Meet the FLIP: Quite possibly the strangest ship in the world

By Vessels

The U.S. Office of Naval Research (ONR) is in possession of a very intriguing piece of oceanographic equipment. It was created by the Marine Physical Laboratory (MPL) at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, University of California. It is called the Floating Instrument Platform  R P FLIP – while it is not a ship researchers live on it for months and conduct their scientific studies in the open. Actually it is a large unique buoy. The most interesting fact about this vessel is that it really does flip.

The ship is 355 feet (108 metres) in length and has small quarters located at its front and a long hollow ballast at its end. In order for FLIP to float in its horizontal position, special tanks are filled up with air. When the tanks are instead filled up with seawater, the lower 300 feet of the vessel sink under the water and its lighter end rises above. When the ship flips, a large part of the platform’s buoyancy is provided by water at depths below the influence of surface waves, meaning FLIP is a stable platform and is almost completely immune to wave action. When a certain mission is over, the ballast tanks in the flooded part of the vessel are filled up with compressed air and it returns back to its basic horizontal stance so that it can be towed to a new destination.

During the flipping process, all of the crewmembers stand on the outside decks. As the vessel is flipping, the decks slowly turn into bulkheads and bulkhead becomes the deck. An interesting fact is that most rooms on the ship have two different doors - one is designed for when in a horizontal position and the other in a vertical stance. Even some of Flip’s furnishings are constructed so that they can rotate to a new position when the vessel flips. Some of the equipment has to be unbolted and moved. Things such as tables in the kitchen area and sinks in the bathroom are built twice in order for one to always be in the required position. The entire flipping process lasts for twenty-eight minutes. When in a vertical position, the ship rises up more than five stories above the water.

The special vessel was designed over 50 years ago, back in 1962, by two Scripps scientists, Drs. Fred Fisher and Fred Spiess. They created it because they were in need of a more quiet and stable place than a research ship to be able to efficiently study effic the behavior of sound waves under water. Ships were not very useful for this task as they bob up and down and roll side to side.

The vessel is specially designed for the studying of wave height, acoustic signals, water temperature and density, and also for collecting meteorological data. FLIP has absolutely no engines or any other means of propulsion so that there are no potential factors that could interfere with the acoustic instruments. When in a vertical stance, FLIP is extremely stable as well as quiet.

Since Drs. Fisher and Spiess finished their studies, a lot of other important information has been acquired via FLIP. The way water circulates, the formation process of storm waves, the movement pattern of seismic waves, the exchanging of heat between the ocean and the atmosphere, and the sounds made underwater by marine animals are merely a small example of the subjects covered with the help of the one and only FLIP.