If you just saw the image above, you might guess that the navy repurposed the front of a ship for the top of a buoy, or as many people have done, mistake it for a capsized ocean transport ship… the truth however, is far more interesting. You are looking at the US Navy’s oldest and most unusual research vessel. Appropriately called FLIP (Floating Instrument Platform), the 355ft long spoon-shaped ship is the world’s only vessel that can operate both horizontally and vertically. The ship performs its 28 minute transformation when 700 tons of seawater are pumped into the ‘handle’ of the ship causing it to lower into the water and the bow to rise.
Why perform such a bizarre maneuver? FLIP was originally built in 1962 to perform research on wave height, acoustic signals, water temperature and density, and for collecting meteorological data. Once it has been transformed to vertical operation, it is incredibly stable. Even with 30ft waves passing by, the ship only moves 3ft vertically in the water.
“The last 15° of movement prior to arriving in the vertical happens quickly and is reasonably exciting as the exterior decks where everyone is positioned appear to be heading into the sea,” says Captain William A Gaines, assistant director of Marine Physical Laboratory at Scripps Institution of Oceanography.
“The crew and riders remain on the external decks during the flipping evolution. The lowest exterior is about 15ft above the waterline when FLIP is in the vertical. There is lots of noise as the remaining air from the ballast tanks escapes from the vent lines located on the lowest external deck.”
As you can imagine, life aboard the ship is anything but ordinary. During transformation, walls become floors and floors become walls. Because of this, many surfaces inside the ship, like beds and shelves, rotate to the new orientation. Other less mobile fixtures, like sinks and showers, have duplicates that work in only one orientation. All this adds up to a ship that is quite cramped for its 16 member crew.
“It does take a special person to serve on FLIP,” says Gaines. “However, many scientists and science party members prefer conducting science from FLIP over being embarked in a conventional research ship because of the stability that FLIP offers. The small crew on FLIP creates a feeling of family and cohesiveness. The Officer in Charge of FLIP, Tom Golfinos, has been onboard for 17 years.”
In 2012 FLIP turned 50. Here is a short tour of this highly unusual, and disorienting, vessel.
Known in some circles as the most amazing man in the universe, he once saved an entire family of muskrats from a sinking, fire engulfed steamboat while recovering from two broken arms relating to a botched no-chute wingsuit landing in North Korea. When not impressing people with his humbling humility, he can be found freelance writing, finding shiny objects on the internet, enjoying the company of much-appreciated friends and living out his nomadic nature. He is Managing Editor of Visual News. Follow his movements on Twitter: