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U.S. Coast Guard District 11

Guardians of the gateway to the Pacific

The U.S. Coast Guard District 11 encompasses California, Nevada, Utah, and Arizona, and offshore areas extending as far south as Central and South America. Headquartered in Alameda, Calif., its 2,600 active-duty, Reserve, and civilian personnel, as well as some 3,500 auxiliarists, are based at 48 field units with most day-to-day operations directed by three sector commands and one group headquarters based in San Francisco, San Diego, Los Angeles/Long Beach, and Humboldt Bay.

District 11 is unique in several ways.  The district has one of the largest areas of responsibility (AOR) in the nation, reaching from the California/Oregon border south to the Eastern Pacific drug transit zones where drug interdiction patrols, conducted in conjunction with the Joint Interagency Task Force-South, rely on the Coast Guard District 11 commander’s law enforcement authority, and expert coordination with other U.S. law enforcement agencies and partner nations in the region by District 11 command center, for the final “takedown” phase of drug interdictions.

Port security, a Coast Guard priority everywhere, is especially important in District 11 which is home to six tier-one ports. The adjoining ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach alone represent the nation’s first- and second-ranked ports in terms of containerized cargo volume with almost a million 20-foot shipping containers handled each month, even during the economic recession. District 11 marine safety, security, and response forces along with aids to navigation units conducted approximately 9,000 security patrols, inspected 5,925 commercial vessels, serviced more than 1,100 ATONs, and investigated more than 1,800 reports of oil and chemical spills to ensure the safety and efficiency of all ports and waterways, to help facilitate commerce, and to ensure a healthy, vibrant, safe marine environment.

The district commander, Rear Adm. Joseph Castillo, expressed his command philosophy as follows: “Be safe, get the job done, and have fun. Safety comes first and foremost because our people really are our greatest asset. We need to make certain we’re always operating in a way that recognizes and values the importance of safety. Coast Guard people can always be depended upon to get the job done, and the performance of the crew here in District 11 has been nothing short of awesome.  And maintaining a healthy, balanced life is a key to good mission execution and morale, so I like to make sure our people remember to take time away from their hectic jobs to relax, refresh, and have fun with their shipmates, friends, and families,” he said.

Coast Guard Petty Officer 2nd Class Glen Lees, a boarding officer and emergency medical technician stationed at Sector San Francisco, Calif., cares for an injured boater July 26, 2010, after the young man sustained third-degree rope burns to his leg and a broken ankle while playing on a rope swing. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Erik Swanson

California has one of the largest numbers of registered boats in the nation. In addition to handling a heavy load of recreational boating related preventive and search and rescue (SAR) work in coastal areas, District 11 often sends boats and personnel to patrol inland federal waterways in partnerships with other federal, state and local agencies. For example, the district partnered with the National Park Service and state agencies in Arizona and Nevada to operate boating under the influence (BUI) checkpoints along the Colorado River. District 11 units also were heavily involved Operation Dry Water, a summer weekend in which assets are focused nationwide on detection and enforcement of boating under the influence, and Operation Paddle Smart, an initiative to place vessel owner contact information on kayaks, canoes, skiffs, and other small craft to help in search and rescue cases and prevent false alarms when lost craft are found adrift.

Despite California’s general reputation as a sunny, warm environment, Northern, Central, and even Southern California waters pose a particular risk to boaters because they’re so cold, said Paul Newman, recreational boating safety program manager for District 11. “Hypothermia is a major concern all the way from the U.S. Mexico border to Lake Tahoe, and everywhere in between. In cold water people quickly lose dexterity and often panic,” he said.

Out of more than 3,500 SAR cases last year, several – most notably, the case of Abby Sunderland, who was attempting to become the youngest sailor to circumnavigate the globe – illustrated the usefulness of maritime distress emergency position indicating radio beacons, commonly known as EPIRBs. On June 10, 2010, an EPRIB signal was received at the Coast Guard’s District 11 command center in Alameda: the Wild Eye, Sunderland’s vessel, was in distress.  Because she had activated her beacon, the command center was able to pinpoint her location in the Indian Ocean and help coordinate her rescue by French and Australian authorities. Numerous other EPRIB cases along the coast of California also received wide media coverage that helped educate boaters about the effectiveness of this lifesaving device that often takes the “search” out of “search and rescue.”

According to Newman, however, the device that will probably save the most lives in the district’s waters is the lifejacket.

“Every year, a majority of the people who die in boating accidents drown.  And of those who drown, between 70 to 90 percent were not wearing lifejackets. So we look at that as probably 500 or 600 people who could potentially still be alive had they been wearing a lifejacket,” he said.

