Keeping Research Afloat
By Jon Reidel Article published August 15, 2003
Fresh from college and summers working on boats in Maine’s Casco Bay, Dick Furbush was nervous about an interview he’d lined up for a captain’s position on a UVM research vessel known as Melosira.
Furbush had moved to Burlington a few months earlier in the summer of 1965 to work as a quartermaster on a ferry for the Lake Champlain Transportation Co., but had his eye on the captain’s job offered by UVM, which had just purchased the Melosira with the intention of going into the aquatic research business.
Furbush recalls the “on-water job interview with observation” as nerve-wracking.
“I had to get the vessel underway with people I didn't know handling lines, and of course critiquing my every move,” Furbush says. “That was followed by a return trip where I had to back the boat into a narrow slip, all of which is difficult with a boat you aren’t familiar with and extremely challenging on a new vessel with wind present, as well as the committee being there.”
Fast-forward 38 years. It’s a muggy overcast day in July of 2003 and a more seasoned Furbush is steering a newer, bigger version of Melosira off the shore of the Burlington waterfront near the shiny new ECHO at the Leahy Center for Lake Champlain. Deckhand Fred Stetson lowers an $18,000 piece of high tech equipment called a CTD (conductivity, temperature and depth) into the depths of Lake Champlain as UVM researchers Jamie Rowder and Lisa Bower prepare to collect water samples for a water quality study.
It’s clear by the way Furbush confidently handles the boat that he’s orchestrated thousands of similar voyages on this floating research lab during the 20,000 miles he’s logged as captain of the two Melosiras. “In many ways,” Stetson says, “Dick Furbush is the Melosira.”
What Lies Beneath
The Melosira has been the catalyst for some of the most important studies ever conducted on Lake Champlain. In the early days, some of the research was limited by the available aquatic technology, yet still yielded some significant results that helped shed light on numerous issues facing the lake.
Furbush points to a rainbow smelt population study in the late 80s, which helped develop a cutting-edge monitoring technique, as particularly significant to the early legitimization of the Melosira as a serious research vessel. A whole-lake survey of contaminants residing in sediments was also a significant early study, he says.
“We were all proud of our new research vessel and carried out much research in water quality, geology, microbiology and fisheries,” Furbush remembers of the early days. “As I recall, research was carried out on the (first) vessel that supported more than 60 graduate students in the 16 years we operated the first Melosira.”
Some of today’s hydro acoustic surveys of fish populations, which employ the use of echo sounding equipment, would not have been possible during the tenure of the first Melosira, which ended in 1981.
“As the captain of the Melosira and technician extraordinaire, Dick brings many talents to our Lake Champlain research work and is an integral member of the UVM team,” says U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy, a longtime Melosira supporter. “His steady hand and deep commitment have been invaluable in our effort to better understand and conserve the lake we love.”
Other cutting edge research is now possible with the evolution of technology, including a project by visiting Middlebury professor Tom Manley, who is studying underwater currents using a $15,000 prototype called The Drifter. The model is the first of its kind in the world, according to Manley, who credits Melosira with making his research possible.
“The Melosira is the only vessel on this lake capable of handling the type of heavy equipment required to carry out these studies,” Manley says. “It’s exceptionally well-equipped. Sometimes scientists get all the glory because of their research and we miss the people who are the foundation for the findings. Dick is an unbelievable resource who’s constantly thinking of new ways to do things.”
Current studies include the impact of zebra muscles on the lake; The Burlington Bay Project, which uses Melosira as a platform to investigate the ecosystem health of the Burlington bay; hydrodynamic studies of the lake's currents; and an expanded investigation of the blue-green algae blooms in the lake.
Furbush has also worked closely with Art Cohn of the Lake Champlain Maritime Museum and Bob Ballard's crew, discoverer of Titanic, to help locate and excavate some historically significant shipwrecks.
The name Melosira – a homage of sorts to a diatomic organism native to the lake – was chosen in a quickly assembled meeting by some of the early lake researchers after a call from UVM lawyers in New York who needed a name for the boat for a title transfer.
Almost 20 years later, when the university was about to buy another floating research lab, the name Melosira was kept after one of the largest financial backers of the vessel wanted to keep the original name. The ship was almost called The Quest, but the seemingly fitting name lost out in the end.
The limitations of the original Melosira’s 1940s design and its minimal workspace, was a driving force behind the selection of the newer Melosira, which Furbush helped design and estimates its worth at $500,000, including high-tech equipment.
The old Melosira didn’t have radar, which according to Furbush, added a whole different level of stress to basic research trips such as the early smelt studies that were carried out at night. “It was a quantum leap when we first used radar,” he says. “We took another leap in technology when we got GPS (Global Positioning System) and computerized chart programs.”
“I don’t think there’s any doubt about research expectations being exceeded with both the old and new vessels,” Furbush says. “This would relate directly to the advent of technology and its applications in the marine science field.”
Spoken like a proud captain, Furbush adds that he'd put Melosria up against many other highly regarded university research vessels.
"The University of Vermont has a well equipped vessel on a great lake able to conduct cutting edge research as well as a variety of educational opportunities," Furbush says. "I wouldn't hold my head down to any other comparably-sized vessel."