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The Fast Response Cutter: A New Generation of Coast Guard Patrol Boats

The Sentinel class is closer to being operational.

The U.S. Coast Guard’s fast response cutter (FRC) – known as the Sentinel class – is now a step closer to being operational.

The crew of the CGC Bernard C. Webber – the first ship in the class – reported to the shipyard in September 2011 to begin learning about its new 154-foot vessel. The second and third crews are in place to follow them every 90 days after delivery.

The project has experienced some delays, but not without good reason. After rigorous analysis and structural calculations during routine oversight the Coast Guard decided to enhance the ship’s structural strength in specific areas of the deck and main structure. These enhancements will ensure that the ship will perform at peak operational capability during its 20-year service life. Addressing this issue while the ships were still being constructed is most advantageous to the service.

The crew spent the last year at a pre-commissioning detachment at Coast Guard Air Station Opa Locka, Fla., just north of their eventual homeport of Miami Beach. During this time each crewmember received instruction at manufacturer schools to learn the individual systems and machinery they will be responsible for operating and maintaining once they have accepted the ship.

“Now the challenge is to bring all of our knowledge together and to apply it as a crew as we relocate from South Florida to the shipyard in Louisiana,” said Lt. Cmdr. Herb Eggert, commanding officer of the Webber’s pre-commissioning crew. “Once we get the opportunity to operate the ship, we’ll begin to really see what this platform can do.”

Eggert has been with the fast-response cutter project for awhile, first as a sponsor’s representative in Washington, D.C., from 2006 to 2010, and now for the past year, he’s been the prospective commanding officer of the Bernard C. Webber.

second fast response cutter Richard Etheridge

The second fast-response cutter, the Richard Etheridge (WPC-1102), is pierside after receiving its mast while under construction at Bollinger Shipyards in Lockport, La., on Aug. 29, 2011. Capt. Richard Etheridge, a Union Army veteran, became the first African-American to command a Life-Saving station when the service appointed him as the keeper of the Pea Island Life-Saving Station in North Carolina in 1880. U.S. Coast Guard photo

It’s no secret that the Webber and the entire Sentinel class will be an improvement over past patrol boats. Just how much better it enables the service to execute missions, Eggert said, remains to be seen.

But that picture will come into focus, he said, once the ship moves from the Bollinger Shipyard in Lockport, La., to Miami in the next several months to begin the operational testing phase.

In fact, the first six ships – all under construction – will go to Miami. The next six ships will be homeported in Key West, Fla. Collectively these new platforms will provide critical operational hours to the busy 7th Coast Guard District.

Each Sentinel-class cutter will be named for a Coast Guard enlisted hero.  Names have already been identified for the first 14 hulls, each carrying a great story to inspire the crews.

Bigger than its predecessor, at 154 feet long with a beam of 26.6 feet, the FRC still retains a shallow draft – 9 feet 6 inches, ensuring it can still operate in the high-threat areas near shore that patrol boats currently ply.

On the Webber, Ensign Melissa McCafferty, who reported this summer fresh from the Coast Guard Academy, will be the boat’s first lieutenant and is learning the ropes under the tutelage of Chief Boatswain’s Mate Jason Cuff, the boat’s operations boss.

“This duty was my first choice,” she said. “I wanted to get under way for my first assignment. I’m sure coming to a new ship will spoil me if and when I end up on a legacy platform, but this is the future and it’s an incredible opportunity to learn and gain experience under way and that’s what it’s all about.”

Among the 24-member crew, there will be four officers, two chief petty officers, and 18 other enlisted members. The Webber’s initial crew is a mixture of experienced Coast Guard personnel and those fresh from boot camp and their initial training.

Young and old, they’re all excited about being the first crew out of the blocks, and realize they’re paving new ground.

That fact isn’t lost on Senior Chief Machinery Technician Richard Libby, the Webber’s engineering petty officer and the senior sailor in charge of all the propulsion machinery.

Libby has spent most of his career working on engines that are almost as old as he is. Though the learning curve is high for him and his seven junior engineers, making the transition has been a great experience.

On the high end, the Bernard C. Webber is expected to make sustained high speeds in excess of 28 knots. But just as important is the low end, where the cutter will have the ability to operate slowly, maneuvering safely as slow as 3 knots – 6 knots slower than its Island-class, 110-foot patrol boat predecessor.

That will be made possible because each of the boat’s 20-cylinder diesel engines will drive a shaft and propeller through a specially designed reduction gear.

