The almost 50-year-old boat visits the shipyard nearly every six months to have sections of its hull replaced. The vessel isn’t up to modern standards in terms of technology, facilities or building materials, and its 71-foot, worn exterior reveals decades of fatigue.
In essence, the R/V Bellows, an education and research vessel for the Florida Institute of Oceanography (FIO), has more than the FIO’s share of problems and is in need of replacement, according to FIO Director William Hogarth.
Now, after a nearly four-year battle for funding, the FIO will get its new 78-foot boat.
“Really, the vessel had served its purpose,” Hogarth said. “We couldn’t keep up with the maintenance. We were concerned about safety and we just wanted to make sure that our researchers and students had the best technology that we could afford to be doing research and teaching.”
The R/V Bellows and its replacement are platforms for key research, according to Hogarth, which is important in understanding the waters surrounding Florida and our impact on it. These waters, Hogarth said, are a vital piece of the Florida economy.
Research done using the R/V Bellows includes that into red tide and the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill. Continuation of this research, as well as other projects, is planned for the new vessel.
One of these other projects involves mapping the Gulf of Mexico over the next three to five years to gain insight into gulf habitats to ensure their protection. That project brings in roughly $3 million a year.
The R/V Bellows also served as a classroom for programs such as the annual USF College of Marine Science Oceanography Camp, which is designed for middle school-age girls. The new vessel is expected to continue in that purpose.
“It’s really a teaching vessel, I’d say — not a research vessel,” Hogarth said.
The new $6 million, custom-designed and currently unnamed vessel was made possible through a number of venues.
These include $3 million in funding from the state combined with $1 million from FIO’s own budget, $250,000 from the City of St. Petersburg, and a collection of other pledges from member universities in FIO.
These members include UF, USF, FAU, FGCU, Eckerd College, FAMU, UCF and FSU in order to match the Legislature. Gov. Rick Scott approved the funding during the 2016 Legislative Session.
All member universities as well as state agencies will have access to the new vessel in order to conduct classes and research. FIO receives between $3 million and $5 million a year through the state for this research.
FIO was set by the Board of Governors to serve as a central body for oceanography to support and provide the platform for efficient marine research in Florida. It has 30 members and is hosted by USF, meaning that USF provides facilities and administrative assistance.
Hogarth said USF System President Judy Genshaft and Provost Ralph Wilcox helped the FIO organize to get the help it needed to match funding from the Legislature.
The boat was designed by Boksa Marine Design, a naval architecture and engineering firm out of Lithia, Florida that worked with those who had used the boat over the past 7 years to gain insight about what they needed in the new vessel.
The new boat will feature new facilities such as separate wet and dry labs for on-board research. Construction of the new vessel will take about 12 to 14 months and will be done at Duckworth Steel Boats shipyard in Tarpon Springs.
“We’re fortunate that we can keep the money and jobs in our own (Florida) economy,” Hogarth said.
FIO plans to celebrate the new vessel’s construction with a keel laying ceremony at 10 a.m. today at the shipyard. The center structure of the R/V Bellows’ replacement will be available for viewing.
“We’re very thankful that the Legislature and the Governor approved (the new vessel) and that the City of St. Petersburg and the universities and members contributed to make it come true,” Hogarth said.
“We think we’re going to get an excellent vessel, and it’s something we feel like (is) extremely important for the researchers and students and even the people who have businesses in Florida so we can follow what goes on in the Gulf of Mexico — and hopefully protect a valuable resource for the economy. We’re just extremely happy that this is taking place.”