Carol Williams: the first female geophysicist on RRS Discovery

Carol Williams tells the story of her work on Royal Research Ship (RSS) Discovery during a scientific cruise in the Bay of Biscay, 1966.

I’m Carol Williams and in October 1965 I found myself at the Department of Geodesy and Geophysics as a research assistant to Drummond Matthews in marine Geophysics. I had recently graduated in geology but I knew absolutely no geophysics. And Drum introduced met to marine data, particularly he gave me a whole mass of, rolls of paper, from the Discovery Indian Ocean Expedition. Fred Vine had picked out the bit that he was interested in and he’d done his good work and he’d recently left, and I’d just taken Sue Vine’s job. But there remained a whole heap of data still to be hand read, hand digitised and then hand punched onto paper tape. Sue Vine had not been allowed to go to sea, although Fred Vine did go to sea, and I was very keen on the sea; I sailed a lot and always enjoyed being on boats. And I think that was what convinced Drum to persuade, I don’t know who he had to persuade, but anyway I was allowed to go on the next cruise, department cruise, and that was Cruise 11 1966, to do a detailed survey in the Bay of Biscay. And we set off. I was to be involved with magnetics and gravity. I went down to Plymouth a few days early to help set up the gravimeter and that’s a sort of ginormous hunk of engineering that sits on a gyro-stabilised platform and takes a good two or three days to settle once you adjust it. But prior to that we’d packed up all our equipment in the department, all the seismic equipment, all the recorders, magnetometers. I’d collected together all the past charts of data that we would need. Of course there were no computers, there was software to write, it was all bits of paper and lots of maps. And this was all packed in the lorry in the department and the lorry went down to Plymouth, and everyone was in Plymouth by the time the lorry arrived and we all humped all this stuff out of the lorry onto Discovery and then stowed it in appropriate places. And then just before the ship would leave, another lorry would arrive with the geofex, the explosive. And we’d all hump these boxes of, I suppose there must have been fifty pounds of explosive, and we’d all hump these and put them in the ASDIC trunk. I don’t know if it still exists on Discovery, but Discovery used to have an ASDIC trunk and that’s where we had kept the explosive. And we set off. And as the only girl on board I was determined that I wasn’t going to be treated any differently. Though I say that, but we all had to scrub up and clean up and go into meals, and I did seem to think it was necessary that I wore a skirt, for some reason. But anyway, other than that I hope I did my share of heaving and humping stuff on the after deck, being very aware that you mustn’t stand in bites of rope and things like that. And, erm, and Drum even gave me some jobs of splicing rope. Because we were still using hemp rope in those days, and so there were some back splices and some eye splices to do and I spliced buoys onto bits of rope for this and that. And we were looking for magnetic lineations in the Bay of Biscay. I know Fred Vine had looked for magnetic lineations but the Bay of Biscay wasn’t an obvious choice of location.  So, but anyway, we did our survey of tracks going up and down, and part of my job was to read the records, hand read the records once each roll had come off the recorders, and write the values down ready for hand digitising back in Cambridge. And so I had scientific watches as everyone did, but a lot of my work was sitting either down in my cabin or in a quiet corner somewhere, reading off all these records. And I used to do that until Discovery had a database system installed, and GPS navigation, and the charts were all done on the computer for us. And the database picked up all the data and you just had to decide whether you wanted one minute, six minute, whatever values, and it just produced it and plotted it. I say all this, it didn’t work as brilliantly as that in the early days. You always had glitches. But – so life gave me a lot more leisure to do - think about other things and prepare other things. I don’t think I was the first girl ever to sail on Discovery, I’m sure there were some biologists before me, so maybe the people, the officers and crew on board Discovery were a little bit used to having women on board. But I know that below decks they still considered it was very unlucky for the ship if there was a woman on board, and there I was bringing the ship bad luck and we were going to the Bay of Biscay and we were bound to have bad weather. We didn’t actually, we had very good weather [laughs]. The officers were much more prepared just to sort of treat me as an ordinary person and we’d mix together at mealtimes and it was always rather nice to go up on the bridge if you had a spare moment, and particularly I used to like to go at teatime there, have a cup of tea and have a good view from the bridge and look down the radar and just see what was generally going on. Though I was on that first cruise, I was reprimanded after a couple of weeks for not appearing in the bar often enough, but that was easily repaired afterwards. And I’ve seen from my diaries, subsequent diaries, that I used to frequent the bar quite a lot.

Related Audio Clips

The following clip is a short extract from an in-depth interview.
To listen to the full interview visit

Related disciplines