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oceanography

Set to sail

After two years in the yards for repair, our oceanographic ship returns to the high seas

The oceanographic ship Professor W. Besnard, the main research vessel of the Oceanographic Institute of the University of São Paulo (Iousp) and the only ship of this sort in Brazil able to undertake long voyages on the high sea, goes back to sea in the second half of November. “The institute is breathing again and doing science”, says the Belmiro Mendes de Castro, who has already led various research expeditions on the Besnard.

The ship, which bears the name of the founder of the Oceanographic Institute, Professor Wladimir Besnard (1890-1960), has been halted since 1998, when it was taken to the port of Santos because of engine problems. The halt made the institute’s research and teaching work difficult. “You cannot do oceanography without a good ship”, says the veteran Luiz Bruner de Miranda, head researcher on many of the Besnard’s expeditions, and he adds, “You can’t learn about the ocean from a computer screen”.

Launching in 1967
“To do oceanographic work you need an oceanographic ship. Without a ship it would be better to change the name of the Oceanographic Institute to the Institute for Coastal Studies”, comments the present director, Rolf Roland Weber, good-humoredly, on the difficulties faced by the Institute. The researchers and students suffered most, being prevented from using the boat for field research on the high seas. Some projects were delayed. With the return of the Besnard to the ocean, everything will improve.

In the repair of the ship, which cost close to R$ 1 million and was partly financed by FAPESP, the engine was replaced and new equipment was installed. The efforts of the Iousp to keep the Besnard shipshape are also justified by the history of its accomplishments.

The development of sailing and oceanography was intimately associated with the 19th century, when research and exploration vessels, such as HMS Challenger, became famous. The French professor Wladimir Besnard always had the idea of the need for an oceanographic ship for the institute he founded and directed as from 1946. Bruner insists that this was one of Besnard’s main motivations.

The founder’s dream took shape with the approval of the purchase of the ship, at the end of 1958, but it only became a reality ten years later, on May 5, 1967. On that day, in Bergen, Norway, where the ship was built by order of the government of São Paulo at the AS Mjellem & Karsen shipyard, the launching ceremony of the ship took place, and the name was in posthumous tribute to Besnard. In a flag changing ceremony, the ship was transferred to the ownership of the USP on May 30.

The following day the Bernard weighed anchor in Bergen and would only reach the port of Santos on September 9 1967: this voyage was also its first scientific expedition, called the Vikindio in reference to the partnership between Norwegian and Brazilian scientists in its construction. The expedition was coordinated by Marta Vannucci, director of the Iousp, and Thor Kwinge, of the Bergen University Geophysical Institute. Their route included the Canary Islands, the northwestern coast of Africa, and the Brazilian coast from Recife to Santos.

Mountain discovered
Luiz Bruner, who took part in the voyage, reveals that “during the trip, water samples, hydrographic data, plankton samples were collected and measurements were taken of the Brazil Current”. On this maiden voyage, the Besnard made its first and important discovery in the North Atlantic, an underwater mountain, 3,500 meters high, with the peak at a depth of 194 meters, located on the Dakar-Las Palmas route near the Sal Islands (Cape Verde). The mountain was given the name of Besnard.

Bruner recalls that his doctorate owes a great deal to the work carried out at the beginning of the 70s with the Besnard on the Cobra project – the Brazil Current on the southern continental shelf – with which he practically founded the institute’s chair of Oceanographic Physics.

An experienced meteorologist and telegraphy expert took part in this historic phase of the ship’s history:  Rubens Junqueira Villela, a researcher from USP’s Astronomy and Geophysics Institute (IAG), the first Brazilian to reach the south pole – in 1962 – with an American expedition. Bruner reminds us Villela played an important part in various of the Besnard’s expeditions in the 60s and 70s, when all the transmission of meteorological date from shore to ship was done by telegraph. As soon as he received the data, Villela would quickly do his weather forecasts, which were essential to the missions.

Adventure in Antarctica
The Besnard has been involved in many large projects. One of them, Coroas – the Portuguese acronym for Oceanic Circulation in the Western Region of the South Atlantic –, consists of appraising the primary productivity in the Atlantic. Financed by FAPESP and by the National Scientific and Technological Development Council (CNPq), the project has been underway since 1992 in partnership with the National Space Research Institute at São José dos Campos (associated with the Ministry of Science and Technology) and the University Foundation of Rio Grande do Sul (Furg). Through the Iousp, Belmiro de Castro takes part in Coroas, whose voyages have already included the coasts of São Paulo, Paraná, Santa Catarina and Rio Grande do Sul.

The Besnard’s great adventure, however, was the series of scientific excursions to the Antarctic, as part of the Brazilian Antarctic Program (Proantar), which took place from the summer of 1982 to that of 1988. There were six research campaigns of which the 1st Brazilian Expedition to the Antarctic and the installation of the Comandante Ferraz Antarctic Station on King George Island enabled Brazil to be admitted as the full member of the Antarctic Treaty Consultative Council and the SCAR – Scientific Committee on Antarctic Research. As an important member of these missions, Rubens Villela was then enabled to revisit the continent of Antarctica.

The work of the Besnard in the Antarctic ceased because of the wear and tear to its structure, caused by the adverse sea conditions in the region. In 1998, this led to the axle of the ship’s propeller breaking in crossing Drake Passage. This structural wear and tear was the probable cause of the mechanical problems that began to plague the ship’s performance.

Hence, after 150 oceanographic cruises, the Besnard underwent a broad refitting from 1994 to 1997. In 1998, however, it had to return for repair after suffering engine problems; the structural wear and tear had caused some of the cylinders of the engine to be out of line, which over time grounded the ship.

As part of the repair, another engine and new equipment were installed, which will improve performance and ensure the Besnard survives for longer. Among these items of equipment is the ADCP, an acoustic Dopller current profiler for automatically measuring the speed, the direction and the conductivity of the water in an ocean current, without the ship having to come to a halt. There is also an Echo integrator, for detecting any biomass present, and the EA500 Echo sounder for doing the bathymetry – depth measurement – and assessing the geological composition of the material on the ocean floor. Besides the analytical instruments installed onboard, the Besnard was equipped with a new system for transmitting information by the satellite Imarsat-A, coordinated with an internal computer network and integrated with laboratories and instruments.

All the new instruments can be reused in any new oceanographic ship in the future. Meanwhile, the Besnard is preparing to take up its function as the main Brazilian oceanographic laboratory. In December, it takes part in a study on the dynamics of the ecosystem of the South Atlantic ocean floor, the only oceanographic project forming part of the CNPq’s Nuclei of Excellence Program (Pronex).

The ship
Equipment: oceanographic ship
Total length: 49.35 m
Length at the Plimsoll line: 42,60m
Beam: 9.33 m
Draft: 3.73 m
Depth of hold: 5 m
Displacement Tonnage: 670 t
Speed: 13.5 knots
Range: 14 to 21 days
Crew: 23
Researchers: 15

The Projects
1. Maintenance and Instrumentation of the Oceanographic Ship Professor W. Besnard (nº 98/08676-1); Type Infrastructure 4 Program; Coordinator Rolf Roland Weber – USP’s Oceanographic Institute; Investment US$ 64,900
2. Replacement of the Main Engine of the Oceanographic Ship (nº 99/01483-6); Type Help for the research project; Coordinator Rolf Roland Weber – USP’s Oceanographic Institute; Investment US$ 150,000

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