The Coast Guard's newest and largest vessel pulled into the Fells Point pier yesterday, part of a national tour that federal homeland security officials say marks a watershed in the service's ability to patrol the nation's waters.
The Bertholf, the first of the Coast Guard's national security cutters, is longer than a football field and stands nearly five stories tall. The biggest ship ever in the Coast Guard, it's built to do it all: search and rescue, drug busts, immigration patrol and battle.
FOR THE RECORD - An article in the June 28 Maryland section incorrectly identified the Bertholf, a national security cutter, as the Coast Guard's largest vessel. According to a Coast Guard spokesman, that distinction belongs to the Healy, which, at 420 feet, is 2 feet longer than the Bertholf.
The Sun regrets the errors.
Yesterday, docked in Fells Point, the hulking ship drew stares from restaurant patrons sipping beers and a small crowd that gathered to listen as Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff briefly addressed reporters.
"I think we really are on our way to transforming the Coast Guard," Chertoff said, pointing to the service's increased significance since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. "We have to be even more mindful of the need to protect our national interests."
The Bertholf is the first of eight national security cutters to be built as part of the Coast Guard's 25-year, $24 billion Integrated Deepwater System Program, which began in the mid-1990s. The project, a joint effort of Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman, has been troubled by cost overruns and delays.
The new national security cutters will replace the aging 378-foot Hamilton-class cutters that have been in the service since the 1960s.
The Bertholf, which was completed in 2006 and whose crew has been in training since then, is making its way down the Atlantic, around the Caribbean and eventually to the Pacific. Its home port will be Alameda, Calif.
Almost every task on the ship is computer-operated, cutting down on the number of people needed to perform ordinary tasks such as launching a small boat from the ship. Even the 57-milimeter gun is reloaded with the click of a mouse.
"This whole big boat is just one floating computer," said Lt. Krystyn Pecora, the Bertholf's assistant operations officer. "For the point-and-click generation, this is the boat."
On other cutters, small rescue boats must be lowered 30 feet down the side, and rescuing a man overboard typically takes longer than 15 minutes, Pecora said.
The crew of the Bertholf recently completed a man-overboard drill in less than five minutes, Pecora said.
The crew has spent 18 months in training, traveling as far as Germany while familiarizing themselves with the ship's controls.
"We're all hoping for a drug bust on the way around" to California, Pecora said. "We all want to prove we're Bertholf, we're here, we're ready."