The Callens help map the ocean floor

From left, Jena Kline, Andrew Kang, and Brock Callen Jr. pose for a picture on the bow of the R/V Falkor. – Courtesy Schmidt Ocean Institute

Brock Callen Sr. and Jr. flew into Guam on Dec. 24, 2016, and interrupted the Christmas Eve celebration of the crew of the R/V Falkor. They had been traveling for 24 hours, had crossed the International Date Line, and they were tired. The Callens had traveled all this way to go to sea. On the face of it, it might not seem noteworthy that the director of Sail Martha’s Vineyard and a professional kiteboarder were going to sea, but neither of them had ever boarded a research ship before, and they were about to spend three weeks in a remote part of the Pacific Ocean. The scientific mission of the Falkor cruise was to map parts of the seafloor near Johnston Atoll, 800 miles south of Hawaii. And the Callens were to help do the mapping.

Their participation in the cruise resulted from the work of Brock Callen Jr. He is a goodwill ambassador for 11th Hour Racing, a program of the Schmidt Family Foundation. Eric and Wendy Schmidt (Eric is a co-founder of Google) also created the Schmidt Ocean Institute in 2009, and deployed the Falkor to do oceanographic and marine geological research. The institute at times collaborates with such sister organizations as 11th Hour Racing to include appropriate marine stewards as part of their research teams on Falkor cruises.

Both the junior and senior Callens have integrated an interest in environmentalism and sustainability into their love for the ocean. Three years ago, Jr. got involved with the Rozalia Project, a nonprofit with a mission to clean up marine debris. Its executive director is Rachael Miller. Callen helped Miller and her crew do a cleanup project in the Gulf of Maine. “After that, I brought her in to do a series of projects,” he said over coffee at the Black Dog on Jan. 23. “I used kiteboarding to engage the students, and then we’d talk about marine debris.” It was this work that brought him to the attention of 11th Hour Racing. They asked him to do similar work for them.

11th Hour Racing also supports Sail M.V., specifically its Vineyard Cup event. “We have an event-management model called ‘locally-sourced zero waste,’” Callen Sr. said in an interview at the Sail M.V. office three days after his return from the Pacific. “We’ve approached 11th Hour about using it across the domain of sailing events.” Sail M.V. reduced the amount of waste produced by the Cup event from 36 cubic yards in 2014 to less than one cubic yard in 2015. In 2016 they got it down to a few bags of waste, Callen Sr. said, mostly filled with plastic bags that held ice cubes.

Callen Jr. sat in on an 11th Hour Racing presentation that explained the mission of the Falkor. “They had scientists, engineers, and artists onboard,” he said, “and I thought, ‘Why not athletes?’” Sailors use science and technology regularly, but he thought perhaps athletes could use it more often. 11th Hour Racing was intrigued, and pitched the idea to the Schmidt Ocean Institute.

According to Callen Jr., the Guam-to-Honolulu transit was originally only going to move the ship from place to place. But the Johnston Atoll was on the way, and Hawaii-based scientist John Smith wanted to run transects of multibeam sonar across nearby seamounts to map them in detail.

There were suddenly six berths open for nonscientists, two of them available to Callen Jr. He was told early on in the planning that no one would be allowed to get off the vessel once it was underway. In other words, no ocean athletes going kiteboarding. He ran through other possibilities — a videographer, a professional sailor, a writer — and all had conflicts. Then he suggested his father, and because of 11th Hour Racing’s interaction with Callen Sr. via the Vineyard Cup zero-waste project, they approved him immediately.

At sea and doing science

After the ship cast off, the elder Callen settled in to a routine of waking up at 0530 (ship time), exercising on a stationary bike, showering, eating, and getting down to work at his computer. He teaches maritime science at Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School (MVRHS), and intended to make remote-classroom transmissions to his students.

“We’ve been having some antenna issues onboard,” he wrote on Dec. 30, “so I am working to make sure the live classes I have planned for the next two weeks are sufficiently flexible and scalable in the event our hangout times are shortened.”

In the end, Callen Sr. said, he was able to do 17 ship-to-shore transmissions. In addition to speaking to his own class at MVRHS, he also shared his experience with children in Wando, S.C., and audiences at New Bedford Community Sailing and Baltimore City Sailing, as well as students at the Mariposa Foundation in the Dominican Republic. The last was a connection made by his son.

“Their mission is to end generational poverty for young women,” Callen Jr. explained post-cruise. “My project with them was to upcycle old racing sails. We sent them down there, and they made bags out of them. They learned sewing, merchandising, and how to make money.”

Callen Jr. does not speak Spanish, but one of his fellow Falkor team members did. Mónika Naranjo González is a filmmaker from Costa Rica. “She led the [classroom transmission],” he said, “and there were other strong women on board too.” Teacher Jena Kline and cartoonist Lucy Bellwood had visitor status like the Callens. Colleen Peters, a Maine Maritime graduate, is the head technician aboard the Falkor. “They all had an hour’s interaction with the girls in the Dominican Republic,” said Callen Jr. “All four of them came away excited about what they’d done.”

The shipboard party also used the 10 days of transit time to the atoll to learn how to help with the scientific activity to come. “I wouldn’t say that we are totally up the curve yet,” Callen Jr. wrote in a Jan. 3 blog entry (see for link), “but we are at least beginning to understand what we are looking at on the consoles, and our conversations around the subject are moving slowly out of the elementary level.”

The Johnston Atoll is a unit of the Marine National Monument. According to the description of the cruise at the Schmidt Ocean Institute website, the nearby submerged seamounts are volcanic in origin, and some of their summits have been flattened by ancient wave action (making them guyots). Their present depth and position, if more accurately known, could inform reconstructions of past changes in sea level.

Callen Sr. has spent a lot of time on the ocean, but the Falkor experience was different. “It is a really remote part of the world. The whole time I was out there, I saw two ships and one airplane,” he said. “And it was like going back to graduate school, and we were being taught by the best.”

Although by his son’s account, Callen Sr. was inseparable from his laptop, he was not as comfortable with electronic data manipulation as his younger colleagues. “I was the oldest by far onboard,” he said. “I was amazed by how adept Brock and his generation were with the technology.”

Callen Sr. brought back data for his MVRHS maritime science class. “The captain gave me access to standing orders, policies, and procedures for the ship,” he said. “Now I’ll show these to my students, to prove to them that these things really do exist, and at that level of detail.”

Students and artists can apply for spots on the R/V Falkor. Information is at: and