U.S. Coast Guard District 1, headquartered in Boston, Mass., is one of the few districts that routinely performs all 11 mandated Coast Guard missions, from law enforcement and homeland security to boating safety and ice breaking. It also is the U.S. representative to the North Atlantic Coast Guard Forum (NACGF), an organization composed of 20 maritime nations with North Atlantic seaports.
Other District 1 duties include assisting with security for the United Nations, helping establish U.S. presence and sovereign interests in the Arctic, and ensuring the safe interaction of all maritime parties with the growing development of offshore “windmills” as modern energy generators. But for Rear Adm. Daniel Neptun, the district commander, performing and expanding traditional Coast Guard “bread-and-butter” missions tops all else.
“Historically, at least post-9/11, SAR [search and rescue] and ports, waterways, and coastal security – PWCS – are tied for first place [among the district’s missions]. Coming behind that are marine safety, marine environmental protection, aids to navigation, and offshore fisheries living marine resources, our LMR mission,” he explained.
Another important mission during the winter months is domestic ice breaking, primarily up the Hudson River, rivers in Maine, and coastal estuaries around New England. Those are important for cold-weather deliveries of home heating oil and other critical supplies.
While 2010 and 2011 were unusually busy for both traditional and unique events, Neptun cited the six-week summer cruise of the CGC Willow in the ice-filled waters of the far North as a top District 1 mission.
Teaming with the Canadian Coast Guard and navy, and Royal Danish navy in the first phase of Operation Nanook 2011, the Willow deployed north where they worked on capabilities and practiced interoperability and problem-solving together. Also involved were the remote villages along the northeast coastline of Canada, but the real focus was on the maritime approaches to the northern reaches of Canada along its Atlantic coast.
“The commanding officer of the cutter reported great interoperability, with crewmembers crossing decks to see how they work with the challenges way north, which has been the most helpful lessons learned for our crews. So if something comes up in the far North in the future, where we have to help Canada or they have to help us, we will be better able to do so.”
Because much of Nanook took place adjacent to Greenland, which is part of the Kingdom of Denmark, ships from the Danish navy joined U.S. and Canadian ships prior to a separate exercise with the Coast Guard. In the second phase of Operation Nanook, the Willow broke off from the Canadians and spent about 10 days steaming with the Danes, farther north, near Petermann Glacier, which is a small area between Canada and the northwest edge of Greenland.
They practiced interoperability, cross decking between ships and giving the Coast Guard crew an opportunity to see how the Danes work in that level of cold. It also provided an opportunity to test the service’s communications capabilities at far northern latitudes and navigate among icebergs – the Willow reported seeing nearly 100 icebergs a day during the operation.
In September, following their work with the Danes, the Willow’s crewmembers rejoined the Canadians on a combined 10-day law enforcement patrol as part of the Northwest Atlantic Fisheries Organization. The two services exchanged shipriders – putting a Canadian on the Willow and an American aboard a Canadian ship. Shipriders enable enforcement of their nation’s laws from a foreign vessel. A similar effort was undertaken with the Danish ships.
“Working with the Danes is somewhat rare, but a great opportunity, especially with the North Atlantic Coast Guard Forum,” Neptun noted. “That includes the U.S. and Canada in North America, Iceland and Denmark in the mid-ocean area, then into Northern Europe, including countries from Spain and Portugal around northern Europe to Russia, including the Baltic states.”
By mid-September, the Willow had concluded its six-week far North deployment with Canada and Denmark and returned to its homeport in Newport, R.I.
The effort of the three nations to improve the ability to work together in an environment more familiar to Canada and Denmark also was part of the lead-up to the 100 year anniversary of one of the most seminal events in modern maritime history – the April 14, 1912, sinking of the “unsinkable” cruise ship Titanic following a collision with an iceberg in the North Atlantic.
The NACGF focus this year, under the leadership of France, is on cruise ship safety and how Forum members would deal with a mass casualty event aboard a cruise ship, something Neptun said is a major concern for all NACGF nations. Cruise ship safety and mass rescue operations also will be part of the Forum’s focus next year, when Ireland is the host nation.