Drug and Migrant Interdiction
The 11th District’s location gives it an important role in both drug and migrant interdiction. In recent years, illegal drug traffic in the transit zone – the maritime approaches to the United States from Central and South America – has gradually increased, often with the use of difficult-to-detect self-propelled semi-submersible (SPSS) craft. After Coast Guard teams boarded one of the stealthy craft in 2008, Congress passed the Drug Trafficking Vessel Interdiction Act of 2008, which makes it illegal for an SPSS to operate covertly in international waters – for any reason.

U.S. Coast Guard air crewmembers from U.S. Coast Guard Air Station San Francisco work together with local mariners from the tugboat Millenium Falcon to train for emergency situations in the Bay Area, April 1, 2010. The training was a great success and was helpful for both Coast Guard personnel as well as the tug boat crewmembers in the proper method for executing a hoist operation. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Kevin Metcalf

The passage of that law, said Lt. Aaron Kowalczk, a senior law enforcement duty officer in District 11, has been a powerful deterrent. In fiscal year 2009, the Coast Guard interdicted 12 SPSS craft on the high seas – the majority of which scuttled and sank their cargo out of reach. Even with the SPSSs scuttled, the cases can still be prosecuted under the law.

“All of those cases have either been prosecuted in U.S. court or are pending,” Kowalczk said. “When you couple just the loss of the [self-propelled] semi-submersible itself, which costs anywhere from several hundred thousand dollars to a million dollars to construct, plus four crewmembers going to jail, plus the loss of anywhere from five to 10 tons of cocaine, that method of conveyance is getting pretty costly for drug traffickers.” Overall drug interdictions totaled 304,846 pounds of cocaine and 52,377 pounds of marijuana in District 11 last year.

Migrant interdiction in District 11 focuses heavily on the nation’s southwest border with Mexico, south of San Diego, and in just the past year, given the increasing costs and risks associated with land crossings, illegal migrants have increasingly gambled their lives at sea, creating an additional challenge for the Coast Guard that coordinates patrols with U.S. Customs and Border Protection, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and local authorities.

Migrant voyages have become increasingly dangerous, said Kowalczk, venturing farther out to sea and farther north to escape detection. “It’s generally 15 to 25 people in a 20- to 30-foot open boat with a single outboard engine, and usually traveling at night. The numbers have surged, and we’re seeing two to three times the number of migrants per month that we saw last year.  We’re doing everything we can to combat it, but at the same time the biggest concern is the safety of these people. You know, 25 people in an open 30-foot boat in the Pacific Ocean is a dangerous thing,” he said.

Tragic Events
In light of two tragic accidents that occurred during 2009 – the loss of seven Coast Guard C-130 crewmembers and two U.S. Marines in a mid-air collision off the coast of San Clemente Island on Oct. 29, and a Dec. 20 collision between a Coast Guard patrol boat and a recreational boat in San Diego Harbor that resulted in the death of an 8-year-old boy – Castillo initiated an even greater focus on the issue of operational safety.

A member from Air Station Sacramento salutes a photo of Lt. Cmdr. Che Barnes during a memorial ceremony, Nov. 6, 2009. The memorial was for the Coast Guard and Marine Corps aircrews who lost their lives in a mid-air collision Oct. 29, 2009. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Victoria A. Bonk-Meyers

The new focus, Castillo said, is district-wide, including a task force on safety and operational risk management. “We’ve pulled people together from all the different communities: boat operators, cuttermen, aviators, and the marine safety experts who inspect commercial vessels. There are inherent dangers and risks in all the things we do.” The task force is composed of personnel from all pay grades, including several from within the volunteer Auxiliary, who are working to provide the district command with recommendations for reducing risks for both on- and off-duty members.

It has been a demanding year that saw District 11’s people and assets responding not only to the heavy caseload in their primary area of responsibility, but also to major events elsewhere, such as the Haitia earthquake and Deepwater Horizon oil spill response in the Gulf of Mexico. Castillo is confident in his crew’s ability to maintain District 11’s outstanding performance. He also wants to make sure his people recognize the importance of the work they accomplish. “It can be pretty exhilarating, flying in a helicopter, operating a rescue boat, boarding a drug-smuggling vessel, cleaning up an oil spill, or going out in rough weather and saving someone’s life,” he said. “But it’s also an incredible feeling of satisfaction when you take on any of our difficult jobs and do it well. I want everyone in District 11 to recognize just how cool their jobs are, the high-caliber people they serve with, and how important they are to our nation and the public we serve.”

This article first appeared in Coast Guard Outlook: 2011 Edition.


Craig Collins is a veteran freelance writer and a regular Faircount Media Group contributor who...