Scott Miller is the Party Chief on the Fugro Equator vessel which is one of the vessels involved in the search for the missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370.
Interview with Scott Miller, Party Chief of the Fugro Equator
You work 3,000 km west of Perth in the Southern Indian Ocean, amid the ‘Roaring Forties’. What are the Roaring Forties and how bad are the conditions?
The Roaring Fories is the slang name for the winds you get at the Fourtieth paradigm, 40 degrees south. It is notoriously bad weather, the winds are always prevailing from West to East, they are the reason for all our storms in the South West Western Australia in winter and that is where we are working.
It’s not a normal person’s version of rough. We had a cyclone about eight months ago, it came off the coast of Africa. It was actually two cyclones and an Antarctic Low, from the Southern Ocean, that kind of merged together on top of us. We recorded 17.6 m waves during that storm. It’s like an eight story building.”
You’re out there for six weeks at a time, and work 12 hour shifts while you’re offshore. What does the crew do in its spare time?
We’ve got a good atmosphere here, all quite good friends. Although our job is serious we like to have fun, watch movies in the rec room, play video games in our spare time, and we’ve got a reasonably good gym onboard.
They’ve got Xbox, Kinetic, a TV connected to a server full of movies, a karaoke machine, a keyboard and a guitar. We try to make sure the guys have as much to do in their time off as possible.
You studied cartography at University, which you call a prehistoric degree given the modern day digital nature of the work. Now you’re Party Chief on the Equator, what exactly do you do?
I’m now a certified professional Hydrographic Surveyor, I map the ocean’s floor. After graduating from university I got a job with Fugro, they were looking for people and employed me, 15 years ago. That’s how it all started. I was doing data processing to start with.
There are only about 100 hydrographic surveyors in Australia and I know most of them, the Navy has about 20 and a few companies have 80 between them.
You’re West Australian and the ship seems to be pretty multicultural – how many different nationalities do you have on the boat?
Our normal swing is about 28 people, and over the last year we have had Filipinos, guys from Singapore, Aussies, Russians, Ukrainians, at one point we had a Ukrainian master from Krimea and half way through the swing his part of Ukraine was invaded and he became Russian. Indonesian guys, Malaysian, South Africans, we also had a Chinese guy on board at one point. We’ve had people from all over the world.
With the subsea survey systems you use you recently discovered a shipwreck believed to be 100 years old. Did you think it was MH370?
To us initially it looked like what we would expect the airplane to look like. Of course, the first thing for us was, ‘yep we’ve found it’.
It had been there for over 100 years and was still visible. The Maritime Museum informed us there are a lot of ships missing in the Indian Ocean and this one would have been an early 19th Century, steam powered, wooden ship.
To a layman the images gathered by your equipment are difficult to interpret, what are you looking for in order to identify MH370?
What we are looking for is a debris field. Lots of bright high contacts on the image usually means metallic objects, spread over in a ploom which indicates something that has sunk from the top and spread out with the currents.
There are other things like shipping containers that fall off the back of cargo ships, fishing boats, buoys, stuff that is of interest and from our records looks as though it shouldn’t be there, but we know it’s more than likely not what we are looking for.
Do you talk much about the mission on board?
I try to keep the guys from talking about conspiracy theories. I don’t think that’s helpful. We’ll read them, but I just try to make sure people don’t push them. But there is a bit of talk, we mention the plane at most of our meetings, everyone knows what they are out here to do. It doesn’t matter what country the crew members are from, everyone has heard of MH370.
What we are doing means something to most people on the vessel. But they all still have their shifts to do that they would be doing if they were doing any other job. At the end of the 12 hours, talking about the plane for us is like going home and talking to your partner about work. We quite often finish our 12 hour shift and just want to talk about something other than work.
You have travelled the world for your work, where is the most exciting place you’ve been?
The only continent I haven’t been to is Antarctica. I’ve been all through the Middle East, through Africa, I’ve done a fair bit of work in Europe, I like working out of Norway. And I spent a couple of years working in Russia… that was the first time I got to see a sea frozen over.
I did some surveys in the rivers of Papua New Guinea, which was interesting, a very, very long way away from any civilization. The nearby village didn’t have electricity or anything like that. They still used fire as their light.
After six weeks at sea it must be pretty good to see dry land?
When we come into port we go up and around the top of Rottnest Island, about 15 km off Rottnest there is a lighthouse. When we come in at night most of the guys will wake up just to see the lighthouse.