A new tack: Docking in a different port. Credit: Scott Taylor.
A new tack: Docking in a different port. Credit: Scott Taylor.

Sea Change

The Cape Hatteras sets sail under a new flag after three decades.
May 14, 2013

After nearly thirty-two years of service, the Cape Hatteras has spent its last day at sea, at least under Duke’s command. The research vessel, which Duke received from the National Science Foundation in 1980, has been sold for $900,000 to the Cape Fear Community College in Wilmington, North Carolina.

The research platform was a beacon of scientific cooperation in the North Carolina marine research community. Operating out of the Duke University Marine Lab on Pivers Island, the Cape Hatteras was used by many organizations, including UNC Chapel Hill and N.C. State. Researchmissions ranged widely, including a 2010 investigation of an oil spill’s biological and chemical effects on the Gulf Coast, and a 2011 U.S. Coast Guard antiterrorism training exercise in boarding and securing the vessel.

Duke didn’t want to put the veteran vessel on the market, but last summer, the National Science Foundation, which, along with over governmental agencies, largely supports the maintenance of the ship, decided to reduce its funding. At 135 feet long, the Cape Hatteras is on the smaller end of regional class research vessels and can’t handle the global missions of its 270-foot peers. Its size, aging technology, and decrease in demand for its use made the Cape Hatteras a prime candidate for retirement from the NSF.

“It was a heavy blow for us because other institutions can retire one ship and have others to continue the program,” says Richard Barber, former director of the Cape Hatteras program and professor emeritus of biological oceanography. “We were a one-ship program, so when they retired the Cape Hatteras, it hit us hard.”

The Cape Hatteras will transfer to Cape Fear Community College’s Marine Technology program, one of the country’s few institutions dedicated to the training of marine technicians. In its new capacity, the vessel will be used to train students with an eye on marine research as well as the offshore-drilling industry.

While Duke may no longer have a vessel of Cape Hatteras’ caliber to call its own, Barber says that there will be no change in the amount of marine research that Duke will conduct.