The Navy’s Indoor Ocean

It’s 240 Feet wide, 360 feet long and holds over 12 million gallons of water. This is the MASK; the Maneuvering and Seakeeping Basin at the Naval Surface Warfare Center at Carderock.

(Department of Defense photo by Chelsea Flowers Anderson/Released)

The Maneuvering and Seakeeping Basin at the Naval Surface Warfare Center at Carderock. (Department of Defense photo by Chelsea Flowers Anderson/Released)

It’s one of the largest (if not the largest) indoor oceans in the world, making the MASK the most advanced test facility of its kind.

So why does the Navy NEED an indoor ocean?

Good question.

The MASK serves as the ultimate controlled environment. It helps the Navy to effectively train and research situations where their ships and sailors might face, only in the MASK they don’t have to wait for mother nature to put them to the test.

“This pool has the ability to simulate ocean waves,” explains Calvin Krishen, an engineer at the Naval Surface Warfare Center here at Carderock.

“We can put a scale model of a Navy vessel – whether it’s been built already or something that they’re planning to build – and actually test it before they actually build the real ship.  That way the Navy can then get some feedback on the design that they’re using, and make any adjustments that they might need.”

The wave paddles move together like piano keys on the water's surface to create a variety of different waves used for research and development at the Navy's MASK facility, Carderock.

The wave paddles move together like piano keys on the water’s surface to create a variety of different waves used for research and development at the Navy’s MASK facility, Carderock.

“We can do a lot of different types of testing here,” says Dr. Christopher Kent, engineer at Naval Surface Warfare Center, Carderock. “For the warfighter and for warfighter support it usually has to do with operability, flight operations, looking at ship motions in a seaway to understand what our capabilities are. Also we do assist with initial design as well, assisting with making sure that the system works up to the performance specification that we paid for as the Navy.”

Now, this facility is nothing new; it’s existed since the 1960s.  What is new, however, is the reinvented, fully functional wave maker.  It’s a feat of engineering, really. It works by using 216 individual finger-like paddles, which push on the water like piano keys.

Working together, the right combination with the right intensity creates different types of waves you’d actually see in the ocean…and even some you won’t.

These dramatic, unnatural waves are programmed with the use of wave paddles + engineering control systems at the Navy's MASK facility, Carderock.

These dramatic, unnatural waves are programmed with the use of wave paddles + engineering control systems at the Navy’s MASK facility, Carderock.

This is a wave that’s called the bullseye. It’s round, powerful, and dramatic. Not something you’d want to come across in nature, and that’s a good thing, since you wouldn’t. This kind of wave is generated using the engineering programs that control the MASK wave paddles.

“It’s something that we use to demonstrate the precision and the repeatability of this machine,” Krishen explains to me. “The paddles are moving in a very coordinated, specific sequence. Its different sequences of paddle movements that allow you to fine tune the kinds of waves that you get. What we’re demonstrating here is the ability for the machine to focus energy as a single point in the basin, wherever we specify, which is right there where the wave makes the big crest and its breaking.”

“So we can actually tell the machine, ‘Okay, take that wave and put it 20 feet back that way’ and it will do that. It’s the most advanced kind of wave making you can possibly have at this point in time.”

These "natural waves" are programmed with the use of wave paddles + engineering control systems at the Navy's MASK facility, Carderock.

These “natural waves” are programmed with the use of wave paddles + engineering control systems at the Navy’s MASK facility, Carderock.

This wave is more similar to what you would find in nature,” Krishen points out. “Specifically we use this one to test a wave that was on the magnitude of what the waves were during Hurricane Camille.”

The MASK is used primarily to perform tests on ships and seafaring craft, though there was once a time when it was also used to test life boats. You won’t find many people swimming in these dimly-lit waters, however.  And speaking of that…

“It’s fresh water, but you’ll notice the lights are turned low,” Krishen says.  “That’s because we don’t want algae to grow in the system, or in the tank.”

I guess you wouldn’t want a place like this becoming a festering bowl of bacteria, huh?  “We skim it, we circulate the water regularly, it’s filtered.  Across this whole warfare center we have the ability to transfer water from one tank to the other.”

Though it might seem a little disconnected from the warfighter, the MASK facility, and the research & development being conducted in these dark waters, is an integral part of the Navy readiness mission. Ultimately, Krishen says the MASK mission is to help the Navy to achieve its mission. In whatever capacity that might require of them.

“We put the sailors first,” Calvin Krishen says.  “Whatever the sailor’s needs are, whatever the Navy’s needs, that’s what we do here.”

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Jessica L. Tozer
 is a DoD contractor and the editor-in-chief for Armed with Science.  She is an Army veteran and an avid science fiction fan, both of which contribute to her enthusiasm for science and technology in the military.

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