Thirty-two years ago, on the night of Jan. 28, 1980, the Coast Guard Cutter Blackthorn was outward bound in Tampa Bay when she collided with the inbound tanker SS Capricorn near the Old Sunshine Skyway bridge. The tanker’s anchor, ready to be let go, lodged in the Blackthorn’s hull and within minutes capsized the 180-foot buoy tender. Twenty-three crew members went down with the Blackthorn, but of the 27 who survived, several owed their lives to Seaman Apprentice William Flores. Flores, only 18 years old, stayed aboard Blackthorn as she capsized, used his belt to tie open a life jacket locker door, allowing life jackets to float out as the ship went down, and distributed life jackets to crew members in the water at the cost of his own life. Twenty years later, in 2000, the Coast Guard posthumously awarded the Coast Guard Medal, the service’s highest award, to Flores.
On Saturday, Nov. 3, 2012, an even more fitting tribute to Flores will take place, when the Coast Guard will commission its third Sentinel-class Fast Response Cutter, USCGC William Flores (WPC 1103), in Tampa, Fla.
Earlier in the week, we were privileged to be aboard as William Flores transited Tampa Bay to tie up at Tampa’s Channelside Cruise Terminal 3, where her commissioning ceremony will be held. It was an odd feeling to be aboard William Flores’ namesake ship as the Sunshine Skyway bridge receded astern in the cutter’s boiling wake. That new bridge, a replacement for the original bridge that is depicted on the ship’s seal, today stands less than a mile from where Flores sacrificed his life for his shipmates.
The cutter named for him will no doubt achieve great things over the coming years after its commissioning on Saturday. William Flores is the third of a planned class of 58 Sentinel-class Fast Response Cutters (FRC), each of them to be named for a Coast Guard enlisted hero. The Fast Response Cutter is designed to conduct maritime drug interdiction, illegal immigrant interdiction, search and rescue, national defense, homeland security, and other Coast Guard missions, and is capable of deploying independently to carry out Coast Guard missions and prevent potential threats from approaching the nation’s shores.
The Sentinel-class cutters are based primarily on the proven Damen Stan Patrol 4708 design by Damen Shipbuilding in the Netherlands, although they are built at Bollinger Shipyard in Lockport, La.
“They [Damen Shipbuilding] build several patrol boats for other countries. The vessels that South Africa operates are actually real close sister ships. [The U.S. Coast Guard] made a couple of modifications to the parent craft, [the Damen Stan Patrol 4708] just to make it more suitable to what we were looking for,” said Lt. Cmdr. Craig Allen, commander of William Flores.
The 154-foot patrol boats have a beam of 25 feet, are steel-hulled with an aluminum superstructure, and displace approximately 360 tons. Driven by twin MTU diesels, each with 5,800 shaft horsepower, they have exceeded their rated speed of 28 knots during trials, as well as their five-day endurance requirement, and are designed to have a range of 2,500 nautical miles. They are armed with a remotely operated, gyro-stabilized MK 38 25 mm gun, and four .50-caliber machine guns. Importantly, crew accommodation and comfort are greatly improved, and the class constitutes a major leap forward in capability for Coast Guard patrol boats.
“The Fast Response Cutters are replacing our 110-foot Island-class,” said Allen. “They’ve been around since the eighties. They’ve been phenomenal cutters for us, but just like anything that’s been around for a couple of decades they’re nearing the end of their service lives. This is a major upgrade for our patrol boat fleet. Patrol boats are the workhorses of the Coast Guard. They do all kinds of missions, from right offshore, out to a couple of hundred miles, and they stay very busy. Now what this will do for us as a reinvention of what we have in the 110-foot Island class is several things.
“First of all, they’re quite a bit larger. This is 154 feet, so you gain quite a bit of deck space, capability and stability, etc. Another advantage is that our smallboat, what we call a cutter boat, can launch off the back, and you can launch it without a crane, it slides right out of the dock, it’s just phenomenal.
“The cutter boat itself is far more capable, much faster … We are able to operate it beyond the line of sight of the cutter, up to 100 miles away from the cutter, which gives us a great capability for chasing drug runners or getting out of the cutter to go respond to a distress case,” Allen said.
“Also the electronics package is far superior to what we had on the 110-foot Island class. Gives us much better situational awareness, the ability to access data, to run a vessel’s name through a checklist to see if it might be a vessel of interest. And the last thing and one of the things that I like as well is we have a 25 mm remote-controlled cannon controlled from the pilothouse versus having somebody physically trigger the weapon as you do on the 110-foot Island class.”
After commissioning this newest Coast Guard cutter, William Flores will return to the service’s 7th District as the third of six FRCs planned to operate out of its homeport of Miami.