Traversing the Waters of the Chesapeake With Those Who Keep it Safe
"When we got there his fingers were severed and wrapped up, but his thumb was hanging by this piece of skin," U.S. Coast Guard Petty Officer Nick Watson tells me as his colleague, Seaman Jason Schroyer, pilots a 22-foot USCG patrol boat around the upper bay. "We bandaged his hand up and took him to the airlift, and after that he's the paramedics' concern. But on the water, he's ours."
The memory is fresh in Watson's mind--the table-saw distress call had come in the night before to the USCG Activities Baltimore command center at Curtis Bay, where an officer monitors the radio 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.
Answering such calls is what the Coast Guard is best known for, whether it's responding to a medical mishap or risking life and limb at the business end of a helicopter rescue wire to fetch headstrong recreational sailors from monster gales. But the Guard isn't merely the ambulance of the sea. The USCG's bailiwick extends to law enforcement, environmental protection, boating-safety education, ship inspection, and waterways management. Watson's comment is no idle boast: If it happens on the water, it's the Coast Guard's concern.
Activities Baltimore's concern is the middle and upper portions of the Chesapeake--essentially its Maryland waters--and its tributaries on both the Eastern and Western shores, including the Port of Baltimore, the Patapsco River, and the Potomac into Washington. Today Watson and his crew of three are taking me along for the ride on their main beat. The boat's control panel is a compact conflagration of equipment: global-positioning system, radar, depth finder, radio, and oceanic chart, in addition to throttle and wheel. Atop the deck sprouts a many-limbed tree of antennae.
As the boat turns just past the Bay Bridge and points toward the Inner Harbor, Watson instructs Schroyer to "open her up," if only to give their writer and photographer guests a taste of the boat's capabilities. "Coming up," Watson calls, to let the rest of the crew know what's about to happen. The men nonchalantly lean forward on the balls of their feet. The propellers bite into the water, the bow rises, and the pace quickens. Far off the port side, a barge passes in the opposite direction, carving a ripple of undulating "V"'s behind the patrol boat. It smoothly skips over the wake, settling into a quick bouncing motion, kicking up a light spray over the sides as it breaks through a wave's crest and slices into the next one.
"That's just what happens with a barge at a light pace," Watson says of the wake's effect on the small but responsive boat. "When a deep-draft [vessel] comes through here at any pace, you can imagine what she's like."
From the Curtis Bay headquarters, USCG Baltimore maintains its broad mission. Its officers play traffic cop to the broad array of craft that use the Inner Harbor and the Port of Baltimore, from cargo-toting behemoths to cruise ships to out-for-the-day skiffs. They inspect commercial and passenger ships, tend the buoys that aid navigation, and investigate accidents on or near the bay, such as February's collision between two tugboats and a cargo ship in the Elk River and last year's train derailment under Howard Street (to assess any potential danger of hazardous materials leaking into waterways). During winter months when tributaries freeze, icebreakers open passages for barges ferrying heating oil to residents of out-of-the-way reaches of the Eastern Shore.
The wide array of responsibilities is the legacy of the Guard's formation out of several other maritime services. It was officially created in 1915 by the merger of the Revenue Cutter Service, founded in the 1790s to enforce U.S. tariff laws and deal with pirates and smugglers, and the U.S. Life Saving Service, started in 1871. Other agencies dealing with navigation, ship inspection, and lighthouses were folded into the Guard as well.
It makes for a unique hybrid. The Guard is the fifth arm of the U.S. Armed Forces, but it's officially part of the Department of Transportation, not Defense. It has customs authority, and is charged with enforcing U.S. law not just on domestic waters, but on any U.S. vessel anywhere in the world. And since Sept. 11, maintaining the security of waterways has become the Guard's co-prime directive.
The day after the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, Adm. J.M. Loy, commandant of the Guard, "came out and said port security is our No. 1 mission, right next to search-and-rescue," says Lt. Russell Bowman, an investigations officer and spokesperson for Activities Baltimore. "That's something that the Coast Guard is looking at long term--the very complex issues of how to deal with the security of our ports and waterways considering that 95 percent of all U.S. goods come via water. . . .
"All our missions are important, and we can't not do them," Bowman continues above the thrum of the engine and the roar of the wind. "But everything has to take a back seat to search-and-rescue operations where somebody's life is on the line, or if there's a national-security threat. Those are the top two, and everything else is subsidiary."
Although the Guard won't disclose details of its patrol operations, Bowman says it is currently undergoing "the largest port-security operation the Coast Guard has had since World War II." Back then, he says, "we had people walking the beach with dogs and making sure nobody was sneaking up on shore. We don't have to do that anymore, but we have stepped up [patrols] to a level that has been unprecedented since then as far as the number of boats on the water."
Out on the bay on the sunny spring weekday, the scope of the local Guard's multifaceted task is made manifest. Just entering the greater Chesapeake from the Activities Center docks, you immediately encounter other vessels--cargo ships heading into and out of port, pleasure craft out for a morning spin, sightseeing boats full of tourists. Both Bowman and Watson characterize this morning's traffic as light, but it's impossible to do more than approximate the number of craft visible just from the patrol boat's deck.
Averaging 20 knots, it takes about a half-hour to travel from the Bay Bridge to the Inner Harbor. When Fort McHenry is directly off the port side, Watson tells Schroyer to ease the cutter down and begin a turn. The craft makes a slow arc that offers a view of the full Inner Harbor and its surrounding environs that you can only get from the water. People commute by water taxis, small boats leave docks, deep-draft vessels moor at port. To a layperson it looks like any other busy morning at the Port. But Bowman, Watson, and their colleagues are eyeing the ships closely, discussing what cargo one is carrying and how long another has been in port. One vessel, Watson notes, wasn't their yesterday. He pulls out his field glasses to get a better look at its insignia and flags.
He puts his field glasses down, calls the command center, and, satisfied with what he hears, goes back to scanning the port as the boat heads back to its dock.
"We're on for one more day," he says, explaining that the patrol crews work "sliding two-day shifts"--48 hours on then 48 off, and alternate weekends. Shifts are split between the water and base. "Some days we're just out patrolling, posting radio reports every 15 minutes. And sometimes we're at base waiting for a call," he says. "That's just what we do."
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