The he University-National Oceanographic Laboratory System (UNOLS) is a unique organization nearing its 30th anniversary. It continues to walk a tight rope between the federal agencies and academia, between competition and collegiality. Evolving from a Stratton Commission recommendation, UNOLS forged a solid niche in the management of a virtual research fleet. Institutional members maintain a federation type management style yet agree to coordinate their schedules, adhere to common safety standards, exchange scientific parties, and plan for future ship replacements. At the same time, members are hustling to outshine competing institutions in the quest for full schedules. Science is a winner in the process as ship managers strive forever improving operations, high safety and maintenance standards, new scientific tools and instrumentation and an accommodating, professional crew. Where appropriate, standardization has been accomplished yet each ship maintains a personality or character that is tailored to its individual mission expertise.