The RRS James Cook

The RRS James Cook

RRS James Cook, named after the famous Captain James Cook, has played a significant role in oceanic research over the past decade.

Having arrived at the National Oceanography Centre on 31 August 2006, RRS James Cook has since undertaken research expeditions focusing on a range of scientific disciplines in some of Earth’s most challenging environments, from tropical oceans to the edge of ice sheets. One of the quietest research vessels in the ocean and fitted with modern and up-to-date systems on board, RRS James Cook, is also one of the most advanced research vessels currently in service.


  • Single and multi-beam echo sounder surveys
  • Integrated data logging
  • Seismic surveys
  • Clean seawater sampling
  • Remotely Operated Vehicle operations
  • CTD surveys
  • Deep-water coring, trawling, and towing


Handling equipment

The RRS James Cook is the most capable ship in the NERC fleet in terms of over-the-side handling capability with both the stern and mid-ships’ ‘A’ frames built with safe working loads of up to 30T. In addition, the ship has a comprehensive winch suite capable of supporting all current and anticipated future scientific operations.


The ship contains a range of laboratory spaces that can be flexibly configured to support multiple scientific activities on each expedition. RRS James Cook has plentiful laboratory spaces sub-divided into ultraclean, clean, normal, and temperature-controlled areas, with sufficient flexibility to be used for multiple needs. There is also the option to configure the lab spaces to ‘wet’ or ‘dry’ labs, depending on the nature of the science being undertaken. Container labs enable scientists to work on sampled they have collected in controlled conditions, which may involve the use of radioactive substances or may entail ‘clean chemistry’ procedures. The RRS James Cook has 278m2 of laboratories, as well as positions for up to seven 20-foot container laboratories on deck.

Permanently fitted sensors and instrumentation

Research ships come with a range of inbuilt equipment that scientists use on an expedition. The systems enable a wide variety of parameters to be continuously logged whether the ship is stationary, carrying out scientific work, or not.

Hydroacoustic suite

The RRS James Cook is fitted with a complex and highly capable suite of acoustic instruments designed to:

  • Map the seabed in both coastal and oceanic depths;
  • Measure currents;
  • Measure abundance of fish (and other biomass); and
  • Accurately position scientific platforms and sensors deployed by the vessel.

Bridge equipment

The RRS James Cook has modern bridge equipment including a dynamic positioning system.

Task System RRS Discovery RRS James Cook
Communications Stabilised C Band V-Sat Standard 256 Kb/s
Enhanced 512 Kb/s
Standard 256 Kb/s
Enhanced 512 Kb/s
Sat B Sailor 250 Broadband NERA
Sat C Sailor Sailor
Global Maritime Distress and Safety System Sailor 6222 plus other items Sailor DT4646E
Portable Iridium Iridium
Navigation Integrated bridge Kongsberg K-Bridge Kongsberg BL10
Echo sounder 1 Skipper GDS102 50kHz and 200KHz Kongsberg EA600
Echo sounder 2 Skipper GDS102 50kHz and 200KHz Kongsberg EA500
Radar Kongsberg S-Band 30kW
Kongsberg X-Band 25kW
GPS 1 MX512 Kongsberg MX420/8
GPS 2 MX512 Applanix POSMV
GPS 3 Applanix PosMV 320 Ashtech ADU5
GPS 4 Seatex Seapath 300 DPS116
GPS 5 Fugro Marinestar 9200 Seatex Seapath 200
GPS 6 C-Nav 2050 -
Gyro 3× Navigat X Mk 1 Sperry C.Plath Navigat X Mk1
Chart system Kongsberg K-Planning Kongsberg SeaMap10
Speed log 1 Skipper DL 850 Kongsberg Doppler DL850
Speed log 2 Skipper DL 850 Chernikeef Aquaprobe Mk5
Voyage data recorder Maritime Black Box MBB Kongsberg MBB
Automatic Identification System Kongsberg AIS200 Kongsberg AIS200
High resolution picture transmission Dartcom Dartcom
USBL 1 Sonardyne Sonardyne
USBL 2 Sonardyne Sonardyne
Dynamic positioning - Kongsberg K-POS DP-22 Kongsberg SDP11


The ship is configured with a novel azimuth thruster propulsion system configuration compared to a conventional fixed shafts/propellers and rudders. The thrusters can be independently rotated through 360° which will make the vessel extremely manoeuvrable.

RRS James Cook comes with a range of in-built equipment that scientists will use on an expedition enabling samples to be collected and measurements to be taken.


