Anyone who has spent any time at sea is all too aware of one fact above others: That no matter how calm and pleasurable it can be, no matter how bright the mood on board and how productive the work day when the ocean's surface is flat, conditions can turn on a dime.
When blue turns to gray, and the waves turn menacing and flecked with foam, all of a sudden the focus is on getting through the day: staying upright, not falling off the furniture, not bumping into bulkheads … and, candidly, keeping down food. As for work: well, some of it – engine room and bridge watches, for example – is unavoidable and must be soldiered through. A lot of the rest sometimes simply has to wait for another, calmer day.
FLIP, which is owned by the U.S. Navy and operated by the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, was designed by Scripps researchers Fred Fisher and Fred Spiess, who wanted a platform that was both more stable and quieter than conventional research vessels, in order to facilitate their study of sound waves underwater. The design they came up with looked less like a conventional ship or more like a baseball bat, with a large handle grip and a long barrel.
The living and working quarters are all in the 'handle' part of the vessel. Most of the rest of FLIP comprises empty compartments; when they are filled with air, the ship – which has no self-propulsion but most be towed into place – floats horizontally. When they are filled with seawater, the lower 300 feet of FLIP sink beneath the waves; over the course of 28 minutes, FLIP crew brace themselves, as bulkheads become decks and vice-versa.
In the galley, the refrigerator and stove are mounted on trundle devices, so they turn with the ship without spilling so much as a drop of coffee or a spatula; cabins and bathrooms come equipped with two toilets and washbasins, one mounted vertically and one horizontally for use in the ship's different positions.
Once FLIP is in vertical position, it is, in the words of one scientist, "so stable it is almost immobile," allowing researchers to conduct oceanographic studies – and keep their food down.
Photographs of FLIP in vertical position: Top, via US Navy Office of Naval Research; bottom, via Scripps Institution of Oceanography.