NORFOLK, Va. - The Firebolt, one of the Navy's newest, fastest ships, built to insert and extract commandos in exotic locations around the globe, zipped through the Chesapeake Bay one recent morning on a new mission: Homeland defense. And in place of Navy Seals, it had a new strike team: a boarding party from the Coast Guard.
For the first time since World War II, the Coast Guard is defending Navy ships in U.S. waters as well as taking a more vigorous look at thousands of ships entering those waters, checking their cargoes and crews.
And to bolster Coast Guard resources, the Navy is providing six of its Cyclone-class ships, including the Firebolt, complete with crews to ferry the Coast Guard teams where they want to go. The 170-foot ships are capable, when the four giant diesel engines rise to ear-splitting pitch, of 35 knots. Four are based here and will range from Maine to Texas; two others are in the Pacific.
Coast Guard specialties
The Navy's big ships carry far more weapons than the Firebolt or the six-member Coast Guard teams, raising the question of why the military is depending on a quasimilitary law-enforcement agency to protect its biggest ships. But the Navy, military officials say, lacks something the Coast Guard has: the legal authority to board ships in domestic waters, and the experience in doing so.
Vice Adm. Thad W. Allen of the Coast Guard said, "We've been doing it since 1790, when Alexander Hamilton made the first appropriation for 10 cutters to enforce revenue laws."
The teams are the same ones that are deployed on Coast Guard cutters, and they had a variety of functions before Sept. 11. They look for illegal fishing nets; they check passports and cargo manifests that may not be legitimate; they find illegal migrants, and they hunt for signs of drug use in crew members, signs that may indicate smuggled drugs on board.
Lately, they have learned to recognize bombs, because officials worry about another attack like the suicide assault on the destroyer USS Cole in Yemen 13 months ago.
Shortly after Sept. 11, Allen, who is in charge of all Coast Guard forces east of the Rocky Mountains, issued an emergency regulation that required ships coming within 500 yards of a naval vessel to slow to the minimum speed required to maneuver. It also prohibits all vessels from coming within 100 yards. That is one of the rules that the boarding teams can enforce.
4,200 vessels boarded
Since Sept. 11, the Coast Guard has boarded more than 4,200 vessels in the Atlantic, detained at least 53 ships and turned 10 people over to law enforcement agencies. (In its more traditional work, it has also conducted 880 search-and-rescue missions, made five drug seizures, caught 254 illegal migrants and responded to 95 pollution cases, service officials said.)
The Navy generally does not board civilian ships in U.S. waters.
"The biggest thing we have going for us is we're all designated as customs officers," said one member of the boarding team on the Firebolt, Lt. j.g. Stephen N. Casey. "It gives us the authority to board any boat; the Navy doesn't have that authority."
A spokesman for the Coast Guard, Lt. Cmdr. Brendan C. McPherson, said, "It's probably the first time in history that we've had naval ships operating under Coast Guard direction."
McPherson added that their work was much more carefully coordinated now with the Immigration and Naturalization Service and other agencies, deciding which ships should be boarded and what to look for. The Coast Guard used to require ships arriving in U.S. ports to give 24 hours notice; now it requires 96 hours.
The teams, trained in hand-to-hand combat, carry 9mm Baretta sidearms, pepper spray and batons that unfold like antennas, although Casey said he had yet to use force in a boarding. One reason is that the teams are backed up by their ships; cutters carry .50-caliber machine guns, and ships like the Firebolt have even larger armaments.
The teams wear dark blue uniforms with the Coast Guard insignia on one side of the chest, but no name patch on the other side. One member of the team on the Firebolt gave only his first name, explaining that he has testified against drug smugglers in six courts in the last few months and does not want his name publicized.
The members of the boarding party said they were impressed with the Firebolt, which carries four Paxman engines, each delivering 3,350 horsepower, while a 110-foot cutter carries two such engines. "They usually give us the stuff with the holes in it," one officer said jokingly.
The boarding parties use a rigid-hull inflatable boat, known as a RIB, that looks much like a zodiac and is lowered by a small crane off the stern of the Firebolt. It is run by a Navy coxswain and engineer. On its recent mission in the Chesapeake Bay, the Coast Guard demonstrated transferring people and equipment between the Firebolt and a nearby cutter, the Campbell, using the RIB. The only moment of drama was on the Firebolt's bridge, when the boatswain's mate and the quartermaster saw something directly ahead, low in the water. It was a particular hazard of the bay.
"Trash bag?" asked the mate, peering through his binoculars.
The quartermaster said, "Looks like a bunch of fishing buoys strung together."
The mate replied, "I can't maneuver. I've got that RIB alongside."
But the moment passed; the nets passed to the right side without fouling the ship's propellers.