Understanding the maritime obstacles facing Alaska is a challenge. Its population is widely dispersed along more than 44,000 miles of coastline – more than the rest of the United States combined – and pressed against it by the rugged mountainous terrain. Because of this terrain, most of the cities and towns can only be accessed by sea or air. It is home to some of the richest fishing grounds in the world. It is also home to some of the richest oil fields, with tankers plying its waters transporting oil. The rugged beauty of its coastline attracts thousands of tourists traveling mostly on cruise ships. The result: a lot of maritime activity spread across a vast expanse of water – waters that can quickly turn treacherous.
For the 17th Coast Guard District, headquartered in Juneau, Alaska, this means a demanding operational tempo made all the more difficult due to the added logistics required for long-range missions.
A sampling of cases that the district’s units responded to over the past year gives a clear picture of the challenges and dangers the Coast Guard and local mariners face:
In September 2010, Coast Guard aircrews flew more than 1,800 miles to carry out a medical evacuation near Adak. A crewman on the South Korean-flagged cargo ship BK Champ badly injured his hand and required emergency medical treatment. Coast Guard Air Station Kodiak, Alaska, launched two MH-60 Jayhawk helicopter crews on a two-day flight to pre-stage in Dutch Harbor. An additional Jayhawk crew was flown aboard a Coast Guard HC-130 Hercules aircraft to support the operation. The distance covered to respond to this case would be similar to flying from New York City to Albuquerque, N.M.
More importantly it highlights the significant distances often involved in the 17th District’s responses requiring the use of additional resources. When operating so far from base, the service must be prepared to self-rescue. This creates the requirement for additional aircraft and crews not typically required in other Coast Guard districts. This in turn means that Coast Guard staffing standards are not fully applicable this district.
Also in September 2010, the barge Stryker ran aground and partially submerged in choppy seas and 40 mph winds about 40 miles west of Prudhoe Bay. No one was injured, but the barge was carrying more than 1,200 gallons of fuel. Coast Guard Sector Anchorage personnel along with state officials coordinated the pollution response. There was some sheening of spilled fuel, but responders were able to secure the fuel tanks and the sheen dissipated. Ultimately, the barge was refloated and removed without additional pollution.
In February, a Jayhawk crew from AirSta Kodiak rescued five crewmen aboard the fishing vessel Midnite Sun after it ran aground 36 miles from Kodiak. The vessel was operating in 52 mph winds and 18- to 20-foot seas when it grounded. The Coast Guard was made aware of the vessel’s distress by the crew of the fishing vessel Sea Warrior, who relayed the Midnite Sun’s mayday call. This case points out another challenge that the 17th District faces: communications. The long distances and mountainous terrain make it very difficult for the Coast Guard to receive distress calls directly and to communicate with their own response units.
In May, Jayhawk helicopter crews from AirSta Kodiak were called upon to conduct two medical evacuations less typical for other Coast Guard districts, but routine for the 17th District. On May 6, a helicopter crew, forward deployed to Cordova for the spring and summer, picked up two people injured in a small plane crash near Cape Suckling. The patients were transferred to an Air National Guard Hercules for further transport to Anchorage. On May 17, another helicopter crew was called upon to transport a 68-year-old man suffering from heart complications and his wife from Ouzinkie to Kodiak for further transport to the Kodiak medical center. The limited ground access to many towns in Alaska, combined with limited emergency facilities, places the additional demand on 17th District resources to provide frequent emergency support for cases ashore.
On May 22, a Jayhawk helicopter crew from AirSta Kodiak performed a more traditional, yet dramatic rescue. The crew rescued five people from the 60-foot pleasure craft Nordic Mistress, which had been struck by a rogue wave and was sinking 85 miles north of Kodiak. Supported by a Hercules aircrew, the Jayhawk crew arrived on scene to find the vessel partially submerged and the four men and one teenage boy in survival suits floating in a life raft. Coast Guard rescue swimmer Petty Officer 3rd Class Rafael Aguero spent more than 22 minutes in the water moving the five victims from the life raft to a rescue basket for hoisting into the helicopter.
The cases described above are just samples of the many cases District 17 responds to every year. They demonstrate some of the additional challenges Coast Guard men and women face in performing their duties as a result of Alaska’s unique operating environment. In addition to these emergency responses, the district conducts routine operations like fisheries enforcement, port security, and marine safety 24/7. These operations, conducted in an often harsh environment, defend some of the most important fishing grounds and energy ports in the nation.
Despite the tremendous operational demands placed upon the service in Alaska, the 17th District has seen its resource capacity reduced. In March, the CGC Acushnet was decommissioned in Ketchikan after 67 years of service. The district is allocated five Hercules airplanes, but only has four and is short at least one Jayhawk helicopter. The district is also receiving less major cutter support for Alaskan fisheries’ patrols as the Coast Guard struggles to resource an ever-growing mission demand with a shrinking fleet. All of this is occurring as District 17 faces perhaps its greatest challenge of all: the opening of the Arctic due to climate change that is increasing the district’s span of operations dramatically.
Commandant of the Coast Guard Adm. Robert J. Papp Jr., made several visits to Alaska over the year and has promised additional resources for 17th District. AirSta Kodiak will be augmented with a fifth helicopter during the crab season and will receive a permanent fifth helicopter in 2013, depending upon 2012 appropriations. The district currently has six Island-class cutters and Papp is increasing that number by one, with the CGC Chandeleur scheduled to relocate next year from Miami, Fla., to Ketchikan. The Coast Guard is also planning on placing two of its new Sentinel-class fast-response cutters in Ketchikan and is considering placing Offshore Patrol Cutters there as well.
While the district awaits arrival of these new cutters, it has already experienced the positive effects of the service’s fleet recapitalization. The Coast Guard’s first national security cutter, the CGC Bertholf, completed its first Alaskan fisheries’ patrol this year. The Bertholf performed extremely well in the often-rough seas of Alaska. Commanding officer Capt. John Prince and his crew put the cutter through its paces and were very pleased with its performance.
Still, while help is on the way, the 17th District must endure at least a year of reduced operational capacity. Taking on this responsibility is a new district commander, Rear Adm. Thomas Ostebo, who assumed command on May 19. In his commander’s intent, Ostebo declared operational excellence job one; respect and support along with professionalism completed the three pillars of his direction. He went on to declare, “Service in [the] 17th District is the experience of a lifetime.” Ostebo and the men and women of District 17 certainly have their work cut out for them, but there is no doubt that they will perform superbly.
This article was first published in Coast Guard Outlook: 2012 Edition.