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In Persian Gulf, cutter keeps robbers at bay

May. 3, 2014 - 03:03PM   |  
On Watch: Electronics Technician 3rd Class Ryan Thomas stands lookout watch on the flying bridge of the cutter Maui during a transit from Doha, Qatar, to Manama, Bahrain.
On Watch: Electronics Technician 3rd Class Ryan Thomas stands lookout watch on the flying bridge of the cutter Maui during a transit from Doha, Qatar, to Manama, Bahrain. (Christopher P. Cavas/Staff)
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ABOARD USCGC MAUI IN THE PERSIAN GULF — Resplendent in white and buff paint, the Coast Guard cutter Maui stands out as it moves amid the dhows, fishing boats and enormous oil tankers that ply these waters. The color scheme, along with its easily recognized diagonal orange stripe, clearly marks the vessel as American.

On patrol in the gulf, the small 110-foot-long cutter’s presence isn’t always appreciated, at least by pirates and robbers and others wishing to do harm.

“We don’t always get to see all the results, but we definitely have an effect,” said Electronics Technician 3rd Class Ryan Thomas, standing watch as lookout on Maui’s flying bridge.

“There used to be a good bit of robberies out here, but you don’t see much of that any more. That’s us. The fishermen out here, they appreciate us.”

Lt. Earl Potter, the cutter’s commanding officer, echoed that theme.

“We’re out here gathering pattern-of-life information, including familiarity with fishing and trading patterns,” he said March 28 during a day passage from Doha, Qatar, back to home base in Manama, Bahrain. “We increase stability for fishermen by driving out people who would do them harm.”

Piracy in the gulf, rather than the ship-and-hostage-seizing activity seen off Somalia, usually takes the form of robbery.

“You get reports of piracy — stealing cargoes of fish — but not the kind of piracy you see elsewhere, where they steal the ship. We hear that stuff doesn’t go on when we’re in the area,” Potter said.

The ship’s presence alone often has a stabilizing effect, Thomas noted.

“We usually announce ourselves on the radio on the hour — ‘This is coalition warship 1304 [Maui’s hull number],’ say what vicinity we’re operating in, ask anyone who sees anything illegal to contact us. Usually the message is broadcast in Arabic, Hindi and English.”

With a cutter in the area, or one of the Navy’s coastal patrol boats, illegal activity of all kinds tends to drop off precipitously, Potter said.

“Our missions are maritime infrastructure protection, theater security cooperation — exercises, engagement. Combined Task Force 152 provides persistent presence,” said Potter, citing one of several Central Command operating task groups formed under the aegis of US Naval Forces Central Command and the US 5th Fleet.

When the need arises, the cutters also perform traditional search-and-rescue operations. On Oct. 11, Maui rescued five Iranian seamen adrift in a liferaft in the northern gulf. Their ship had capsized and sunk, and the sailors were nearing the end.

“Another day and they would have died,” said Lt. j.g. Allison Murray, the cutter’s executive officer, who took part in the rescue.

Given first aid, food, water and clean clothes, the men were turned over to an Iranian Coast Guard vessel.

The Coast Guard has been operating continuously in the gulf since 2003. Maui and five other 110-footers — Adak, Baranof, Monomoy, Wrangell and Aquidneck — are the most visible Coast Guard assets in the region.

“We have about 300 Coast Guard people out here,” said Capt. Bob Hendrickson, commodore for Coast Guard Patrol Forces Southwest Asia, speaking in his office at fleet headquarters in Bahrain.

In addition to the cutter crews, about 100 Coasties are involved in maintenance and engineering support, along with about 27 assigned to redeployment assistance and inspection detachments (RAID).

The RAID teams, split evenly between active duty and reserves, are based in Kuwait and Afghanistan, Hendrickson said. In Afghanistan, four inspection teams operating at forward operating bases are supporting the withdrawal effort, certifying shipping containers and typically failing about 90 percent. Infractions include hazardous materials left in vehicles or gear, poor packing, or even ammunition still in weapons.

Fixing those problems before shipping typically saves the US Army as much as $700,000 a month in fines or lost shipping time, Hendrickson added.

Duty in the gulf can be strenuous.

“We operate at more than a 200 percent operational tempo compared with Coast Guard units in the U.S.,” Hendrickson said. “There, a typical op tempo would be 1,800 hours to 2,000 hours a year. Here, we’re at about 4,300 hours a year.”

Deployments are generally for 18 months, compared with a typical 36-month stateside tour.

One benefit of the duty, said Chief Machinery Technician Adam Lewis, is getting highest priority for the next tour. The perk is available to enlisted sailors, but not officers.

“That’s one of the reasons I’m out here,” he declared.

Maintenance of the 110-footers, which date from the 1980s, is a challenge, just as it is in the U.S. But in the gulf, Lewis said, “parts availability is way tougher. It can take a long time to get parts out here. It makes it far more difficult.”

Too many middlemen, too many hands on the package, Lewis said. “Stateside, you can go to a local store, or get parts in overnight delivery.”

But the Coast Guard regularly overhauls the little cutters. During a visit in late March, the Wrangell and Aquidneck were each hauled out at a local shipyard having their hulls cleaned.

The crews of the 110-footers are somewhat larger than the 18-member standard stateside. An extra officer — a lieutenant junior grade — is assigned to help with the increased operational load, along with a first class operations specialist, a third class electronics technician and a third class gunner’s mate.

Everyone has a rack, including three extra berths installed aft.

The crew of the Maui seemed genuinely motivated about duty in the gulf.

“Most people who come here are top quality, high-performing people,” Lewis said. “This has been the finest duty in my Coast Guard career.”

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