Capt. Bill Byam aboard the Sharp. Photo by Elizabeth Boyle
Capt. Bill Byam has worked on the water nearly his entire life. For the past nine years, he’s served as captain of College of Marine and Earth Studies vessels, first the R/V Cape Henlopen and now the R/V Hugh R. Sharp. During a recent cruise in Roosevelt Inlet, he reflected on the life of a skipper.
How often do you sail?
We sail about 180 to 200 days for science a year. Between 25 and 30 percent of that is with the University of Delaware. (The Sharp is a member of a consortium of 61 institutions called the University-National Oceanographic Laboratory System, or UNOLS, which ensures efficient scheduling of vessels shared by members.)
To have relief, we have three engineers and three deck persons, but we sail with two people in each department. That’s how people get time off. So each person ends up sailing two-thirds of the schedule, which is between 120 and 130 days. When I sail, I’m always the captain, but our chief mate, Jimmy Warrington, who’s been here for more than 20 years, serves as the captain when I’m not aboard.
What’s a typical day like?
We work six hours on and six hours off, and my watch is 5:30 to 11:30. I get up at about a quarter to five. Then I come on watch. Because of the cost of chartering the ship, we usually do 24-hour science. So when I come on, I assume the operation the other watch was in the middle of. We might be in transit, we might be doing science. This morning, we were doing one of the Tucker Trawl Stations (pulling a specially designed net to collect fish larvae), and then we went back across the mouth of Delaware Bay with the Scanfish (to get data on the physical condition of the water).
What kind of research cruises does the Sharp go on?
We do multiple types of science, from bucket sampling to much more sophisticated (research). This year we did a lot of work with AUVs (autonomous underwater vehicles), with the Navy and Woods Hole. Woods Hole, Scripps, the large vessels, will go out for 60 days or more, whereas we may do six or seven trips in that time. We do about 30 to 40 trips a year. Most of them average about nine days, but trips usually range from one day to three weeks.
What’s the biggest challenge a ship captain faces?
One of the biggest challenges is taking the responsibility of making a call (on whether to turn back because of weather, etc). Sometimes science will be on the fence, but you have to look at the situation, primarily from a safety viewpoint.
What’s your favorite part about your job?
I enjoy working with the different scientific groups. You have the nucleus of crew, but you always get to interact with different science groups, as opposed to a commercial operation where you’re only exposed to the crew.