Being the Coast Guard liaison to NACGF is an excellent opportunity to work with experts from all 20 countries to find methods to share information and lessons learned, he added, so all the North Atlantic maritime forces can improve their approach to those issues.
Cruise ship safety – from exercises to real-world operations – also is part of the Coast Guard’s domestic mission. In May 2011, for example, a cooperative effort by the U.S. and Canadian coast guards and the state of Maine created a mass rescue operation exercise in Bar Harbor, Maine, where it’s common for large cruise ships with hundreds of passengers to call on the port there, making it an ideal location for such an exercise.
“We simulated a mishap within Bar Harbor, involving the collision of two ferry boats requiring medical evacuations, so we pulled in the local EMTs [emergency medical technicians], the hospitals, port interests, and so on. It was a great exercise and made people much more aware of the challenges when such a large resource comes into a community. And Bar Harbor did very well.”
Port readiness exercises are an annual requirement for the service that Neptun said provide sector commanders with an opportunity to create realistic scenarios that bring in other agencies, such as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, to provide realistic pathways for a simulated oil spill. They also have improved interagency communications and operations plans for the Coast Guard’s SAR and PWCS missions.
The 1st District does not have a Center of Excellence, a growing service component in many districts, but has become a global expert in a growing energy niche – offshore wind energy, in which New England is an early innovator. As a result, Neptun said, the district has developed strong working relationships with other agencies and interests to refine the process, providing the rest of the Coast Guard with guidance on how to deal with 300- or 400-foot wind turbines offshore in the maritime environment.
Fisheries-related missions, such as protecting lobster habitats, also are high on the district’s list of day-to-day operations. Those range from near-shore lobster fishermen to working closely with state enforcement officers and the National Fisheries Service to protect lobster and other bottom species habitats farther out in the deep ocean.
District resources also operate in the far offshore areas, Neptun explained, to ensure fishermen are staying within their quotas and not fishing in closed areas. “That also includes our work with Canadian fisheries to make sure Canadians are not coming into U.S. waters nor Americans going into Canadian waters.”
Increasingly tight federal budgets have made “right sizing” the number of personnel and types of equipment a key theme throughout the Coast Guard, but Neptun believes District 1 already has reached that goal. His near-term concentration is on meeting all the tasks assigned, especially with a number of upcoming anniversaries of special importance to the district, including the Titanic and America’s last war with England – and Canada.
In 2012, that will include working with the U.S. Navy for the bicentennial of the War of 1812, during which the Navy will be emphasizing where some of the big conflicts took place. In New York, for example, bicentennial activities will be held during Fleet Week, which normally takes place at the end of May, and in Boston during that port city’s 4th of July Boston Fest celebration.
“2012 also is the 60th anniversary of what I consider our most heroic rescue of the 503-foot Pendleton on 18 Feb. 1952,” Neptun said. It involved a four-man crew led by Boatswain Mate Bernard Webber (the namesake of the first Coast Guard fast-response cutter) in a 36-foot Coast Guard motor lifeboat who rescued 32 crewmen during a horrendous winter storm with howling seas and no stars to guide them. “It was a miraculous rescue out of Station Chatham, on the southeast end of Cape Cod.”
As the earlier discussion of Operation Nanook 2011 depicted, Coast Guard interests and responsibilities are on the rise at the top of the world and likely to increase in importance in the coming decade. The Arctic nations and local native tribes already are staking claims to what the U.S. Geological Survey estimates to be 90 billion barrels of oil, 44 billion barrels of liquefied natural gas, and 1,670 trillion cubic feet of natural gas.
“Getting one of our buoy tenders into the northern latitudes is very helpful in terms of becoming more aware of that last frontier for us,” Neptun concluded. “We’re the only one of five big Arctic countries that is not a signatory to the Law of the Sea Convention. And demonstrating we have the ability to get up there and monitor our sovereign interests will be a big help.”
This article first appeared in the Coast Guard Outlook 2012 Edition.