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Good-bye to the Prof. Besnard

University has to remove oceanographic vessel from the port but is preserving its documentary heritage

The 1967 maiden voyage from Bergen, Norway en route to Santos. Below, the vessel nameplate

Personal Collection Yara NovelliThe 1967 maiden voyage from Bergen, Norway en route to SantosPersonal Collection Yara Novelli

in Santos, SP

Late on the morning of February 16, 2016, on the main deck of the oceanographic vessel Professor W. Besnard, alongside a vase filled with roses and gerbera daisies, among rust-speckled white cranes stood Mario Katsuragawa, a 64-year-old professor at the Oceanographic Institute of the University of São Paulo (IO-USP), who uttered, in a strong calm voice: “Brazilian oceanographic science owes much to this vessel.”

Katsuragawa and 11 other researchers were there to say their good-byes to the vessel that had been part of their scientific training and a milestone in Brazil’s oceanographic research.   Katsuragawa had made 33 voyages aboard the Prof. Besnard. But its most dramatic voyage, one for which he was not aboard, occurred in 1988, when the engine shaft broke while crossing the Drake Passage, a long stretch of notoriously rough seas and high winds at the entrance to the Antarctic Peninsula, and so the vessel had to be towed to Chile. Lourival Pereira de Souza, chemical oceanography laboratory technician, took part in “more than 50” expeditions, he said, including three to Antarctica.  The audience also included Luiz Bruner de Miranda, 78, the IO-USP professor who oversaw construction of the vessel in the Bergen, Norway shipyard.  He was also a member of the research team on the vessel’s two-month maiden voyage in 1967 en route to the Port of Santos, and head researcher for many of the Besnard’s expeditions.

Under construction: the 1966 launch of the hull

IO-USP Collection/Reproduction Francisco Luiz Vicentini NetoUnder construction: the 1966 launch of the hullIO-USP Collection/Reproduction Francisco Luiz Vicentini Neto

Anchored alongside was one of the vessel’s successors: the Alpha Delphini, the first oceanographic vessel build entirely in Brazil (see Pesquisa FAPESP  Issue nº 208). Measuring 27 meters (m) in length, with space for 12 researchers and six crewmembers, the vessel has been in operation since 2013, when it was incorporated into the Institute’s fleet to increase São Paulo’s oceanographic research capacity. In 2012 the USP institute, with support from FAPESP, purchased the vessel Alpha Crucis (see Pesquisa FAPESP Issue nº 195), which has taken over a considerable number of Besnard’s tasks. Measuring 64 m in length with capacity for 19 crewmembers and 21 researchers, the Alpha Crucis is under renovation in a shipyard in Ceará State and is scheduled to resume activity in the next few months.

At 49.3 meters long, with a carrying capacity of 22 crewmembers and 15 researchers, the Besnard was built at the request of the São Paulo government, using state and federal funds.  Its construction was the result of intense negotiations that began in the late 1950s by Wladimir Besnard, a Russian researcher who had settled in Brazil and who headed up what was then called the Paulista Institute of Oceanography (IPO), and later by Martha Vannucci, first director of the IO, established on the basis of the former IPO.

The 1967 christening of the vessel named in honor...

IO-USP Collection The 1967 christening of the vessel named in honor…IO-USP Collection

After more than 150 voyages, the vessel underwent a major overhaul from 1994-1997. In 1998, it had to cease operations again due to engine problems before returning to sea in 2000 (see Pesquisa FAPESP Issue nº 59). In 2008, it suffered a serious fire and became unable to conduct research due to the high cost of refurbishing it.  In 2012, the purchase of the vessel Alpha Crucis, which had been planned for many years, introduced a dilemma as to what to do with the historic vessel, now constantly battered by weather – by February 2016, the wooden structure was almost entirely infested by termites and the engine inoperative.  Not a single city expressed interest in converting the vessel into a museum, nor did a potential vessel transfer to Uruguay go forward.  The company that manages the Port of Santos requested the vessel’s removal and USP decided to open bidding for it to be taken by any company interested in giving the vessel a fitting end and finally closing its long chapter of producing knowledge about the Brazilian coastline.

On its first expedition, the vessel’s research team identified a 3,500 m high undersea mountain and its peak at a depth of194 m near one of the small islands of the Cape Verde archipelago.  The vessel primarily explored the southeastern Brazilian coast   from Cabo Frio in Rio de Janeiro State to Cabo de Santa Marta in the state of Rio Grande do Sul. One of its early missions was a series of 12 voyages made in 1968 to investigate potential fishing grounds along the coast of Rio Grande do Sul. That was followed by 260 voyages, for purposes both educational – to train students and researchers – and scientific, collecting information about currents, temperatures, salinities and marine organisms at nearly 10,000 points. The Besnard also played a geopolitical role when it took part in the Brazilian Antarctic Program from 1982 -1988, along with naval vessels such as the icebreaker Barão de Teffé.

...of Wladimir Besnard

IO-USP Collection …of Wladimir BesnardIO-USP Collection

Now teams from the IO are mobilizing to preserve the vessel’s instruments and documents as much as possible. Luiz Nonnato, electrical engineer by training and participant in four voyages to Antarctica aboard the Besnard, displays the ship’s helm with engine rotation and propeller controls and a brass and wood stand known as a binnacle, housing the compass.  These were removed from the vessel in 2015, after its final destination was determined, and they are now maintained at the IO’s Oceanographic Instrumentation Laboratory.

“Pure bronze,” says mechanical engineer Francisco Vicentini, who made 51 voyages aboard the Besnard, 21 of them as principal investigator, as he carefully retrieved one of the two ship’s bells from the laboratory’s shelf.  Also found there in various stages of preservation were some windows – or portholes –, kerosene emergency navigation lights, the original nameplate of the Norwegian manufacturer and a sextant.  One of the anchors is on display at the entrance to the museum and larger instruments can be found inside.

Librarian Eloisa de Sousa Maia shows off the collection of photos, films and documents maintained at the IO museum.  In one of the refrigerated rooms of the Institute’s biological collection are 68 ship’s logs that are being catalogued by the museum team so they can be searched for information about research studies, instruments, projects and researchers for each of the vessel’s voyages.  “The ship’s logs are very useful,” said biologist Monica Petti, curator of the collection and a veteran of six voyages aboard the Besnard.  She says the collection has around 50,000 samples of marine organisms collected on voyages of the Besnard, many still awaiting more thorough analyses.