She’s the Officer in Charge
An energetic 29-year-old officer oversees a sophisticated National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) research boat. Lieutenant Junior Grade Sarah Chappel is the officer in charge of the NOAA Research Vessel (R/V) Bay Hydro II, a ship equipped with multi-beam, vertical beam, and side scan echo sounding sonar equipment to assist the crew’s mission.
That mission is to evaluate new hydrographic survey technologies as well as survey bays, inlets, rivers, and other waterways for NOAA. Hydrography is a science concerned with measuring and depicting the physical features of waterways — boaters see this data in updated charts that protect them from previously non-existent and/or uncharted hazards. The findings also assist scientists to predict how waterways will change over time, which is vital as the climate changes.
R/V Bay Hydro II is an all-aluminum catamaran whose homeport is the Solomon Islands in the Chesapeake Bay. She’s 57 feet in length with a 23-foot beam with speed that tops out at 31 knots (she cruises at 25 knots) and has a range of 625 miles. Along with her survey mission, the vessel and crew can mobilize to search for underwater dangers to navigation near port entrances and critical shipping routes after a hurricane or other emergency. In addition, they participate in public relations, outreach, and educational activities.
I had an opportunity to speak with Chappel at a dock in Kingston, New York when her vessel was on a mission in the Hudson River. She was then an ensign — she was promoted to Lieutenant Junior Grade since our meeting. With an officer’s rank in NOAA, Chappel says she has the same privileges and benefits as officers of the Army, Air Force, Navy, Marines, Coast Guard, and Public Health Service.
Chappel is enthusiastic about her career and loves to talk about her background, her work, and her boat. She graduated from James Madison University with a bachelor’s degree in geographic science and has a master’s degree in coastal, marine and wetland studies from Coastal Carolina University. After graduating, she applied to the NOAA Corps and was accepted into the 20-week basic officers training course at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy. Upon completion, her assignment was as a junior officer aboard the 23- foot NOAA ship Rainier then operating in coastal Alaska. While on that assignment, Chappel was selected to be officer in charge of the R/V Bay Hydro II.
There are two physical scientists trained in hydrography aboard the R/V Bay Hydro II working alongside Chappel. They are survey technicians Robert Mowery and Matt Carter. They keep the boat safely manned, well maintained, and actively engaged in surveying. The survey technicians utilize the ship’s high-tech sonar to measure the depth of the water and a highly technical global positioning system that correlates each sounding with a precise location. Their findings will eventually make charting much more accurate.
NOAA has been increasing its ranks of woman. Presently there are 234 males and 91 females in the NOAA Corps. Of its 16 vessels in the Office of Marine and Aviation Operations fleet, women command two. NOAA’s many ships have different levels of management — Chappel’s position, the officer in charge, is only assigned on two smaller vessels.
NOAA Corps rotations are two years at sea then three on land, so Chappel’s goals include developing her nautical, leadership, and hydrographic skills. She envisions herself rising through the ranks, perhaps becoming an executive officer on one of the larger hydrographic survey ships in the fleet. Her ambition is to work hard and perhaps achieve a command of her own.
When Lt. Sarah Chappel is not keeping our waterways safe, she still enjoys spending time outdoors hiking, camping, working out, boating, and going to the beach. She also enjoys time with friends and rooting for the Washington football team.
Learn about the NOAA Corps: http://www.noaacorps.noaa.gov/
Read more about R/V Bay Hydro II: http://www.nauticalcharts.noaa.gov/nsd/bayhydro.htm
Video on the R/V Bay Hydro II’s 2009 dedication: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sUtyJycaqYg&feature=youtu.be
Story and photos by Tab Hauser