Acoustic Doppler Current Profilers (ADCPs) are a type of sonar device measuring velocity (speed and direction) of the water by sending out a ‘ping’ sound wave, then measuring the return time and frequency. By combining several sonar transmitters and receivers with amplifiers and signal processing electronics or software, ADCPs are able to calculate the speed and direction that the water is moving using the Doppler effect. Speed and direction can be calculated over a range of depths, giving a two dimensional profile.

Both NOC ships are fitted with 75kHz and 150kHz ADCPs. The 75kHz ADCP can typically measures currents down to a depth of 560-700m, while the 150kHz will typically operate to a maximum range of 375-400m.

Air and water sampling

Air and water samples are continuously taken during a research expedition Information about surface temperature and sea conditions are collected for scientists to create models of the climate. Surfmet is the Surface Water and Meteorological monitoring system consisting of two parts: one takes seawater from a few metres below the surface and passes this water through a series of instruments that measure the different characteristics of the water at that near the surface; the other consists of meteorological instruments located high up the forward mast. (~10m above sea level)

Surface water measurements include: salinity, measured by a thermosalinograph; chloropyll, measured by a fluorometer and particulate matter in the water column; using a transmissometer.

Air measurements include: temperature and humidity using a sensor, wind speed using an anemometer and the air pressure using a barometric pressure sensor. Light readings are also taken using light meters measuring both the total solar energy and the photosynthetically active radiation.

Data logging

Each research ship has a data logging system to record multiple pieces of data including GPS positions, meteorological measurements such as temperature, humidity and air pressure or sonars measuring water depth, simultaneously. The high cost of running a research ship means that these measurements must be recorded reliably so that the valuable data is not lost. The data logger records the data generated by each instrument. It also records the time that each data item was generated at. The data logger synchronises its time with GPS satellites, which gives a time accurate to a couple of milliseconds. Current data loggers are PCs running reliable industrial grade operating systems with RAID storage disks. The data loggers save the data in a format that is well documented so that scientists and the British Oceanographic Data Centre can read the data.


Echo-sounders are types of sonar devices that use sound to measure distances underwater. They are used to find objects in the water column such as fish or bubbles from sea vents or to calculate the depth of the water. An echo-sounder works by transmitting a pulse of sound directly downwards from the ship. Once the pulse bounces off the seabed it travels back to the ship. Using the length of time it takes for the pulse to return, along with the known speed of sound in water, the depth can then be calculated. Multi-beam echo-sounders are used to map large areas of the sea bed from the ship using an array of transducers and signal processing electronics.

Ultra Short Base Line

Ultra Short Base Line (USBL) is a technique using sound waves to measure the position of an object that is underwater relative to the ship. It is important when using remotely operated vehicles, towed vehicles and drills. The underwater vehicle is fitted with a USBL beacon, which is able to detect pulses from the transceiver on the ship’s hull and can then return the pulse. Using both the bearing and the return time of the pulse the transceiver is able to calculate the position of the vehicle to a high level of accuracy.

Winch systems

Scientific winches are used to:

  • Lower sensor packages such as Conductivity, Temperature and Depth (CTD) sensors through the water column;
  • Lower coring systems to the seabed to obtain samples from the seabed and sub-seabed;
  • Tow platforms such as the Towed Ocean Bottom Instrument (TOBI) for seabed mapping;
  • Tow undulating sensor platform to measure water properties while underway;
  • Tow deep-sea trawling and net systems.

The permanently fitted winches live in the bottom of the ship, where the wire is fed up to the gantries on deck. The table below shows the types and properties of the permanently fitted winches found on our ships.

Task Wire construction Wire length (m) Wire dia­meter (mm) Safe working load (T) Mean breaking load (T) Weight in water (kg⋅km−1) Operation Pull (T) Speed (ms−1)
Coring Steel 7,000 16.5 11 18.56 780 Direct pull 11 2.0
Trawling Tapered steel 8,300 14.5 11.5 13.00 638 Direct pull


(first layer)

4,350 16.5   18.10 780
2,350 18.00 12.5 20.90 1,133
Deep tow Steel Armoured electro / optical cable for high data transmission 10,000 0.68" (~17.3) 11 18.14 806 Shared traction winch with level winds for each storage drum 11 2.0
Deep coring Plasma rope 8,000 0.875" (~22.0) 30 75.00


Specific gravity = 0.98

20 2.0
Standard CTD Steel armoured 8,000 0.45" (~11.43) 5 8.39 417 Traction winch with level wind 5.0 2.0