Weather Eye: Born for Science

  The  Alcai  during   2007 research cruises in the Gulf of Maine

The Alcai during 2007 research cruises in the Gulf of Maine

by Wendy Mitman Clarke

Chesapeake-based scientists sail the globe  aboard their home-built schooner. 

I was leafing through the pages of a major sailing publication the other day and found myself yawning, bored by the flashy new yachts prancing across the pages, piloted on one of their two wheels by handsome young entrepreneurs with perfect teeth. My thoughts returned to a boat, the polar opposite, and her equally iconoclastic, brilliant master—the 64-foot research schooner Alca i, and Smithsonian research scientist Walter Adey.

If the measure of a boat is in how it has made the world a more interesting, knowledgeable place, then Walter’s doughty schooner, born of Virginia timber and Chesapeake craftsmanship, can sweep the proverbial floor with those cookie-cutter pleasure craft. I was lucky enough to spend a couple of nights aboard her last summer on the Maine coast, and I’ve been smitten ever since. 

Alca i, like her master, was born for science. A child of seagoing Newfoundlanders who eventually transplanted to the Chesapeake’s Ware River, Walter Adey is one the world’s foremost authorities on algae. His specialty is coralline algae, which can live thousands of years, archiving all kinds of data in its cells. 

Over years of global research, Adey has employed a variety of vessels. He found his very first boat in 1959 in Gloucester, Virginia—a 34-foot cedar purse seine boat from the Reedville menhaden fleet, powered with a four-cylinder Lathrop. 

“They were going for next to nothing, which is all I had, so I acquired one,” Walter says. A skilled carpenter, he added a deck and a small cabin house, allowing for a lab space and a dive compressor—science always being the foremost consideration. 

Another unlikely research vessel that came straight from the Bay was Corallina, a 41-foot Piver-designed trimaran he built in his backyard. He disassembled it to get it through his carport, then reassembled it during the late fall and early winter—a worrisome time, given that epoxy generally gets cantankerous in cold temperatures. 

“You know, when you’re sailing down there in the Windward Islands it can get pretty windy, and things can get a little nasty,” Walter says, “and, we’d be hull down going 15 knots and I’d be wondering, ‘did that epoxy go off?’” Corallina, Walter, and his wife, Emmy Award-winning Smithsonian filmmaker Karen Loveland Adey, did years of research in the Caribbean, documenting the diversity of corallines. 

But his opus surely is the Alca i, which he and Karen took on when he was 65 years old—a gargantuan, expensive project even he admits
“was crazy.” To fully document how geographic ranges of algae were shifting, particularly subarctic species, he needed a boat that could take scientists into shallow, largely uncharted northern coastal waters where he had laid down baseline data decades before. By making her a liveaboard research platform, he and his fellow scientists could cover a lot more water and gather far more data than land-based expeditions.

Alca i’s design was inspired by the Norwegian Colin Archer, who designed Fram, the schooner that Fridtjof Nansen and Roald Amundsen used in their respective polar expeditions. Walter asked Puget Sound naval architect George Buehler to provide the lines, and Walter lofted her himself.

With the help of a small, dedicated army and with Karen managing everything, Walter cut all the red and white oak from their Virginia property, dressed the wood, then dried it in a huge greenhouse. The build took three years, with their son Erik, who is a biologist, skillful mechanic and carpenter, designing and overseeing all the systems installations. Clinton Midgett of Mobjack Bay finished the pilothouse, galley, and the three spruce bird’s mouth-constructed hollow spars. He also gave the vessel her beautiful brass steering wheel. 

They named her Alca i for Alca impennis, a flightless diving bird that became extinct in the mid-1800s, “to keep the spirit of the great auk alive,” Karen says. She was launched in July 2003 and since has completed 10 research expeditions, including trips to Labrador, Newfoundland, Nova Scotia, and Maine. The research accomplished aboard her has been responsible for the publication of over 20 papers— the most of any vessel he’s ever been associated with, even those with big funding behind them. 

And still, she turns heads everywhere she goes, carrying in her genes the best of so many maritime traditions, from Norway to the Chesapeake.  


Wendy Mitman Clarke is an award- winning chief chronicler of people and places on the Bay for CBM. She is currently the Director of Media Relations for Washington College.

Weather EyeMike Ogar