In 2017, Duke University received an $11 million-dollar gift from the Grainger Family Descendants Fund, a donor-advised fund of The Chicago Community Trust, to support the construction and operation of a new research vessel for the Duke University Marine Lab.

When the former research vessel, the R/V Susan Hudson, was retired in 2014, the Marine Lab identified a new, more advanced vessel as vital to the operations of a world-class marine research laboratory, and determined it a strategic priority. The goals were to design a research vessel that would enhance the education and research activities of the Marine Lab, strengthen community outreach, and support collaborations in academia and the ocean science research community.

According to Andy Read, Chair, Division of Marine Science and Conservation; and Director, Duke University Marine Laboratory, the new boat will support and extend the mission of the Marine Lab, expanding research capabilities and providing students and the community additional opportunities for experiential learning.

“Ocean studies are central to the resolution of global environmental problems related to the impacts of humans on ecological systems, biodiversity, climate change, coastal land management, environmental quality, and environmental health,” Read said. “So it seems quite sensible to have a vehicle that will allow us to get out on the water to study the oceans, teach our students about these processes, and engage community partners in our mission.”

JMS Naval Architects designed the craft, and it was built at All American Marine’s production facility in Bellingham, Washington. Construction was completed in late September, and after a successful launch, the Marine Lab took ownership of the new vessel—now called the R/V Shearwater—in early October.

r/v shearwater

The R/V Shearwater is a 77-foot catamaran designed and built for year-round operations, and is outfitted with state-of-the-art scientific support infrastructure, tools and accessories. An A-frame and winches are included for deployment and recovery of instrumentation; a crane for loading and discharging the vessel, and wet and dry labs are housed aboard, as well as a 16-foot auxiliary boat. There is space for 30 passengers for day trips and overnight accommodations for up to 15.

classroom at sea

Serving as a classroom at sea and a research platform, the R/V Shearwater will provide students a unique hands-on field experience that aligns with the multi-disciplinary nature of ocean science and technology research, according to Matthew Dawson, the vessel’s captain. “In order to pursue an understanding of the marine world, we must go out into the marine world,” Dawson said.

Courses will be taught by Marine Lab faculty and will be a blend of lectures and field-based research experiences. Beyond the traditional coursework, students will be exposed to oceanographic research techniques, maritime history and marine policy. By living and learning aboard the R/V Shearwater, students will have a unique at-sea experience coupled with a first-class education and a front-row seat to cutting-edge and innovative research.

In addition to providing an immersive educational experience for students, the R/V Shearwater will strengthen current outreach activities at the Marine Lab. The research vessel will serve to bridge the gap between traditional classroom and experiential learning for K-12 students. Educators, in partnership with the Marine Lab faculty and researchers, will be able to incorporate teaching modules into their lesson plans and in essence bring the classroom to the ocean.


Doubling as a research platform, the Shearwater will support the scientific investigation of the biological, chemical and physical ocean processes and the study of marine ecosystems. Activities aboard the research vessel will range from observations, measurements, sample collection to instrument deployment and recovery, and use of auxiliary equipment.

Having a local research vessel with the ability to travel several hundred nautical miles from shore and spend multiple days is crucial to coastal research efforts in North Carolina. Over the past few years, this need has been met by researchers either chartering private boats or paying for the transit of research vessels from other states. The new vessel provides an additional resource for the ocean science research community.

Dawson commented that, “With a high cruising speed of 24 knots (27mph), R/V Shearwater can reach a fairly extensive region in very little time. This allows research and education parties to access distant areas without paying extra day rates and staff time just to transit.”

RV Shearwater Launch


In the next few months the R/V Shearwater will make the trek from the West Coast of the United States through the Panama Canal to the East Coast, stopping in Florida.

In January, Zackary Johnson, Associate Professor of Molecular Biology in Marine Science, will take the first group of students out for a 10-day experiential Biological Oceanography class. Ports of call for this class include Key West, Dry Tortugas National Park, Fort Myers, the Everglades and Miami. Coursework will consist of hands-on sample and data collection, real-time data analyses, lectures, videos and companion reading.

A dedication of the Shearwater will also take place in Florida in late January. “We are enormously grateful for the generous gift that has allowed us to build the R/V Shearwater,” said Read. “The scale of the endeavor (a $5M construction project) is much greater than anything we can achieve within our regular operating budget.”

By early spring 2020, the R/V Shearwater will make its way to Beaufort and its new home at the Marine Lab. “As a seafarer I may be biased,” said Dawson, “but I think that this vessel really brings the ‘marine’ back to the Marine Lab.”