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FLIP platform inverted in the water

Photo courtesy Scripps Institution of Oceanography / UC San Diego

Internet-Famous FLIP Ship Sent for Scrap

Mike Schuler
Total Views: 15191
August 9, 2023

One of the internet’s most revered unusual ships, known simply as FLIP, has been sent for scrap.

The Floating Instrument Platform (FLIP), owned by the U.S. Office of Naval Research (ONR) was a unique oceanographic research tool that exemplified the ingenuity of scientists and engineers at Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego, which operated the vessel.

Launched in 1962, the unique vessel was designed to “flip” from a horizontal to a vertical position by filling its ballast tanks with water, allowing the 355-foot vessel to remain nearly motionless in ocean swells. It was this characteristic that made it such a valuable tool for science.

The vessel was designed, built, and operated by Scripps’ Marine Physical Laboratory in the late 1950s, developed as a cost-effective alternative to using submarines for accessing the water column below the surface, which was highly sought after by oceanographers.

Over its 50-year service life, FLIP helped advance society’s understanding of ocean currents, ocean acoustics, air-sea interactions, marine mammals and more. It was retired in 2021, but has remained remembered for its unusual design and invaluable contributions to science.

“R/P FLIP has existed for more than half the length of the institution’s entire history,” said Scripps Oceanography Director Margaret Leinen. “It was an engineering marvel constructed during an important phase of new technology for ocean exploration following World War II. The many discoveries from FLIP help set the stage for ongoing cutting-edge science to understand our ocean.”

Copyright Scripps Institution of Oceanography / UC San Diego

FLIP was actually classified as a platform due to its lack of propulsion, which meant it had to be towed to location by tugs. Outfitted with research instruments by scientists from universities around the world, FLIP’s stability and lack of engine noise made it ideal for observing tidal forces, internal waves, and small-scale turbulence.

FLIP was originally designed without living quarters. However, this concept was quickly abandoned due to the hazards of scientists having to board it from small boats, which are not immune to ocean swells. To accommodate people staying on board, it had to be outfitted with amenities that could operate in orientations 90 degrees apart from each other, including toilets, sinks, bunk beds, and dining tables.

FLIP’s crew also had to receive special training for the unconventional operation of the vessel. The full transition from horizontal to vertical took 30 minutes, but the final 49 seconds were said to be the most gut-wrenching as it settled into its new orientation.

FLIP tow away on August 3, 2023. Photo courtesy Scripps Institution of Oceanography / UC San Diego

FLIP operated for years without incident. However, in 1969 it had to be abandoned by its crew after losing power when it experienced ocean swells exceeding 80 feet. The incident required a rescue operation where crew members had to jump into the water to be picked up by boats.

Even after its final research voyage, FLIP has continued to attract public and media attention, not to mention the occasional viral social media post.

FLIP departed Scripps’ Nimitz Marine Facility under tow on its final voyage on August 3rd. Officials at Scripps Oceanography have arranged for one of FLIP’s booms to be removed and attached to the Scripps Pier in La Jolla, where it will continue to deploy research instruments as a tribute to FLIP and an inspiration for innovation at Scripps Oceanography.

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