Being able to operate the boat slowly with the engines engaged will be safer, as the ability to respond in a quick reaction scenario is greatly increased. It comes into play not only in harbor maneuvering, but also on the high seas while conducting boarding operations.

“The only way we could operate slower than 9 knots on the 110s was to clutch the engines in and out of gear, and that’s tough on the people and the equipment,” Libby said. “This reduction gear is a monumental improvement in capability for us.”

Bernard C Webber unit briefing at Opa Locka

Lt. Cmdr. Herb Eggert (left) commanding officer of the first fast-response cutter, the Bernard C. Webber, gathers his unit around him for a briefing at Coast Guard Air Station Opa Locka, Fla. Photo by Mark D. Faram

It’s not only working on new and higher-tech gear that has Libby and his engineers excited, it’s also the expected dependability of this new plant that is coupled with a robust set of sensors built into nearly every part of the engineering plant. This will allow watchstanders to monitor the plant outside the engine room – and to know immediately where problems are as they occur.

But the sensors will have another benefit: the ability for the trained engineer to diagnose budding problems before they become full-blown casualties.

“Think about it: We can now diagnose things long before they become a major problem,” said Machinery Technician 1st Class Carlitos Perez, who has previously served on a few legacy cutters in the fleet. “Often the first sign of a problem is when the engine goes down – but with a sensor in nearly every part of the engines and gear, we’ll be able to see subtle changes that indicate growing problems earlier.”

Even preventive maintenance will be easier as it’s all computerized as well, with the system telling the operators what’s due for checks and exactly how to accomplish it.

With nearly the same learning curve, those in the boat’s operations department will have their own high-tech systems, including a robust command-and-control suite that will allow it to operate across a wide spectrum of operations and with partners as diverse as the Department of Defense, local, and federal law enforcement agencies as well as foreign navies.

But for Boatswain’s Mates 1st Class A.J. Kendall and Grant Heffner, the most exciting part of being assigned to the lead ship of a new class is the fact they’re using their operational experience to shape a new way of doing business. Both asked for this duty: Kendall after an assignment aboard the CGC Aquidneck, an Island-class cutter operating in the Arabian Gulf. But before that, he was on the team that provided guidance to those designing the Sentinel class.

By being an operator and working with the designers, he was able to influence small things that he believes will make big differences once the boat is operational.

“Probably what I’m most proud of are getting extra windshield wipers on the outermost windows in the pilot house,” he said. “As initially designed, this boat was only supposed to have wipers on the inner windows, but I pushed hard during the early operational assessments to get wipers added to the outer window panels as well.”

That’s because, he said, while serving on an 87-foot patrol cutter that also lacked wipers on its outer windshield panels, he hated the fact those windows became useless in bad weather and heavy seas.

For Heffner, it’s the new cutter boat that excites him. A long-time boat coxswain, he’s seen the new technology implemented in smallboat operations during his time in the Coast Guard and has been close to the development of the cutter boat that was designed especially for the Sentinel class.

This cutter boat will have its own electronics suite of radios, radar, and navigation gear that will allow it to operate away from the Sentinel, even “over the horizon” and out of line of sight.

“This cutter boat capability in a patrol craft of this size is really a force multiplier,” Heffner said.

Both he and Kendall are also excited about the ability to launch and recover their cutter boats from the built-in stern ramp.

“The next step with all this is to bring it all together in a cohesive way – to put all this gear to use as a team,” said Cuff. “But what we learn will then be passed to the future Sentinel crews – but it’s our crew who gets to set the standard.”

For a service that hasn’t seen many newly commissioned boats in the past two decades, the chance to be one of the first boatswain’s mates on a new class of ship means a lot to a professional like Kendall.

“Our names will be etched into the plaque that will stay with this boat the whole time it is in commission,” he said. “It will also be a once-in-a-lifetime career opportunity.”

The kind of experience gained by being part of not only a commissioning crew, but also the first in its class is something Kendall hopes can propel his career to a new level – just as it did for retired Master Chief Petty Officer of the Coast Guard Skip Bowen – a boatswain’s mate on the CGC Farallon – the first of the Island-class vessels in the fleet.

“He told me that the experience he gained by taking that billet was huge for him and his career,” Kendall said. “I’m hoping that this billet on the Sentinel will do the same for me.”

This article was first published in Coast Guard Outlook: 2012 Edition.