This Ingeniously-Designed Ocean Vessel Only Looks Like It’s Sinking

The aptly-named R/P FLIP is an open ocean research platform that can flip between the horizontal and vertical position at the flip of a button and is often mistaken for a capsizing ship.

Owned by the U.S. Office of Naval Research, the FLIP (short for ‘floating instrument platform’) is a 108-meter-long ocean research platform designed to partially flood and pitch backward 90°, leaving only the 17-meter end above water, in a vertical position, with the bulkheads acting as decks. Because most of the ballast for the platform is actually ocean water at depths below the influence of surface waves, the R/P FLIP behaves like a buoy, which means it is virtually immune to wave action. The platform’s hull is designed to resist twisting. After its mission is complete, compressed air is pushed into the large ballast tanks, causing the entire platform to flip back into a horizontal position.

Photo: U.S. Navy/Flickr

The development of the R/P FLIP platform began in 1960, inspired by a conversation between researcher Frederick H. Fisher and the director of the Marine Physical Laboratory, Fred N. Spiess. The former was complaining about stability issues when using a submarine to conduct his research, which made Spiess recall a suggestion that upending a ship might make it more stable. That sparked a discussion about the feasibility of such a ship, and in June of 1962, the Gunderson Brothers Engineering Company in Portland, Oregon launched the FLIP.

The FLIP can float freely in open waters, or it can be moored to the bottom of the ocean at depths of up to 5,000 meters, an operation that takes an entire day to complete as well as 50 tonnes of equipment. Fliping from a horizontal to a vertical position, on the other hand, takes less than 30 minutes.

Photo: U.S. Navy/Flickr

Interestingly, because of the potential interference with its highly sensitive acoustic instruments, the R/P FLIP does not have its own means of propulsion, so it must be towed by another vessel. It weighs around 700 tonnes and can accommodate a crew of five, plus up to eleven scientists.

As you can imagine, the interior needed some customization in order to be functional in both horizontal and vertical positions. For example, the toilet seats can flip 90°, and the shower heads are curved 90°. Also, overhead lights had to be installed on the surfaces that act as ceilings in both orientations. Walking inside the FLIP can feel bizarre, with doors and hatches sticking out from the floor and portholes in the ceiling.


When it comes to stability in the open ocean, an extremely important condition for the kinds of research FLIP is used for, no other platform even comes close to this wonder of engineering. The only other vessels able to compete with it in that department are submarines.

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