A Day in the Life of the Coast Guard
Seaworthy Goes for a Ride on the Coast Guard Cutter Diligence
At 11:10 a.m. on Wednesday, June 16, the Coast Guard cutter Diligence backs out of its dock at Maine Avenue in Washington, DC , turns, and begins moving slowly toward the Wilson Bridge. Because soundings had been taken earlier in one of the ship’s small boats (using an old-fashioned lead line), the 210’ ship negotiates the tricky channel without incident and at 11:40 the giant span on the bridge is raised so that Diligence, amid traffic helicopters and a long line of frustrated motorists, can pass beneath.
The Wilson Bridge doesn’t open for just anybody and on the rare occasions when it is opened the spectacle of stopped traffic on the normally frantic capitol beltway is big news on local radio and television stations. Unfortunately, opening the Wilson Bridge for Diligence is about as much clout as the Coast Guard has been able to muster in our nation’s capitol in recent years. A study of 41 of the world’s “navies" found the U. S. Coast Guard now ranks 39th. After years of budget cutting, the Coast Guard’s aircraft and ships, some of which predate WW II, are now older than those in many third world countries.
Diligence, as it steams slowly down the Potomac, in many ways reflects both the strengths and problems that the Coast Guard faces as it approaches the millennium. The 37-year-old ship is headed to its home port in Wilmington, North Carolina with its crew of 65 men after being on patrol off George’s Bank in the North Atlantic for almost two months. The ship was designed originally for brief, two-week search and rescue missions with a crew of 75. While crew sizes (and budgets) have been shrinking, the role of ships like Diligence have been constantly expanded. On this trip, Diligence’s crew tagged two Right Whales that were trapped in nets, enforced 14 complicated fisheries management plans, seized catches of fishing boats that were fishing in closed areas, and conducted numerous boardings of commercial vessels for safety and pollution compliance. Unlike the other military, the Coast Guard is empowered to enforce federal laws, which includes the power to make arrests. Aside from enforcing fishing laws, Diligence has made 41 seizures, mostly in the Caribbean, for cocaine and marijuana smuggling. And while on another recent Caribbean patrol, 225 Haitians had to be housed aboard for five days after being rescued from their foundering boat.
Diligence is a challenging assignment; the hours are long, and the constant motion of the ship makes the men’s everyday work at sea that much more difficult. When the Executive Officer, Lt. Cmdr. Mike Gigilo, gave his briefing on the bridge, he mentioned crew fatigue along with numerous shoals and meandering channels as hazards the ship will encounter on its way back to Wilmington. The men onboard—the average age is only 23—routinely cope with 12 hour work days, seven days a week. And when a helicopter is brought aboard for reconnaissance, the ship is on call around the clock and the average work day is sometimes stretched to 18 hours.
Diligence’s skipper, Cmdr. Mark Landry, will remain on the bridge, quietly watching over the shoulders of the men on duty until the ship reaches the ocean. The previous night, while the ship was in port in Washington, he hosted a special event aboard Diligence to honor the Coast Guard Auxiliary, the Coast Guard’s volunteer arm, which was attended by the Secretary of Transportation, assorted politicians, as well as Coast Guard and Auxiliary brass. Tonight he will be on the bridge until 3 a.m.—a long day. On commercial vessels, only two men, a mate and an officer, would be on the bridge, but on military vessels like Diligence, the job of navigating, standing lookout and conning the ship typically requires more—much more—manpower. Whenever Diligence is in a narrow channel, over a dozen men can be standing watch, taking bearings, plotting the ship’s course, monitoring the radar, monitoring GPS, talking to the engine room, and taking the helm. One reason for the larger numbers has to do with combat: in a military action, enemy fire could decimate the number of men on the bridge. Another reason, according to Cmdr. Landry, is that the ship is constantly training new recruits, not just in navigation, but in all facets of ship operation.
After several years of streamlining, the Coast Guard is at its smallest size since 1967, despite the expanded number of missions. The shortage of personnel means there are opportunities aplenty for hardworking young recruits. Lt. Cmdr. Giglio, the ship’s executive officer, notes that an exceptional recruit can be given command of a 41-footer after only two years in the Coast Guard—a daunting assignment, given the complexity of the many different problems he or she is likely to be confronted with.
Down in Diligence’s engine room, the two giant 2550 hp diesels push the ship at cruising speed, about 14 knots. Clay Pierce, a 20-year old E-2, checks the gauges and reports any discrepancies to the bridge. Before Pierce joined the Coast Guard nine months ago, he had only seen the ocean twice. Pierce clearly takes pride in his work, but he says being at sea for half the year is hard, especially on the married guys. If Pierce were married, his wife and family would be eligible for food stamps, but he says he is able to save much of his $1,080 monthly pay toward buying a car.
