From King Crab to Climate Change: A Conversation with BIOS Port Captain Rick Verlini

Port captain of the research vessel Atlantic Explorer, Rick Verlini.

At age 19, New Jersey native Rick Verlini first stepped on a fishing boat in Alaska, launching a career at sea that has spanned 38 years. Now 57, Verlini works for BIOS as a port captain, where he said he’s proud to assist scientists and “work on behalf of a top-notch ship’s crew.”

What attracted you to a life at sea?
After high school on the East coast, I hitchhiked around the country and ended up in Alaska working on fishing vessels. By the time I was 25, I was the captain of boats catching king crab, pollock, cod, and sole. I loved it but it was dangerous work. In 1999 a fishing boat went down that included three friends,  and two of those three were brothers who my wife knew all of her life.  She came to me and said, ‘why don’t you get out of fishing.’  I started searching and a job popped up for the chief mate on the Oregon State University research vessel Wecoma. I applied, landed the position, and a few years later became the vessel’s full-time captain. After that I was the captain of the research vessel Point Sur. I never went back to fishing.

What did your fishing experience teach you about marine science research?
The switch was difficult at first. Fishing is a rougher game with rougher characters.  But on the research vessel, I was very impressed with these young, highly educated scientists who were so dedicated to their work. I think my knowledge of the sea, including currents and weather conditions and patterns, has been helpful to the scientists, though at first, it was an interesting transition. During my early years on the Wecoma we did a trip up to Alaska, and I was towing a net trying to catch a few samples for the scientists. But I was driving around trying to fill the nets for them, moving the boat all over the place chasing the fish. Finally, the scientists came up and said, ‘why are you turning the boat so much? We just want samples, not the entire school.’

Verlini on the Atlantic Explorer

Verlini on the research vessel Atlantic Explorer.

How did you land at BIOS, and what is your role here specifically with the BIOS research vessel Atlantic Explorer?
The research vessel I was working on out of California State University was up for retirement, so my boss had recommended me for the port captain position to Ron Harelstad (former marine superintendent for BIOS). By June 2015 I was working at the Institute. My work here is a little bit of everything. Right now I’m working on the oil response plans for both international and U.S. waters. I’m lining up shipyard specifications, which includes upgrading our steering system and bow thruster controls, overhauling both our main engines, installing a new Doppler speed log, and preparing for the upcoming American Bureau of Shipping inspections. I have helped with organizing our insurance policies. I order vessel parts as they are needed. I also work as a liaison with various Bermuda government departments on customs issues and equipment shipments. I haven’t done a fill-in trip for the captain here yet; the throttle on the Atlantic Explorer is set up differently than other vessels I have operated, so it will take me a little more time on the throttle getting used to it. I also step in for the mates as needed.

What have been the most rewarding aspects of your job?
As a boy, I read all the books about the sea, including the stories and adventures of explorers Ernest Shackleton, James Cook, and Ferdinand Magellan. To be out here in it for almost four decades, to sail everywhere from the Arctic to Antarctica, has been a thrill.  I love learning about the ocean; I’m still amazed to learn about the ocean’s role in climate change, and I’m proud to be a part of getting the word out about it.  At BIOS I appreciate the small size of the place and the camaraderie that comes from a tight-knit group of ship’s crew and marine operations personnel. It truly is an honor to support their work.