Coast Guard's daily routine is totally unpredictableIt's 7:30 a.m. Wednesday, and Cmdr. Robert Watts is discussing the day's schedule over breakfast. Plans change with each wave that slaps the hull of U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Steadfast, the 210-foot ship homeported in Astoria.
The Steadfast has been patrolling and inspecting ships entering Port Angeles, Wash. - the gateway to the Puget Sound and Washington port cities.
Boarding team member Todd Olmer, a petty officer first-class, locks in a magazine of bullets into a handgun before boarding a cargo ship.
JENNIFER COLLINS - The Daily AstorianWatts peels the shell from his hard-boiled egg as he peels information from his top officers. They speak in coded sound-bites - almost like another language filled with acronyms and technical terms.
The previous night, some officers had giggled over dinner and a movie - "O Brother Where Art Thou?" - in the wardroom, the officers' dining room and lounge. This morning, the comedic tone is almost gone; although, "Man of Constant Sorrow" is still an apt theme song.
Boarding team member Jon Norman, a petty officer third-class, tests an extendable rod before boarding a ship.
JENNIFER COLLINS - The Daily Astorian"It looks like we're being extended," says Operations Officer Lt. Heather Bloomquist as she flips through her day planner. Pacific Area Command, based in Alameda, Calif., has asked the Steadfast to assist in homeland security patrols in California. The crew's time at sea will be extended from one to two months. Bloomquist got the word in an e-mail that rode in with the storm her weather charts predict.
If the storm and extension weren't enough, the previous night a ship sailed into the Port Angeles harbor without notifying authorities.
"They're really worried about it, but this is the choke point," Watts says. "We got them before Seattle ... This is where they check in."
Boarding and entering
JENNIFER COLLINS - The Daily Astorian
An inflatable boat surfs alongside the Steadfast. Those aboard the boat will soon inspect a cargo ship.After the Sept. 11 attacks, new regulations require ships to give 96-hour advance notice before entering U.S. waters and provide recent ports, destination, crew and cargo lists to the Coast Guard, which passes information to immigration, customs and other officials. If ships fail to check in, they may be denied entry, held in port or fined.
Petty Officer 2nd Class Donald Dover tests a 25 mm canon on the bow of the Cutter Steadfast as Petty Officer 3rd Class Kiley Johnson catches bullets.
JENNIFER COLLINS - The Daily AstorianThe New Hayat Suki, a shrimp carrier, is anchored off Port Angeles, while the Steadfast investigates. Two experts will be flown in from Seattle to aid. The failure to check in may be a miscommunication, but officials don't take things lightly these days, Watts says.
The Coast Guard's Seattle Port Command identifies high-risk ships, but the Steadfast crew members can inspect - "board" - anything entering the harbor. Members of the Steadfast crew will board the ships, search the decks and cargo bays, check the crew's papers and verify that information against the lists already declared.
Lt. j.g. Sam Hudson briefs the boarding team aboard the Steadfast before they inspect a ship in the Port Angeles, Wash., harbor.
JENNIFER COLLINS - The Daily Astorian"Our mission is to board anything that could be a threat," Watts says. "If it is coming from Saudi Arabia, it's a higher priority than Canada."
Occasionally, they ride the ship into port to prevent explosions, collisions or hijackings. The Sea Marshall program, which the Steadfast helped develop, prevents the use of ships as weapons, such as the airplanes on Sept. 11.
"The boarding team is elite because they're all volunteers," Watts says. "I can't order anyone to do boardings."
Very few members of the boarding team are over 30, and most are about 23. Watts, who is 39, calls them "kids." Yet many members on board the Steadfast want to join team of 13 or 14 people. Usually six to 12 board ships during inspections.
"The whole reason we have the rest of the crew is to make sure these guys do their jobs," Lt. Curtiss Potter says.
Potter, the engineer officer, has been filling the second-in-command executive officer role until a new officer joins the ship in May. The former executive officer is training to work as Vice President Dick Cheney's adviser. As executive officer, Potter, 33, manages the 75 crew members aboard the Steadfast.
