Research Ships

I’ve already searched the old forums, but most are pretty dated by this point.

What’s work and pay like working for UNOLS or WHOI for an AB? What about hawsepiping up the ladder? Training? Schedule? Locations?

I’ve been working for NOAA as an AB for some time now but doesn’t hurt to ask.

Thanks all!

Worked for both NOAA and university UNOLS ships as an engineer. Expect wages to be slightly lower. You will not be covered by a union contract. Therefore, you won’t get things like comsubs or penalty pay. If you can live without that, you will probably get plenty of OT at sea, and the sheer unadulterated joy of working for bridge officers who actually hold the credential for the job.

The universities do some pretty cool stuff, too. UH (University of Hawaii) does a lot of ROV work with their one remaining vessel (Kilo Moana), so do many others uni’s. If you have ROV experience that is a plus.

actually catherder, noaa is suppose to have a govt. union. I have dealt with it enough to know that you are right: “there is no union” ha ha. now then Puck: if you have any intent of staying with the intent of gaining time for retirement you’re doing good. Catherder and I sure have collected plenty of pocket money in lieu of meals when the galley was closed, free stcw training, ability to move to different ships. AND you could go sail for msc or corps of engineers and still continue your time. In my prejudiced opinion you’re doing good. True; I split from NOAA and sailed for chevron, maersk, and some others but overall I feel it isn’t easy to beat govt. retirement.

They do indeed. I suspect, however, that you misunderstood what I said. I was referring to the university vessels as having the lower wages and no bennies like those found on government vessels. Having worked on both, and have the paystubs to prove it. I hope that clarifies things.

And having bought back military time last year at great expense, I can now retire at any time.

I sailed on some university ships. Not a career path for sure. Running a ship probably baffles bean counters huh? Congrats on buying your time back. I considered it but had 24 yrs. In & ended up with both retirements. Wasn’t E Z!

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Great news on being able to retire. I concur with the difference between UNOLS and NOAA. I worked for 2 years way back with NOAA and got fed up with the entitled boondoggle called NOAA Corps. Later did a little relief work with UNOLS, enjoyed it. During the Clinton administration VP Gore tried to turn over the ship operations of NOAA to civmars. The NOAA lobbyists beat that which was a great mistake IMO. If civilian mariners ran the NOAA vessels it would be a much sought after job. Pay may not be great but the total compensation including retirement, thrift savings, good health insurance adds up. When I was there the NOAA officers were lamenting the loss of their “officers mess” and being forced to eat with the engineers, ABs etc. I found that to be hilarious as the engineers were the only USCG licensed officers on board as the NOAA bridge officers held no USCG license [it was apparent]. The engineers were automatically covered by MEBA and I actually paid dues which afforded me more opportunities later on.

Speaking of all this, catherder didn’t you say you were going to give us all the good sea stories from your time sailing with NOAA when you retired? Is it time yet?

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I sailed as mate on a Unols boat back in the mid 90s to early 2000s and that was the best job I ever had. I was the same age as the female grad students which was a bonus and kept my windsurfing gear and kayak in a rack I built on top of the wheelhouse. My mtn bike lived in the air handler room and was my car whenever we hit port. Every trip was different from trying to collect fish in a trawl at 5,000ft of water to tagging spermwhales to lots of jobs for the Navy testing equipment. 9/11 put a damper on things. Windsurfing or kayaking back to the boat at a navy base was a little more than frowned upon. The university made good money chartering out the boat but was stingy on maintenance so after 6 years it was over. I bounced between osv, atb, 4 point anchor and 20 years later am on an abs class oceanographic research vessel as Master. The one thing that has been consistent is the ever increasing load of paperwork on any vessel. I used to say this beat the shit out of an office job but my job has turned into floating office job. The fact we do different jobs all the time is the only way I stay offshore anymore because it does keep things intersting. Sadly the good old days are over or I am just becoming a curmudgeon.


I have tragicomedy story about that. I was literally written up by a small gaggle of those guys for being “disrespectful to a ship’s officer,” giving zero regard to the fact that I was the only one among us that the Coast Guard considered an officer. In fact, the weasels never said a word to my face, waited till I transferred off the ship to do this, and lo and behold, the goddess of karma was waiting for them. A couple weeks later, they allided with the pier while trying to get underway. They cancelled the sea trial. The next day, they allided with an adjacent vessel. Drove straight off an angled pier into the bow.
The ship they hit was the one I was transferred to. I was in the engine room. It was quite a thwack!

I took photos and look at them whenever I need a quick pick-me-up. The damage to property wasn’t too bad, but those butthurt little egos? PRICELESS


I could be wrong, but my wife is a federal employee and under the new(ish) system the retirement isn’t all that great. Not terrible, but not like the good ol’ days. If you get hired now you’re under the new system in most federal jobs, so if that is important to you make sure to read the fine print. Don’t just go on “government jobs have great benefits” without making sure they work for you.


yes, they’ve changed it since then and no, not for the better. Yes, one can make a higher pay check in the private sector but if you don’t do as well saving and investing as some do it could make your retirement rather precarious.

I’ve worked in the UNOLS fleet since 2013. Started as AB and worked to 2M. Each organization has there own pay schedule, overtime rules, etc. Some are better than others.

For example: If you work at Scripps or OSU and your ship returns to the home port, you dont get paid on weekends. You can stay onboard but no work or pay and you have to cook for yourself. These are the only two places that do that to my knowledge.

AB’s at Scripps steer, stand watch, paint and clean alot. The Oilers run the winches, which is deck dept duties on all other unols boats.

Alaska is cool and the pay is good. They dont take out for SS so you get paid a little more but if you want SS later in life you’ll want to make those contributions yourself.

U of H can be rough as an outside AB from what I hear if your not local. That’s the word on the street. They stick mostly around the islands.

WHOI and the UW are the best run operations for a mariner. Weekend pay, good ot, busy schedules etc.

All unols boats only have one permanent crew and everyone else is a temp. Some temps stay for years and never want to be perm. Others come once never to return. Overall perm spots are desirable and can take some time to lock down. There is usually some need for reliefs throughout the fleet. You need to make contact at each university or institution. The unols job board is a joke.

If you get on one of the global class ships (Atlantis. Thompson, Revelle) you have the chance to see the world and do some amazing things. The Sikuliaq will be mostly based in Alaska with spring and fall work off the Oregon Coast.

The Armstrong and Sally Ride dont travel as far s the global boats but usually but do stretch their legs and go to some cool locations just not as far away.

The UW and Scripps are in the IBU. The Marcus Langseth is MMP in the wheelhouse, not sure about unlicensed. The rest are non union as far as I’m aware.

Hope this helps. Good luck.

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Worst Captain, hands down, I ever sailed with was on a UNOLS ship. If it wasn’t for the Captain that would have been one of my best jobs. The work was interesting, and we got real port calls in Japan, Papua New Guinea, and Australia. All the grad students who came aboard were fun to interact with, the onboard demographics skewed much younger than your typical ship which was great for my younger self.

Be forewarned, I just looked at the university website and 20 years later the same Captain is still there (new ship, same Captain)… I could write a book on that guy.