After 29 Years, Ship’s Chief Engineer Hangs up His Hard Hat

Richard Smith, 73, known by most as “Chief,” retired in March after 29 years on the BIOS-operated vessel Atlantic Explorer. He joined the vessel’s crew in 1990, and later became the chief engineer. BIOS colleague Nick Mathews said Smith’s mechanical engineering aptitude and can-do attitude will be missed around Bermuda and at the Institute. “He is the soul of the Atlantic Explorer,” Mathews said.

Around BIOS, and at St. David’s and St. George’s boatyards, Richard Smith is known by one name—Chief. The name reflects his role as chief engineer on the BIOS-operated vessel Atlantic Explorer, a role he held for 29 years, maintaining the vessel’s engineering and mechanical operations.

“If any parts on that ship moved, I was in charge of it,” Smith said.

Smith retired last month, just shy of his 73rd birthday, to northern Florida, where he lives with his wife of 39 years, Billyanne Allen. He said he plans to enjoy his four Harley-Davidson motorcycles, but he won’t completely abandon trips out to sea.

“I’ve got myself a little motor boat,” he said.

Smith's 20-year anniversary at BIOS in 2011 included a celebration with ship¹s crew, staff, and faculty. George Gunther, captain of the Atlantic Explorer as well as six other research vessels in his career, called Smith "the best chief engineer I have ever sailed with."

Smith, a member of the U.S. Merchant Marines since 1979, is the son of a Navy sailor. He was born in New York and lived in Rhode Island and California, moving as his family traveled for his father’s various assignments. In his early twenties, Smith took a job crewing on a shrimp boat out of Key West, Florida. From there he moved to tug and supply boats, running equipment to oil rigs in the Gulf of Mexico. He gained further experience on a fire-fighting boat.

“It was a dangerous job,” he said, “so I called my wife and asked her to call Harbor Branch (Oceanographic Institute) in Florida, to see if they could use my help.”

They did, and in 1990 they hired him as a crew member aboard their research vessel Seward Johnson II. In October 2005, BIOS purchased the vessel and renamed it the Atlantic Explorer.

“When they bought the boat they also got me with the deal,” Smith said. He began spending about nine months annually at sea on the vessel, and he counts three major ship retrofits among his proudest achievements during his tenure at BIOS.

“It was understood that, in Chief, there was an invaluable wealth of knowledge about the ship that could not go to waste,” said Nick Mathews, BIOS’s oceanographic technical services manager, who has sailed with Smith on dozens of trips aboard the Atlantic Explorer.

“He was bombarded by questions from every direction because he has been involved in the installation of every single power cable, plumbing line, and pump on the ship,” Mathews said. “Losing Chief is a serious setback to the crew, BIOS, and the St. David’s and St. George’s communities in Bermuda, where he spent a lot of free time helping fellow engineers at boatyards with their engine problems, in exchange for a beer.”

Matthews, who met Smith when he joined the BIOS staff in the marine operations department four years ago, recalls seeing the lead engineer in action during a stressful and potential life-threatening situation.

One fall a few years ago, while recovering a large sediment trap from the ocean, the hydraulic line for the A-frame on the ship’s stern began spewing hot, high-pressure oil all over the back deck.
“It was truly a disaster and the brunt of the spray was going right at Chief's face,” Mathews said. Scientists, technicians, and deck hands had crowded the area, Mathews said, “but then we all ran for our lives to avoid getting covered by this oil as it sprayed 30 feet in the air, making the entire back deck a big slip-and-slide.” 

“Chief had been completely saturated with the oil in seconds and could not see and could barely breathe,” Mathews said. “He immediately knew he was the one that had to fix this, so his reaction was to stand there stoically and troubleshoot the system, while being completely blinded by the oil that continued to spray directly all over him.”

During the next minute, Mathews recalls that Smith had felt around enough and found the right valve to turn off the spray of oil. After a quick wash and a trip to the onboard medical station, he resumed his post and finished his shift working on deck. 

“What amazes me is that he remained so physically capable and dedicated to the ship’s operations,” he said. “To the end, he still climbed and crawled around the ship as if he was playing on a jungle gym. His dedication and straight-forward attitude has been a great inspiration to me.”

George Gunther, captain of the Atlantic Explorer as well as six other research vessels in his career, called Smith “the best chief engineer I have ever sailed with.” Together they covered thousands of miles in the Mediterranean, the Great Lakes, the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans, intercoastal waterways, and several trips through the Panama Canal.

“His mechanical aptitude with all things engine, motor, and hydraulic is unsurpassed,” he said.

Until a permanent replacement is hired, the Atlantic Explorer will rely on relief crew to fill the chief engineering position, said Quentin Lewis, the marine superintendent at BIOS.