Cutter patrols strategic Potomac

175-foot vessel keeps its eyes on capital and possible threats

Terrorism Strikes America

September 30, 2001|By Joel McCord | Joel McCord,SUN STAFF

ABOARD THE JAMES RANKIN - Ordinarily, the crew of this 175-foot Coast Guard cutter would be doing maintenance work on the buoys that mark Chesapeake Bay shipping channels. But these are extraordinary times.

So, the ship cruises the Potomac River from the Woodrow Wilson Bridge to Haines Point, then sits in the middle of the narrow Washington shipping channel, part of the increased security measures since the terrorist attacks Sept. 11 that killed thousands in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania. Smaller Coast Guard patrol boats and police boats zip up and down the river as helicopters circle overhead.

Joggers run along the east bank of the river, where the Naval Research Laboratory, Bolling Air Force Base and Naval Air Station Anacostia abut each other. To the west are a shuttered Reagan National Airport - the only plane taking off was a Coast Guard jet - and the wounded Pentagon.

"It's a perfect spot," the skipper, Capt. Mike Davanzo, said on the ship's wide, glass-enclosed bridge high above the surface of the river. "We control the channel, we can support the other operations and we can see everything from up here. There's Bolling, there's the Pentagon, there's the Capitol."

The Capitol dome appeared just over the roof of the red brick buildings of Fort McNair, and the Washington Monument gleamed white in the sunlight.

After the attacks, the Coast Guard temporarily closed the Potomac north of the Wilson Bridge, as well as Baltimore's Inner Harbor, to all boats and sent out patrols to monitor the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries.

The crews on the patrol boats carry side arms, but if the ship is armed it isn't readily apparent. And Coast Guard officials aren't talking about that. The James Rankin is so big that it almost blocks the entire shipping channel at its spot near Haines Point. Few vessels of any size could squeeze past it. Barges and fishing vessels make up most of the commercial traffic on this part of the river, where there are few, if any freighters.

The waterways have since been reopened, but Coast Guard cutters, boats and aircraft continue to patrol, Coast Guardsmen boarding commercial vessels, but also keeping a close eye on pleasure boaters.

"We were up here Saturday and Sunday, and there must've been a million boats out," Davanzo said. "We were boarding them, and people understood. It was amazing how cooperative they were. They wanted to be safe."

The most excitement the crew members have had since they've been on patrol came when a U-Haul truck broke down on the Wilson Bridge last week.

"There were helicopters flying all around, police boats in the water, and then it turned out, he really was broken down," Davanzo said.

Wednesday, there were only a few boats on the water. The tug Donna Kay pushed an empty fuel barge down the river, the daily lunch cruises from Washington and Alexandria went by less than a third full, and a few sailboats played near the Rankin.

The Rankin, an extraordinary vessel, crept sideways from the dock in Alexandria, powered by its bow thrusters and propellers on an axis that can rotate 360 degrees. When the ship reached the center of the channel, it spun on its axis, again using the bow thrusters and rotating propellers, and started north at just better than 4 knots.

Petty Officer Janna Vick was on the radio with the Wilson bridge tender, who was telling her of a sailing vessel headed north and expected to pass under the bridge about noon. Petty Officer Mike Cheslock was keeping track of the course.

"Mark, zero one three," he called. "Mark, zero one four."

Davanzo was using the patrols for training on small-boat handling, ship handling and navigation.

A chart of the river, tracing the Rankin's heading and course, appeared on at least four computer screens across the bridge, but Davanzo sent Petty Officer Alan Dooley to check water depths on a paper chart. Could the ship move 25 yards to the right of the track it was on to make room for the approaching barge without running aground?

"It looks like it," Dooley said.

"Looks like it? Be sure," Davanzo shot back.

"Sir, we can go 150 yards to the right of our track," came the reply.

The Rankin stopped about half a mile from Haines Point and turned slowly on its axis again to point south, then sat in the water. The propellers that worked together to push the ship off the dock were now turned against each other to hold it in position.

The crew of one of the 41-foot patrol boats tied up alongside and came aboard for lunch.

It's what they've been doing in 12-hour shifts for the past two weeks, said Petty Officer Sean McCahill. Patrol the river, "come in, eat chow, go back out, come in, get dinner, go back out."

Earlier in the day they escorted the barge and the Donna Kay as far as the bridge, "but that's about it," said Petty Officer Chris Collins, who was at the wheel of the 41454. (Coast Guard vessels this small don't have names, just numbers.)

Up on the bridge, Davanzo was complaining that he would rather be tending buoys than sitting in the middle of the river, but he acknowledged how well his ship serves this purpose.

And just the presence of all these Coast Guard vessels may make some people - not necessarily terrorists - think twice about doing something illegal.

Seaman Casey Cann, who was at the helm as the Rankin worked its way back down the river at the end of a patrol, said this is exactly what he wants to be doing.

He was on leave, helping his girlfriend move to New Mexico, when the terrorists struck. He was frustrated by grounded flights as he tried to get back to his ship.

"This is what I wanted to do," he said, his eyes darting from computer screens to the water and back. "This is what it's all about."

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