Coffee with sugar
The boarding will not take place until after lunch, and the crew assembles in the mess hall for a meeting after their 10 a.m. coffee break of cinnamon rolls and fruit.
Petty Officer 3rd Class Frank Mitchell stabilizes Fireman Devon Schinagel as several crew members practice first-aid skills.
JENNIFER COLLINS - The Daily Astorian"Guys have been known to gain weight while we're under way," Potter says.
Petty Officer 3rd Class Chris Kremesec, a duty cook, peels carrots, while nursing a bandaged finger. He sliced it the day before while preparing potatoes.
"We get burns all the time," Kremesec says. "If it gets really rocky, the fryer might spill over. We've seen this floor pretty slippery."
At a crew meeting, head cook Mike Kelly, a chief petty officer, draws attention to another hazard of the job.
"There are cups missing from the mess deck," Kelly says, in all seriousness. "We have a lot of people who like to drink out of cups." Crew members snicker.
The tone of Wednesday's meeting was not so comical.
"We've been in a shooting war for a week," Watts begins. "The threat now is in San Francisco area. So we're going ... The fact is, we're at war. They don't do this without reasons."
The crew is not smiling. One man asks if he will still be able to go see his family this weekend when they pull into Seattle as scheduled. They will, but still no one smiles.
"Oh, and by the way, there's a storm offshore," Watts says.
But instead of winding the crew, that revives them. "Woohoo!" Some yip and holler.
Walls that move
As the swells rise, some find their best friend is "Doc" - Petty Officer 1st Class Matthew Benton - who doles out seasickness medication and garbage bags. Benton teaches first-aid classes and, recently, vaccinated the crew members for smallpox.
Petty Officer 3rd Class Chris Kremesec peels carrots while preparing lunch in the kitchen. His finger bandage is a symbol of the hazards of cooking aboard a ship.
JENNIFER COLLINS - The Daily Astorian"We've had this joke going that if someone says something weird, we say that's the smallpox talking," Potter says. "There's a lot of good-natured fun between the departments. ... We spend a lot of time with each other. We know each other better than our families do."
They also know the person to bet on when the seas rise.
"Every time we get under way, they have bets on who's going to throw up first," says, Kinney Blas, a petty officer 3rd class, who is usually a sure bet. "I don't get sick on the small boat, but here, I do. Here, the walls move."
Potter is not so easily turned by storms. A tour in Alaska taught him to respect waves that break 60 feet higher than his ship.
"There are only two kinds of people in the world," he says. "Those who have been seasick and those who will be seasick."
Watts follows that motto with another popular Coast Guard saying. "There are two parts of seasickness: The first part, you think you're gonna die. The second part, you think you won't."
Tetanus in the hulls
More than stomachs are at stake during a storm aboard the Steadfast. During boardings, the team must shimmy up ladders to enter ships.
"That's one of the most dangerous parts of the board," Lt. j.g. Sam Hudson says.
During one boarding, the crew had only a flexible "Jacob's ladder" to climb.
"I prayed," says Ensign Lisa Tinker, nodding her head in earnest. "I did."
When they inspected the ship, they found tires strewn about and metal cargo holds with rusted material.
"We were worried, but we were ready," Tinker says. "You have that sense. It's instilled in you."
With that boarding, the team suspected a member of the other ship's crew was not on their list.
"Before a boarding, everyone's senses are really heightened," says Hudson, who briefs and debriefs the team.
The team's suspicion turned out to be a miscommunication, but Hudson errs on the cautious side. "Things just weren't adding up as they normally do," he says.
Communications that miss
Wednesday, two men from Seattle arrive, and the boarding team prepares for the inspection. Hudson interviews the captain over the radio.
"What is your date of birth?" Hudson asks.
"Tomorrow, we go ..." the captain responds, the rest of his words are caught in radio static.
"What is your date of birth?"
"Oh, sorry. My date of birth. 1-9-4-8. 29 September," the man replies.
Communication is often a problem with foreign vessels, but usually someone on board speaks English, Hudson says.
