The U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Sherman docked in Kodiak. PA2 Charly Hengen photo
Not that long ago, the Coast Guard Cutter Sherman was intercepting illegal drugs off the coast of sunny and warm Costa Rica.
Now the Sherman is headed to the cold and wet of the far north, and stopped in Kodiak.
KTOO Reporter Rosemarie Alexander talked with Commanding Officer Joe Hester about the trip from the Sherman’s home port of San Diego – where the weather is nearly always nice — to Alaska.
(Hester) "I’ve been telling the crew for the last couple of months you need to get ready for Alaska, you need to get ready for big man ocean, because it is serious business up there."
Captain Hester says when they arrived in Juneau, he told the crew:
(Hester) "Congratulations, you’ve got your first sea story, because our last night out was pretty hairy. I saw us roll over to 28 degrees a couple of times … and the EO, who was watching in the engine room, saw a couple of 30-degree rolls. The seas took out my stern light for a while and set off some alarms on the boat. So a lot of people are getting their blood pumping at 2 in the morning when some of these things happen. And when we pulled in I was very proud of the ship, it handled well, I was proud of the crew, they performed well. And I tell them in my command philosophy, there are the things I expect: We’re going to maintain the ship and ourselves, we going to be mission ready all the time … and I finish with: Most important, get some sea stories, enjoy your tour."
The Sherman was launched in 1968, one of 12 high-endurance cutters called the Hamilton class, designed to take on longer missions. For the next several months, the ship will be conducting fisheries law enforcement in the Bering Sea, but first some of the crew has a little Alaska training to do.
(Hester) "Our usual business in this ship is to head south in the counter-drug business. So I’ve got a lot or people who are very good at chasing down Columbian drug runners off the coast of Mexico but a good number of them have never seen an Alaska fishing boat. And my concern is they know the difference between a purse seiner and a crabber and be able to know how to safely board one, and what are their operations and that sort of business."
The 378-foot cutter with a 42-foot beam has gas-turbine as well as diesel engines and a top speed of about 28 knots. Hester says they were the first jet-powered boats designed in the United States.
(Hester) "I can run on diesel engines, which as you know, are efficient, heavy and relatively slow, but they get me there. Or I can turn on the turbines and get there a lot faster. The problem is the turbines on my ship are the same turbines they had back in the 1960s and in the 1960s fuel was cheap. So when I pick up the turbines on this boat, if I’m running at the top end of my speed I’m using 6,000 gallons of fuel an hour. Now if I’m racing to save a fisherman going down, it’s worth every penny and I’ll do it in a heartbeat."
That’s one of the reasons, he says, the Coast Guard is replacing the old cutters, though the Sherman will be around for a while.
(Hester) "We’re really pushing to get these new cutters on line because they can out run us a little bit. They’re a little faster than these old ladies, and their turbines are so much more efficient."
The Sherman is equipped with a helicopter flight deck, and retractable hangar. The first stop after Juneau is Kodiak to pick up an HH 65 Dolphin.
(Hester) "The main purpose of the Dolphins up in these waters is for helping us spot vessels. And they also do search and rescue, so we can hoist."
The Coast Guard has begun to decommission the Hamilton-class cutters, to be replaced by the Legend Class. The Hamilton has gone to the Philippine Navy…
(Hester) "About two-thirds of my crew were formerly aboard the Coast Guard Cutter Chase and she was decommissioned and handed over to the Nigerian Navy."
Of the 180-member crew on the Sherman, 16 are women. Hester estimates that two-thirds of his crew is under age 26, ranging from 17-year old new recruits to the 45-year-old captain, who has been in the Coast Guard 23 years. About two-thirds of the crew are married. And for some aboard the Sherman, this is their first trip to Alaska.
(Hester) "I have a young man on board who’s never seen snow."
Hester says he tells his crews to enjoy their tour – and collect some "sea stories."
(Hester) "So on our way of up here, that first good heavy storm, and dealing with it, for many of these young men and women that was their first sea story. (Alexander) "What’s your favorite sea story, Captain?"
(Hester) "When I was out in a patrol boat in Puerto Rico and my favorite sea story was saving an old fisherman."
The 70-year old shark fisherman had been in a fight with a shark…
(Hester) "And when we found the man he was drifting off into the ocean, in a small open boat, no radio, no life jacket, nothing. He was out of gas and his motor had lost its propeller. And when we got him up on deck — he only spoke broken English — he slapped his chest and raised his hands up high to us like a big bear hug in the air and said, ‘Coast Guard, we are brothers.’ I’ll never forget that man."
The Sherman and her crew will undoubtedly collect a number of sea stories as they patrol the Bering Sea. They hope to be back in San Diego by Christmas.