Why does he endure the long hours, low pay, and hard work? Pierce says he joined because “The Coast Guard does good things." It’s a sentiment that is echoed over and over by the ship’s young crew. A man standing watch on the ship’s flying bridge said when his family used to vacation on Long Island, he watched the Coast Guard boats going out to rescue boaters. It made a lasting impression. Another man, a Coast Guard Academy cadet who grew up on a farm, said he joined the Coast Guard because it is dedicated to saving lives.
The point is not missed by the Coast Guard’s hierarchy in its quest to attract bright young recruits. Cmdr. Landry says that Search and Rescue is a large part of how the Coast Guard sees itself, both at the top and among the men themselves. Landry tells all of the young recruits that, “you may well play a role in saving someone’s life." To the casual observer, this seems like recruiting hype, since the Coast Guard is preoccupied with so many other missions. But whenever a Coast Guard ship receives a distress call, its everyday operations are suspended immediately. Whether it is patrolling fisheries, performing drug interdiction, stopping illegal immigration, or enforcing pollution laws, whenever someone is in distress, Diligence only mission is Search and Rescue.
Among the more experienced crew there are plenty of Search and Rescue stories. Several years ago, when Cmdr. Landry was stationed in California, he received a call from a woman who said a man on a windsurfer “may be having trouble getting back to shore." She couldn’t be sure, and later even seemed to recant her observation. Despite the lack of evidence that the man was in serious peril, Landry made the decision to launch a helicopter rescue from the nearest base, some 500 miles away. When the Coast Guard arrived, the man was alive, barely clinging to his windsufer. Lt. Cmdr. Giglio tells a similar story about a successful rescue of a badly injured boater on a tiny island in the Western Pacific. The effort involved both the U.S. and Japanese navies but was coordinated by the Coast Guard in Hawaii.
There are other stories told by Diligence’s crew involving lives that were saved and a few that were lost. Cmdr. Landry speaks eloquently about the agony of an unsuccessful rescue as well as the joy shared by the entire crew whenever lives are saved. In The Perfect Storm, men from the Coast Guard cutter Tamaroa risked their own lives to successfully rescue a couple aboard a sailboat in a severe storm off New England’s coast, the same patrol area from which Diligence is now returning. The couple who were saved noted the Coast Guard’s dedication, “I remember their intensity, it really struck me. These guys were so pumped up, but they were also human—real humanity. They’d take us by the shoulders and look us in the eyes and say, ‘I’m so glad you’re alive, we were with you last night, we prayed for you. We were worried about you.’ When you’re on the rescuing side you’re very aware of life and death, but when you’re on the rescued side, you just have a sort of numb awareness."
A big question facing the Coast Guard today is whether its search and rescue capabilities are being jeopardized by personnel shortages, an aging fleet, and a lack of state-of-the-art equipment. This image of the daring Coast Guard rescue in “The Perfect Storm" contrasts sharply with the much publicized rescue, or lack of a rescue, of the ill-fated crew of the Morning Dew, a small sailboat that ran onto a rock jetty late one night at the entrance to Charleston Harbor. A brief mayday was received by the Coast Guard, but it could not be tracked (even if it had been intelligible, which it wasn’t) because the station lacked the equipment necessary to get a bearing on the sailboat’s VHF signal.
Aboard Diligence, the lack of funding for equipment is also evident. Radar, to cite one example, is important, perhaps the most important piece of equipment on a Coast Guard cutter. One of the crew notes casually that he saw the same 12" radar model being used on Diligence recently at a navy museum. In an Associated Press article last year about a drug smuggler, another Coast Guard cutter that was pursuing a suspicious boat but lost it on radar when it passed through a fleet of fishing boats. The article concluded, “Better radar would have helped. But the Coast Guard—saddled with aging equipment to rescue boaters and catch drug traffickers, illegal immigrants and fish poachers on the high seas—does not have it."
Since the Coast Guard has been forced to streamline its operations, problems with aging equipment has become a part of everyday life on ships like Diligence. At age 43, Chief Engineer Lt. Joe Siemiatowski—"Ski"— is the oldest man in the crew, who started his Coast Guard career as a junior enlisted man and worked his way up to become an officer (a “Mustang" in Coast Guard parlance). Ski has developed an uncanny sense of how to get things done in today’s Coast Guard, despite the budget problems. He says the ship’s two diesel generators, for example, are no longer being built and he had to scrounge parts from another ship that was going to be in port so that Diligence would have electricity. Coast Guard personnel wryly refer to this sort of juggling of time and equipment as “leveraging technology."