"So far everyone we've boarded has been very cooperative," he says. "Pretty much everyone in the merchant fleet knows what the U.S. rules are."
The boarding team gathers supplies: 9 mm Beretta hand guns, bulletproof vests, expandable batons, hand cuffs, pepper spray, reflective orange jackets and flotation devices. They load their guns and climb from the Steadfast into an inflatable boat.
For Petty Officer 3rd Class Donald Gwynn, that's when the mental shift comes.
"On this ship, I'm laid back," Gwynn says. "As soon as I get there, I'm serious."
Tiburon in the bay
On the bridge, Watts and other crew members watch the transit. Watts fires stories like machine gun rounds in short bursts - a style of speech gleaned from his New England upbringing and 22 years in the Coast Guard.
International law "all goes back to the days of pirates," he says. The Coast Guard had the authority to bust ships for illegal immigrants and slaves, and that authority was extended to its current role, which was incorporated into the Office of Homeland Security this year. Originally, the Coast Guard was part of the Department of Transportation and could enforce all U.S. laws and treaties. No other military branch has that authority.
Watts worked for several years patrolling the Caribbean for drug traders.
"I used to joke that they put voodoo spells on me," he says. "It never seemed to have an affect, except I used to be 6-2 and blonde."
U.S. Coast Guard can only patrol on the U.S. side of the boarder, unless another country asks for assistance. During the 1970s and 1980s, the Steadfast, which used to be based on the East Coast, busted so much marijuana traffic, it became part of the "Million-Pound Club" - several ships that busted a million pounds of marijuana in seven years.
Traffickers also came to know the ship and nicknamed it "El Tiburon Blanco," which means "The White Shark." The Steadfast's name is written in the shape of a shark in the legacy of its nickname.
"The drug ring around here, it's marijuana," Watts says. "It's more of a deterrent thing. If we're up here, they don't do it because they know we'll catch them."
The quick and the drowned
In the past, drug-runners weren't so timid.
"One time a drug boat tried to ram us," Watts says, remembering his Caribbean days. "We considered that an attack. I have never heard of a Coast Guard ship being shot at, simply because they know they can't win."
Watts still prepares his crew for attacks, having them man their guns with speed. He calls the drill a "quick draw" and clocks it with a pocket watch his great-grandfather used when he was a ship captain.
When Watts took command of the Steadfast last summer, he added one picture to his quarters - a drawing of his great-grandfather's ship.
"Legend has it, the first mate drew that around 1910," he says.
Wednesday's drill goes especially well. Each man dons his gear and rushes to his post - two 50 mm machine guns and a 25 mm cannon - within five minutes.
Steadfast and charmed
Watts like the traditional ways. He smokes cigars, a habit he picked up in Panama, and his crew announces changes with sailor's pipes. He revels in the fact the anchor is still the same kind used a 100 years ago and distrusts technological advances that can interpret radar messages.
"I tirade a bit because I don't like computers," he says. "I'm an old guy."
The Steadfast was built in 1967 and refitted in 1992 with new wiring. It is one of 10 like it in the United States. Two engines - the same ones used in locomotives - provide the 2,500 horse power to propel the 210-foot ship through the water at its top speed of 18 knots. The ship makes fresh water from sea water through a steam process and uses 1,500 gallons of marine-grade diesel per day.
"This ship was originally designed for one- or two-week tours," says Potter, who boasts that his ship can be run from the engine room. "We just need someone to run up and point us in the right direction," he says.
When the boarding team returns to the ship at around 2:30 p.m., they report.
"It was a big misunderstanding with the agent," Hudson says.
The ship hadn't been to Port Angeles since 1998, and the agent didn't know all of the rules. Lt. Thomas Martin, a reservist from Seattle says the ship will likely be issued a written warning this time.
By the end of the day, the impending storm dissipated off the coast and crew members went to sleep without garbage bags.
"This is a charmed ship when it comes to storms," Potter says.
The ship will soon land in Seattle and the crew members will be granted leave for the day. But until then they keep watch and keep on duty, he says.
"We're just a bunch of yahoos out here doing our jobs."