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  • Writer's pictureSarah Whiteford

FLIP - the ship that goes vertical

What is FLIP?

R/P FLIP is a unique vessel that can flip 90 degrees, staying vertical for weeks at a time to do ocean research. FLIP stands for FLoating Instrument Platform, as it is full of sensors used by scientists to study the ocean. According to Science and Technology Focus, it is operated by Scripps Institution of Oceanography’s Marine Physical Laboratory out of La Jolla, California, and owned by the Office of Naval Research. The platform is 108 meters (355 feet) long. Once in place, ballast tanks are filled with 700 tons of sea water and the platform starts to flip, the top is kept out of the water with air tanks. It’s shaped like a spoon, with the long handle submerged into the water and the spoon shape sticking out. The entire flip takes about 28 minutes, and the people on board just step up onto the walls as they turn into decks. Once settled in a vertical position, only 17 meters of the vessel is above the surface with 91 meters below. To flip back, air compressors fill the ballast tanks, pushing seawater out, raising the end until it is again level with the water. It is the only vessel in the world that can operate both horizontally and vertically.

“R/P FLIP with a full Moon. Taken from the R/V Melville, November 2013. Photo: Evan Walsh”. Image from Scripps Institute of Oceanography.

Scientific instruments are built into FLIP so that they read correctly when the vessel is vertical. It is only horizontal while it’s moving to location, and needs to be turned vertical for research. One of the strangest parts of FLIP is it’s unique crew space. It houses 5 crew members and 11 researchers who need to live on board in all conditions. To accomplish this, most of the rooms have two doors. According to Science and Technology Focus, “Things like bunk beds, toilets and stoves are built on swivels and gimbals, so they will turn along with FLIP. Other things that would not rotate so well, like sinks, are built both horizontally and vertically in each room.” It must be strange to see doors and sinks built into floors and ceilings, and shower heads curved 90 degrees! FLIP was built in 1962, almost 60 years ago at a cost of around $600,000.

“By U.S. Navy/John F. Williams - 120630-N-PO203-076, Public Domain,”. Image from Wikipedia.

Why does FLIP flip?

Dr. Fred Fisher and Dr. Fred Spiess, two MPL scientists, designed FLIP to be more stable than other research ships. According to Wikipedia, “FLIP was originally built to support research into the fine-scale phase and amplitude fluctuations in undersea sound waves caused by thermal gradients and sloping ocean bottoms. This acoustic research was conducted as a portion of the Navy's SUBROC program.” When flipped vertically as a buoy, it moves a mere fraction of the waves in rough seas, making it almost impervious to wave motion. In 30 foot swells, the vessel moves about 3 feet, creating a very stable platform compared to most ships that ride on top of the water at the mercy of the waves. Minimal movement allows “researchers to conduct a range of research activities including meteorology, geophysics, physical oceanography, marine mammal research, non-acoustic ASW and laser propagation experiments in a stable environment”, according to Ship Technology. The ship has no propulsion, because propulsion could interfere with the sensitive instruments on board. It must be towed into place and operates mostly off the West coast of the United States. It can float freely or be anchored to stay in one area. As long as there is enough room to go vertical, the ship can operate in shallow water or deep ocean. It was built to deal with 30 foot swells, but can survive 80 foot swells.

“By U.S. Navy/John F. Williams - 120630-N-PO203-396, Public Domain,”. Image from Wikipedia.

The vessel stores 1,500 gallons of fresh water, made from a reverse osmosis system at 31 gallons per hour. Two diesel generators rated at 150kW each power the vessel, with a 40 kW generator for backup. To operate in vertical and horizontal position, the engines are mounted on trunnions, allowing them to pivot. The crew stays on board for up to 30 days, or up to 45 days if resupplied. Stairs are steep, spaces are narrow, and there are only two bathrooms and showers, so plan accordingly!

“Credits: US Navy/”. Image from Marine Insight.

Picture what it might look like to be sailing across the ocean and see the front end of a ship sticking out of the water. You might be concerned that it was capsized, but you might be seeing the world’s only flippable ship! Check out the short video below of the flipping process from an outside point of view and from the crew’s perspective.

Video from Ecommerce Collective on YouTube.

Happy Friday!


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