Coast Guard takes on more visible role

Patrols increase, as do inspections of foreign vessels in U.S. ports

October 10, 2001|By Holly Roberson | Holly Roberson,KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

ABOARD THE COAST GUARD CUTTER RELIANCE - Sleepy figures milled about the ship deck in the early-morning haze.

An orange sun sat on the horizon.

Preparations for setting sail were already under way at Pier 14, Little Creek Naval Amphibious Base in Virginia.

The crisp white Coast Guard cutter bobbed gently next to gray warships on either side. Those aboard the cutter planned to board a Greek cargo ship full of kerosene, gasoline and oil - all "high-risk cargo" in the hands of the wrong people.

Since the terrorist attacks Sept. 11, the Coast Guard has taken a more visible role, increasing patrols and inspections of foreign vessels in U.S. ports.

Cups of coffee in hand, or set nearby, the Coast Guardsmen aboard Reliance checked nautical equipment in the bridge.

Almost all of the crew aboard the Portsmouth, N.H.-based cutter is from the Northeast. "God, it's hot here," said one guardsman, pulling at his button-down shirt.

A ship for a home

An already sweating Ensign Ryan Hamel hustled down the pier after running a last-minute errand. Since the Saturday after the terrorism attack, Hamel and his shipmates have called the Reliance home.

"I'm more nervous for the people back home," said Hamel, a 24-year-old bespectacled Boston native.

Shouts came from the bridge.

"Captain on deck," barked one guardsman.

The crew of the Reliance is more accustomed to boarding fishing boats and checking for the use of updated safety measures and other regulations. Foreign vessels are usually inspected, but sometimes not until after they reach port.

The Coast Guard has been busy in the past few weeks. About 1,500 reservists and an unknown number of auxiliary members have volunteered or been called to duty.

Up on deck, the cutter swished past fishing boats. One boater gave the ship a salute. Inside, the guardsmen worked rapidly controlling the large craft's movements.

Hamel sat on an elevated chair and stared out on the sea with binoculars. A foreign black-and-white cargo ship with "Bow Power " emblazoned on the side appeared on the horizon.

The code is Red Pencil.

Picked for boarding

That's what immigration, customs and guardsmen are told during a briefing before they board the Bow Power. If something looks suspicious, ask your partner for a red pencil.

About 15 men, all dressed in bullet-resistant vests, crowded into the conference room aboard the Reliance.

On the bridge, radio contact had been made.

"How would you like to board vessel?" said a foreign voice on the ship's intercom.

In a large, motor-powered raft, the inspection team made its way toward the foreign vessel. They will check "for anything out of the ordinary," one of the men said.

On the Reliance, it was lunchtime for those left behind.

Seaman Apprentice James Bowman, 19, made sure the bottles of ranch dressing and catsup were exactly the same distance apart on the officers' lunch table. He has been assigned to the Reliance for two weeks, and he's a little nervous about the recent turn of events.

"It's crazy," Bowman said as he arranged the silverware.

Several minutes later, the captain and other officers came in for a lunch of grilled ham and cheese sandwiches and potato tots. Talk turned to the NFL, the upcoming night of bingo and attempts at making a tower out of several napkin rings.

On board the Bow Power, life was a little more uncomfortable. There was no air-conditioning aboard the 14-year-old cargo ship.

After several hours of labor, the inspectors returned.

Ryan Hamel sank into a chair, wiped his brow and expressed great joy at having removed his heavy bullet-resistant vest.

"There's not much circulation," he huffed. "I'm sure the vest didn't help."

Inspectors found nothing unusual aboard. Everyone was helpful, even friendly, Hamel said.

"They've been explained to by their company what's going on in the United States," said Lt. Bob Griffin of the U.S. Coast Guard. "I think they're glad to see it."

With everything that has happened in the past two weeks, "I think they felt a little safer."

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