Rebuild of the Research Vessel ‘Heraclitus’

'R.V. Heraclitus' in dry-dock in Roses, Spain with its hull being re-meshed, ready for concreting
'R.V. Heraclitus' in dry-dock in Roses, Spain with its hull being re-meshed, ready for concreting (Photo: Ecotechnics Maritime- Inesa Remeikaite)
'Heraclitus' in Antarctica
'Heraclitus' in Antarctica

A remarkable ship, a 25 metre ferro-cement Chinese junk rigged vessel, is in the midst of a total rebuild from keel on up.

The Research Vessel Heraclitus, owned by the Institute of Ecotechnics (US/UK), has sailed 270,000 nautical miles since being built in Oakland, California in 1975. IE is an US/UK independent research organization created in 1973 by radical scientists, ecologists, artists and performers to harmonise technology with the global biosphere.

The Institute of Ecotechnics was motivated to build the Heraclitus since the ocean and its sea-people cultures are crucial elements of both global ecology and humanity’s historical development. The aim was to create a cadre of people who live at sea and champion the oceans. The ship is the Institute’s ocean biome project.

Decades of exploration by RV Heraclitus have combined scientific exploration with arts and cultural exchange programs. Some highlights: three round-the-world voyages, 2000 miles up the Amazon for ethnobotanical studies, a circumnavigation of South America and a decade mapping and studying coral reef health in remote areas of southeast Asia and the Indian and South Pacific Oceans. RV Heraclitus has also studied whale migration routes, genetic studies to determine interbreeding of whale populations and participated in the first successful release into the wild of previously captive dolphins. The team have trained hundreds of volunteers who take part in real-time science and exploration and has conducted educational and cultural outreach programs in ports around the world.
The original ship design was inspired by ancient ocean-going Chinese junks. The ship uses Chinese sails, fully-battened lugsails, for their ease of shortening (reefing) sail.  Hull and decks were built with ferro-cement, chosen for its strength and low cost (for an Institute with plenty of volunteers and little capital) and ability to be repaired quickly in emergencies. Junks have great stability in turbulent seas and are not built for speed. This can be an advantage as the vessel permits the experience of the natural rhythms of wind and current; its auxiliary engine is only used when required. Its 40 years of sailing, to every sea except the Arctic, has demonstrated the wisdom of the choice.

The Heraclitus is dry docked at Roses Shipyard at Carretera del Far, Puerto de Pesca, in Roses, Spain. The excellent facilities, location and available space have permitted the building of a protective wooden “cocoon” to shield the ship and crew of rebuilders from the weather. Since the RV Heraclitus was virtually hand crafted, replicating its internal dimensions was a challenge. Factum Arte of Madrid, working with Scan Lab Projects in London, used state of the art scanners to prepare a complete 3D visualization of the hull and ship interiors to assist the rebuild. “Heraclitus - the New Generation” will have upgraded engineering, hydrodynamics and structural integrity.

Ferro-cement is a composite material made up of mortar, small diameter steel rod and wire steel mesh, a very versatile form of reinforced concrete also called thin shell concrete. It combines the flexibility of steel with the compressive strength of concrete. Ferro cement boat building had its peak in the 60s and 70s in New Zealand, Australia, US and UK but was then rapidly overtaken by GFK glass fibre technologies.

Upon launch, the ship will undertake a five-year Ethnosphere Expedition to West Africa, South America and the Caribbean. The experienced expedition team will document sea people of the Atlantic Ocean and at-risk coastal cultures creating an oral history treasure of records of their lives and traditional ecological knowledge. This follows the successful oral history “Lives and Legends of the Mediterranean Sea” the expeditioners ship conducted from 2010-2013.

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