Captain’s log: 1000 hours, underway in the South Atlantic Ocean under brilliant sunshine, gliding through slightly choppy seas. We continue to navigate along the southeastern coast of Brazil, approximately 1,500 miles south of the equator. The ocean has changed dramatically since yesterday; it’s a distinctive tropical blue in color (probably from the equatorial current that pushes south along the coast), with numerous flying fish (yes, fish with wings that scoot along the wave tops for 200 or feet or so) and a small pilot whale checking us out. I’m on the port bridge wing observing small-boat coxswain training. Forward is equipped with a 6-meter rigid-hull inflatable boat that we use frequently to transport people and equipment from ship to ship. Affectionately known as “Walt II” (after Walter P. Forward), this boat is our workhorse; as such, we take great pride in keeping our skills sharp.
As I sit, somewhat perched in my port bridge wing chair, observing our young coxswains manipulating Walt II alongside our ship, I’m reminded of the many experiences we’ve shared as a crew on this voyage. After all, that’s what sea stories are made of. It was in another hemisphere, three months to the day, that we left our homeport of Portsmouth, Va.; and in that time our adventures have taken us through several oceans, the Panama Canal, and some of the most treacherous waters in the world around the Strait of Magellan. Circumnavigating the continent of South America is quite an unusual undertaking for a Coast Guard cutter. As a matter of fact, I believe we are the first cutter to ever do so!
So why are we plying the waters of South America? Primarily to participate in a U.S. Navy deployment called Unitas (unity in Latin) that conducts multinational naval maneuvers with nearly every South American naval service. The deployment required us to steam in multi-ship formations, battle a fictitious war-game opponent off the coast of Panama, repair the buildings of a girls’ orphanage in Ecuador, conduct practice law-enforcement boardings with the Chileans, steam close aboard a Colombian oiler to refuel at sea, present ideas to help the Uruguayans standardize their training, exchange mementos at late-evening dinners, and say warm goodbyes and farewell wishes to all. Our departure from Colombian waters was quite noteworthy; the Colombian patrol boat we were working with wanted to steam close aboard (approximately 100 yards) as a form of salute and then break away as we headed south. We thought it would be a good idea to salute back, so the entire crew manned Forward’s starboard rail and we played the Colombian national anthem as they approached us. When they heard their national anthem, every single member of that patrol boat stood at attention and saluted, including the crewmember who was at the helm steering the ship! As they were saluting and we were saluting, their patrol boat was inching closer and closer to us. As the yards between our ships shrank to mere feet, I had to discreetly signal to the conning officer to gradually turn the ship to port to avoid a close encounter. Patriotism runs deep in the South American naval services.
As this deployment winds down to its final phase, I am overwhelmed by the incredible sense of pride every coast guard had in their organizations, and how much they look to the U.S. Coast Guard to be their model for future success. Several countries plan to send a few officers on some of our normal patrols in the Caribbean to gain better insight into our operations; many desire more frequent exercises with our cutters. Their admiration carries a heavy burden for us to live up to. I happen to believe–admittedly I’m somewhat biased–that the U.S. Coast Guard is a near-perfect blend of humanitarian service, law enforcement authority, and naval power. Why wouldn’t, and why shouldn’t, we share our organization with others? After all, saving lives is saving lives; does it really matter if it’s in the offshore waters of New England or Argentina? Some of those same ships may be in the area someday to save lives off our coast. We have much in common with the naval services of this continent. I always knew how physically powerful the sea was; but not until now did I realize how psychologically powerful the sea really is–for it has the power to transcend the boundaries of language and culture. Always gracious, the naval services of Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Chile, Argentina, and Uruguay provided us numerous opportunities to share ideas and understand that they are true professionals in every sense of the word. Despite the thousands of miles of ocean that geographically separate us from them, the love of the sea and all it represents in terms of commerce, enjoyment, and beauty are what binds us together. It’s an experience that will last me a lifetime.