Twenty-three countries, 51 ships and more than 100 U.S. personnel came together in late March for an exercise off the coast of western Africa that trains local navies to deal with offshore threats.

On any given day, from March 19 to 27, there were an average of 16 vessels underway across 12 Gulf of Guinea national economic exclusion zones, practicing boarding, search and seizure, and other operations, said tactical command officer Capt. John Rinko.

"On any given day, there are an average of 16 vessels underway across 12 Gulf of Guinea national economic exclusion zones," said tactical command officer Capt. John Rinko, practicing boarding, search and seizure and other operations from March 19 to March 27.

Exercise Obangame Express, now in its fifth year and led by U.S. 6th Fleet staff based in Naples, Italy, coordinates a dozen countries around the Gulf of Guinea with European and South American partners to practice anti-piracy, anti-trafficking and anti-illicit fishing scenarios that the gulf countries deal with on a regular basis, said tactical command officer Capt. John Rinko, in a March 23 media phone interview.

The U.S. joint high-speed vessel USNS Spearhead also made an appearance, providing the African sailors with a target to track down, board and search.

Three maritime patrol aircraft and three helicopters from Belgium, Brazil, Gabon, Ghana, Nigeria, Portugal and the United Kingdom also assisted in spotting targets.

"Obangame" comes from the language of the Fang people in southern Cameroon, meaning togetherness.

Ghanaian officer Commodore Mark Ransford Nanabayin Yawsom said told Navy Times that the exercise has a huge impact on his country and neighboring countries' ability to intercept pirates, traffickers and other criminals off their coasts, where most crime takes place within 12 miles of from shore.

"The exercise sends an awareness to the bad guys that the Gulf of Guinea nations are really getting their force jacked up to deal with this issue of maritime security," Yawsom said in an interview.

Not only has it enhanced their professional capabilities, it's increased their will to participate in offshore security operations, improving their number of successful boardings and interceptionsdictions, he added.

Lt. Cmdr. John Petrasanta, Obangame's leader and planner, said he's seen the exercise grow by leaps and bounds since he came to 6th Fleet in 2012.

"When I took over three years ago, it was a very basic tactical exercise — just a few countries in a centralized location," he said told Navy Times in a March 23 phone interview.

The numbers have grown from seven countries in 2012 to almost two dozen today.

Beyond planning and executing Obangame, Petrasanta and the exercise's lead assessor, Lt. Christopher Zeller, said spending so much time in Africa has been the opportunity of a lifetime.

"Only certain people get to experience this, and we're very fortunate that we get to," Zeller said. "Growing up in Kansas, I never once thought I'd be visiting all of these countries that we have during this exercise."

Petrasanta said his advice to any sailors assigned to Naval Forces Africa or making port visits in the Gulf of Guinea should check their expectations at the door.

"Everything we've done down here has been a great experience — the hospitality, the friendliness," he said. "Everyone goes out of the way to make sure you're enjoying their country and their culture."

Meghann Myers is the Pentagon bureau chief at Military Times. She covers operations, policy, personnel, leadership and other issues affecting service members.

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