the water surface.

FLIP was built over six months by Seattle firm L.R. Glosten and Associates, Gaines says. The vessel was launched in Portland, Ore., in June 1962. Over the years, it has been used by the university, the Navy and other agencies to study waves and water acoustics, as well as for marine mammal research, Gaines says. FLIP has recently been stationed primarily in the Pacific off southern California.

“I truly enjoy being associated with FLIP and working with a great crew and many dedicated scientists,” Gaines says. “Because FLIP is one of a kind, I consider my job of keeping FLIP operational very significant. If an important research project requires the use of a stable platform, FLIP is the only option and will be ready to go to sea.”