Photo: Tao Lytzen

On a voyage for research

Friday 29 Jan 16
by Line Reeh


Thomas Diget Tarby was born on 23 July 1983. He lives with Camilla and has two daughters and two ‘bonus daughters’ aged 0, 1½, 7 and 10.

  • 2015– First Officer, Dana
  • 2013–2015: First Officer, DBB Jack-up services A/S and DBB Salvage A/S
  • 2009–2013: First Officer, Rohde Nielsen A/S
  • 2007–2009: Second Officer, Torm
  • 2001–2004: Ship’s Officer, M/S Saturn
  • 2007–2008: Ship’s Master course, Marstal Navigationsskole (Navigation College)
  • 2005–2006: Home-trade master and fishing vessel master, first class, Skagen Skipperskole (Master’s College).
  • 2004: Efficient deckhand, MARTEC
  • 2001: Basic education on the school ship Georg Stage
  • 2000: Unskilled employee, Palnatoke Charter

Although employed by DTU, Thomas Diget Tarby rarely sets foot on any of the campuses— because as first officer on the marine research vessel Dana, he spends around 130 days a year at sea.

At the age of 32, First Officer Thomas Diget Tarby has sailed all over the world with the merchant navy. Nevertheless, he did not hesitate last year when he was offered a position on the bridge of Dana, DTU’s marine research vessel, which is well-known in Danish seafaring circles.

“The work of first officer can easily become a bit repetitive, so the chance to serve on Dana rekindled my lifelong interest in the sea and life beneath the surface. If the TV is screening a nature programme about whales, for example, I’m rooted to my chair! So I’ve always kept an eye open for opportunities on Dana. But I never thought it would be possible to get my foot in the door, because when people land a position on the ship they tend to stay there,” relates Thomas Diget Tarby.

On Dana, Thomas Tarby has found not only a working life in the midst of marine researchers, but also a shift plan that is easier to align with his life as a family man with small children than his previous contracts, which typically meant four weeks at sea and four weeks at home.

“On Dana, you’re out for two or three weeks at a time, because the researchers are keen to get home to their families as well. My job involves around 130 days of sailing a year, as well as office assignments during the on-shore periods.  It took me some time to get used to receiving work emails when I was on shore, so I was never completely off duty for the first six months or so; but I’ve since learned to check my mails only once or twice a week.”

Monitoring fish populations
The property of DTU, Dana is 78 metres long and sails from the home port of Hirtshals. She is also Denmark’s only ocean-going marine research vessel. Every year, she sails fixed monitoring voyages in the Baltic Sea, the North Sea and the Norwegian Sea for DTU Aqua and for the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences (SLU), to monitor the status of various fish populations.  In addition, the vessel regularly sails research voyages in Arctic waters, and in spring 2014, she visited the Sargasso Sea south of Bermuda on the 2014 Danish Eel Expedition.

On her monitoring voyages, Dana trawls to track the development of key fish populations. At each station, measurements of the oxygen and salt content at various levels of the water are taken using what is known as a CTD probe (which checks the salt content of the water by measuring its conductivity, as well temperature and depth) and the researchers perform a variety of other tests. At night, the giant plankton net is sometimes lowered into the water to check for the presence of fish larvae or tentaculate ctenophore in the water.

12-hour shifts
As first officer, Thomas Tarby is the captain’s right-hand man, and must be able to take over his duties if he should become indisposed. He is also the ship’s medical officer. When he is on shift, his duties include sailing the ship, navigating, and making sure that the deckhands and other people on board comply with the applicable safety requirements. In addition, he shares responsibility with the chief engineer for ship maintenance during the voyages, and, as such, serves as foreman for the deckhands.

When Dana is at sea, Thomas works 12 hours per day, typically on two shifts: one of eight hours and one of four. And he also has to find time to sleep, eat, relax and perhaps do a little training.

“My everyday work involves a lot of interaction with the leader of the voyage, who is in charge of the scientific aspect of the trip—with regard to determining when and where we are to fish and/or collect samples, for example. I really enjoy this. I’m becoming more and more fascinated with the work the researchers do, and many of them are great at explaining. At the end of your shift, it’s fun to drop into the laboratory to have a look at the night’s catch of tentaculate ctenophore or fish larvae under the microscope. But you have to remember to get some sleep as well ... So I haven’t yet become a fully fledged amateur biologist, but I’m certainly a ‘leisure fisherman’ in that I’m increasingly interested in various kinds of fishing,” adds the first officer.

Photo: Tao Lytzen

Danish-speaking colleagues
There are 35 seamen employed on Dana, and each voyage normally features a crew of 14–17 along with 8–18 researchers and fishing technicians.  The fact that the entire crew speaks Danish and that there are so many people sailing together at the same time is unusual for Danish shipping.

“It’s great. There’s always someone watching TV in the mess and we have an excellent fitness room. When we’re out on a voyage, we always have a captain and two officers on board, so you get to see more of each other than you do on many other ships.  As a result, we enjoy a really good social life, the communication channels are more open, and it’s quicker and easier to implement changes on board when everyone speaks the same language—even though, of course, I’ve worked with some excellent foreign colleagues on the ships I’ve sailed on over the years,” relates Thomas Diget Tarby.

Several of the researchers and the fishing technicians in the laboratories sail regularly on Dana. Some have actually been with the vessel ever since she was launched in 1981. Nevertheless, a clear division of labour on board applies between the sailors and the ‘customers’ sailing with them. For example, the ship’s master always makes the final decision about whether it is responsible to work with equipment in the water, or whether the weather conditions make it too risky.

“There’s a big difference between running the ship and the work of the researchers. We are the ones who operate the ship—and they’re the ones who use it. Because there are a great many aspects to take into account.”

The final frontier
As a person, the 32-year-old officer enjoys new experiences, and high on his wish list is a voyage to Greenland, which Dana has visited three times since 2008.

“Before I joined the crew, Dana was in Greenland with a team of international researchers tasked with studying Greenland sharks in Ammassalik Fjord. I would love to go on one of those voyages. My grandfather worked on Thule Air Base, and I’m really keen to take the ship to Greenland—or to Antarctica!

For me, that’s the final frontier and I’d love to add it to my CV one day.” 

Facts about Dana

Photo: Tao Lytzen
Dana is Denmark’s only ocean-going marine research vessel.

Purpose: Sails fixed voyages every year in the Baltic Sea, the North Sea and the Norwegian Sea to monitor developments in key fish populations. Regular research voyages in Arctic waters. In spring 2014, sailed to the Sargasso Sea south of Bermuda as a part of the Danish Eel Expedition 2014.

Research equipment: Five wet and dry laboratories. A comprehensive range of equipment for trawling and taking samples of the water and the seabed.

Accommodation: 38 cabins for the ship’s crew and the scientific personnel.

Home port: Hirtshals, but regularly ties up in Copenhagen before or after voyages to exchange crews or to deliver samples collected.

Length: 78 metres.

Build: 1980–81 at Aarhus Værft.

Replacement: A process is under way to find financing to build a replacement for the current Dana: Dana V.

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