Just how long technology can continue to be leveraged without jeopardizing the Coast Guard’s many missions is an open question. In his annual “State of the Coast Guard" message, Admiral Loy, said that streamlining should not be a continuous activity: “The logical extension of doing more with less is doing everything with nothing." One measure of the Coast Guard’s frantic effort to continue operational excellence in the face of low budgets and reduced manpower is indicated in it’s use of “Temporary Assigned Duty" (TAD) orders. When TAD orders are issued, personnel are plucked from their regular jobs and assigned temporarily to fill jobs where personnel are more urgently needed. In the Pacific last year, Admiral Loy notes that TAD orders were up 70%. He compares this sort of personnel movement to cutting six inches off of one end of a blanket and sewing it onto the other end. “It does not make the blanket longer and it is not a permanent solution."
The night before the ship is due to arrive in Wilmington, the men gather so that awards can be given for things like conduct and special achievements. A driving rain on the ship’s flight deck forces the men, both officers and enlisted men, to crowd into the ship’s small mess. The young crew’s enthusiasm is contagious; everyone is in wonderful spirits. For some men, the few who are being transferred, the ceremony is also an opportunity to say good-bye to the rest of the crew. As names are called, each man goes forward amid cat-calls and good natured cheering to receive his award. One man in particular, “Frantz", draws a huge applause. Cmdr. Landry says later that when Frantz—a young boswain’s mate who looks to be about 19 years old—first came aboard he was defiant and had difficulty accepting orders. But gradually, with the influence of the officers and other crew, he became one of the hardest working men on a hardworking ship.
As he’s given the award, Frantz thanks everyone aboard—he calls them his family—and then lowers his voice to say that he will never forget them. Everyone is silent. Frantz, despite his many tattoos and hard facade, is fighting back tears.
While there may have been a day when the military took its manpower for granted, such is not the case today. A ship’s captain and other senior officers in the Coast Guard have the Herculean task of maintaining discipline while somehow, despite the long hours and low pay, keeping moral—and reenlistment—high among the ship’s crew. With some of the men, like Frantz, the Coast Guard offers them the first real security, the first real family, they’ve ever known. But for other men, their desire to “do good things" in an organization like the Coast Guard is constantly challenged by the lure of higher pay and regular hours of life ashore.
The following morning Diligence is scheduled to arrive in Wilmington. The crew wakes up to “I Feel Good" by James Brown on the PA system and a little later two local radio personalities, Brian and Jim, who host “The Morning Disaster" in Wilmington, come aboard a for a live broadcast during the trip up the Cape Fear River. Quips are traded on the air between the popular radio jocks, the captain, and some of the crew. Clearly, everyone is feeling good to be home. As the ship passes beneath the lift bridge in Wilmington, a crowd of wives, children, parents, girlfriends, and passers-by come into view along the wharf. The crew stands along the rail as the ship inches forward and lines are thrown ashore. It’s a scene that goes back over 200 years, when the original Diligence, a Revenue Service cutter, returned from patrol to the town of Wilmington.
Summing up his State of the Coast Guard address, Admiral Loy mentions Morning Dew and the need for better equipment and training. He acknowledges the seriousness of the Coast Guard’s readiness challenge, calling it a great personal concern. But he says that despite the readiness shortfalls he remains optimistic. Why? First, he says that publicly acknowledging the problem is the first step toward solving it. And he says that the Secretary of Transportation and many politicians now recognize the urgency of the challenges the Coast Guard faces. But most of all Admiral Loy says he is optimistic because of the type of people who serve in the Coast Guard.
On a sunny, June morning in Wilmington, watching Diligence’s young crew greet their families and friends on the dock, it’s hard not to share his optimism.
Caption: The crew lines the rail as Diligence arrives back at its home port in Wilmington, North Carolina after two months on patrol. The tradition of standing along the rail also goes back hundreds of years in the military, when returning crews were much more likely to have been decimated by fighting and disease. By having the men along the rail, a crew’s families could quickly see who was returning—and who had been lost—during the voyage. In this case, all of Diligence’s crew was returned safely.
With the exception of a few officers, Diligence’s crew tended to be young and relatively inexperienced. According to Cmdr. Landry, the ship is constantly training new recruits, not just in navigation, but in all facets of ship operation. Despite the inexperience, there was certainly no shortage of enthusiasm among the crew.