The entanglement

I started my research career with a major entanglement of a wire into the propeller of R/V Professor Logachev in 2006 and I hope my career will not end as well with an entanglement.

My PhD project started with the participation in a research campaign at the mid-Norwegian margin co-organized by British, French and Russian teams. The aim was to conduct an ocean bottom seismic (OBS) experiment where 30 OBSs needed to be driven down to 730 m with a wire. One of the instruments drifted so much that the wire reached the propeller. That was the end of that instrument. The experiment was surprisingly a success.

We planned an offshore dilatometer experiment on R/V Kronprins Haakon in October 2021. The aim of the experiment was to measure, in-situ, the horizontal stress in the upper 20 m of sediment along the continental and oceanic margin west of Svalbard. What for? To see whether it is true that only vertical stress affects the upper part of the sediment packages deposited along continental margins. The main SEAMSTRESS hypothesis is that the motion of the plates at the mid-ocean ridge axes leads to compression of the entire crust against Svalbard, resulting in cracking of the upper sediment. This may cause shallower earthquakes, favor the release of large amounts of methane and promote submarine land sliding.

I was so exited. We managed to get a tender finished on time to hire the company that would provide the instrumentation for the measurements. I had the ship time, the funding and the instrumentation. It was supposed to be a great, unconventional, high risk high gain cruise. And then things happened…

To make the measurements we had a Cone Penetration Test (CPT) machine on board together with 2 expert engineers and the manager of the company that provided the service. The CPT is a heavy machine but the Captain of the ship had enthusiastically confirmed that the ship had strong winches to deal with such heavy machines: the trawling winches. The company never came back with hesitations or feedback about the type of winches that the captain suggested. To me all sounded like good news. What I didn’t know at that time is that I actually was not being wisely advised neither by the ship crew, experts with wires and winches, nor by the company, experts in deployment of their CPT. Before reaching the bottom at the first site of investigation (890 m), the wires got entangled and the experiment got to an end. Yes, as violent as it sounds. After months of work to get in place such an expensive and ambitious, beyond state of the art offshore experiment, it took only a couple of hours to culminate it with zero data.

The crew tried a few maneuvers but they did not manage to deal with the entangled wires so they cut and the instrument stayed at the bottom until 6 months later, Easter 2022, when we came back with the heroic ROV team to recover it.

I can tell the story now that I feel relieved because the company got back his machine. I would’ve not been able of telling the story before the 14th of April (day when the CPT was back on deck) because I was trapped inside a cloud of stress and anxiety. The company was asking for a random compensation on the lost of the machine. They claimed that the ship was responsible for the deployment, while the ship claimed that the company did not master their instrumentation properly. The responsibility stayed in a limbo and conveniently ended-up on the university (the project administrator). I tell it and I almost cannot believe it: the scientist hires instrumentation and expert operators of such instrumentation and hires the ship and its expert crew. None of the experts advised on the suitability of wires. The wrong wires are used. The experiment fails. The research project pays millions for “0” data and for the lack of professional advice by the experts.

A bit of a crazy thing, isn’t it? If you ask me, the decision on where the responsibility relies should have been taken on a trial. Instead, the project pays the mess and life keeps going without major dramas…

Life is life. At least I know more about wires, winches and legal processes.

Snap shot ROV video: The CPT at the bottom hosting two comfortable cods. The heroes in this story are UiB-Ægir and his pilots.

Text and photo Andreia Plaza-Faverola