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A Day Aboard Thunderforce

Early one overcast morning, WFIT General Manager, Terri Wright and I met up with a group of scientists and members of the Sebastian Inlet Sportfishing Association (SISA) at a marina near Sebastian Inlet.

Greg Clifford, president of SISA, was waiting for us, and we boarded his skiff and headed out through the inlet. After a ten minute ride, the "Thunderforce" came into view. One of the crew climbed over to Greg's boat to help us board "Rubber Ducky" the ship's dingy. In minutes, we were approaching "Thunderforce." As we boarded the 85 ft. research vessel, the crew gathered around to welcome us.

After a safety briefing and signing some waivers, we spent some time talking with the crew in the wheel house. Dr. Maul, head of FL Tech’s Marine and Environmental Systems department, and Captain Bill discussed the course for the day and mapped out the transects we would cross. Terri conducted interviews while I played photographer.

Once it was time to deploy the sonar device, we headed out to the deck. The crew, SISA members, and Dr. Maul and his students were busy tying all kinds of interesting knots - a nautical skill I have always been impressed by - to secure the sonar scanner to the vessel.

The device was lowered into the ocean off the back of the boat, and we began to move over the tracks that the team had decided would yield the best results. Between the speeding up, slowing down, turning around, there was at least one person who was definitely feeling seasick. I was quite happy it wasn’t me.

Shortly after noon, a crew member came up from the cabin to let us all know lunch was ready. So we headed downstairs to get some grub. It was delicious! Chili, baked beans, and more…just like a cookout. The whole crew of Thunderforce treated us with so much warmth and generosity – we felt very welcomed.

As I mentioned earlier, the day had started off quite overcast and the afternoon became downright cloudy. Soon, we were being knocked around by increasingly large waves. The sky was taking on a more ominous, dark hue. It was not long before the clouds began to sprinkle raindrops down on us. When the drizzle became a pour, the winds picked up and the waves got to be 6 to 8 ft., we decided to head into the research pod. We gathered around the SISA laptop with Nikki Hoier, SISA educational director, and watched as the sonar device mapped out the contours of the ocean bottom.

Nikki told us that a hope for the future was to create a corridor of reef systems. A corridor would correct some of the problems of underwater habitat fragmentation: sea creatures could migrate longer distances without running out of habitat, food, etc. She explained that the populations and genetics of these animals would benefit if habitats were not as isolated, because there would be better opportunities for fish and other species to find mates. I had been familiar with this concept of wildlife corridors on land, but hadn’t applied the notion to underwater habitat. It seems this type of enhancement would serve us all, especially those who enjoy diving, fishing and eating seafood.

It was getting to be time to pack up and depart from "Thunderforce", which would be staying out at sea for several more days, so we gave Greg a call agreeing to meet up with him at a designated time and place. The waves were getting seriously large now (up to 10 ft.) so we stayed inside the pod, while the sonar device was loaded back onto the boat. We had to hunker down a bit more inside the pod, as the ride was getting rougher. The vessel’s speed increased and we headed to our meeting coordinates.

Eventually, crew members came inside to let us know they had spotted a water spout not too far from our position. They told us the conditions were only going to get worse from here on out. The captain had asked them to pass on a message: We had a window of about 5 minutes to pack up our gear and get on Greg’s boat, or we’d be spending the night aboard "Thunderforce". None of us liked this idea, as we had no overnight supplies, the cabins were already full with 20-something students and crew, plus one of our companions was beyond seasick at this point.

In the pelting rain we tightened our life vests, zipped up our rain gear and lined up along the starboard quarter where Greg had pulled his skiff up parallel with the ship (the seas were now way too rough to deploy "Rubber Ducky"). Ropes were thrown over to the crew and they attempted to lasso the skiff in, but not too close, or it could get bashed up against the ship in the waves.

We were told we’d have to "jump ship" into Greg’s boat - first in line was Terri. She was fearless. She saw a perfect opportunity when the waves dipped the two boats in towards each other at just the same moment, and she jumped right in. I was up next, and definitely hesitant. The waves were knocking the boats in different directions now, and the crew was having trouble keeping our taxi lined up with the ship. I hesitated even more as the Captain expressed how dangerous this was, and that we should look for an alternative for transferring us to Greg’s boat. The crew released the lines and readjusted the alignment. The Captain still was not satisfied with the safety of this situation. I asked him what the alternative was and he told me, “You stay on the boat tonight.”

Since that was not an option for me, I decided I was getting on that boat. Once the boats did lean in towards each other once again, Terri reached her hand out to me from the skiff, and I grabbed hold of her hand and slung myself in.

Just then a strike of lightening flashed just a feet away from us, followed immediately by a booming clap of thunder. Everyone leapt onto the boat one after the other, and the "Thunderforce"crew threw us the ropes. As we shouted thanks to them, we grabbed onto whatever we could and sped off. I turned briefly and waved to the Captain and crew before the rain became too intense to keep my head up. The ride back through the inlet was rough. One of the girls in the front of the boat even had her glasses pitted by hail. Thanks to Greg, we made it back to the marina safely.

Back on shore - soaked, but pleased to be back on land - we all grabbed each other in the genuine hugs of people who have just shared an adventure and are relieved to be alive.