In the early 1960s, the US Department of Naval Research needed a new way to study the acoustic targeting for submarine rockets. The ship had to be silent and stable — more buoy than boat. The design that met the requirements became the world’s only vertically-flippable research vessel. Either that, or the lamest Transformer since Bumblebee.
The Floating Instrument Platform, nicknamed the FLIP ship, isn’t really a boat — it’s a barge/buoy hybrid. Developed by Dr Fred Fisher and Dr Fred Spiess in 1962 as a more stable platform for recording wave forms, the FLIP is a 700-ton, 108m long Naval barge based in San Diego, CA, operated by the Scripps Institution of Oceanography.
It is shaped like a baseball bat — intentionally designed after a Louisville Slugger — and built to rotate from its normal horizontal state into a vertical one by pumping 700 tons of water through a specially designed series of bulkheads. So how does a ship with no engine not only get into the middle of the ocean but then turn itself 90 degrees vertically? Very carefully.
Since it has no engine, it must be towed to the research site. Once there, the FLIP will deploy a combination of its three anchors — each is a series of nylon lines woven into links, connected to a hollow body that fills with water to weight nine tons. It will then begin flooding ballast tanks located in the “handle” end of the ship. As the handle end begins to sink, it lifts the barrel end out of the water — five stories out of the water. The entire process takes just under 30 minutes and is powered by a trio of diesel engines with a combined output of 340 kilowatts. The entire process is reversed using 85 cubic metres of compressed air (stored at 250psi) to force the water back out and only takes half as long.
“The last 15 degrees of movement prior to arriving in the vertical happens quickly and is reasonably exciting as the exterior decks, where everyone is positioned, appear to be heading into the sea,” Captain William A. Gaines, assistant director of Marine Physical Laboratory at Scripps Institution of Oceanography, said. “The crew and riders remain on the external decks during the flipping evolution. The lowest exterior is about 15 feet above the waterline when FLIP is in the vertical. There is lots of noise as the remaining air from the ballast tanks escapes from the vent lines located on the lowest external deck.”
While setting a ship on its tail in the open ocean may sound like a recipe for disaster, the baseball bat shape is actually remarkably stable. “A design criterion for FLIP was that it move less than one-tenth of a passing wave’s height,” Gaines said. That means that with a 30 foot wave height, the FLIP moves just three feet vertically. What’s more, the FLIP is rated to handle even massive 80-foot swells. In all, it can operate safely in off-shore shallows or open ocean depths exceeding 2000 meters.
Since the FLIP’s interior is going all Inception during this transformation, special precautions have been included. All the heavy equipment — from bunk beds and the toilets to kitchen equipment and the generators — are mounted on trunnions that keep the devices right side up regardless of which way the bow is pointing. Most every room has two doors — one vertical, one horizontal. The ship’s showers, sinks and other plumbing are set up in the same manner. Scientific equipment is stored in wall-mounted cases that shift as the FLIP does without disturbing the delicate scientific balance.
“It was built in 1962 to refine acoustic targeting for submarine rockets, but scientists quickly realised that it would be useful for all kinds of research,”Gaines told Popular Mechanics. Nowadays, the five-person crew and revolving 11-scientist team carry out a variety of research off the coast of California — monitoring everything from whale calls to subsurface earthquakes using the vessel’s sensitive hydrophones, as well as wave temperature, height, and density with sensors lowered over the side — it can even record the fluid dynamics within each wave using its Doppler sonar. “It’s hard to measure wiggly things, like waves, from a ship that’s bouncing,” says Robert Pinkel, a physical oceanographer at Scripps. “I’ve spent a couple of years total on FLIP over the course of my life — it’s been a godsend.” The buoy has completed over 300 operations so far in its 45 years of service. [Popular Mechanics – Wikipedia – Ship-Technology – Navy – Navy]