Thursday, September 24, 2015

Defending Our Borders

The United States Coast Guard has a huge presence in Key West, with its primary mission to capture and return to Cuba any migrants found at sea before they can set foot on US soil.  While staying in Key West, we got the fantastic opportunity to have a private tour of a Coast Guard cutter and speak at length to the boatswain's mate.  The most versatile crew member, he joked with us that he was a "Jack of all trades, master of none!"  He can perform almost any task on the ship to include deck maintenance, supervision and navigation.

The harbor this day had 3 cutters in port - we toured the smaller one on the left.  It's also one of the newer ones assigned to the Coast Guard.

All ships are named for Coast Guard heroes.  William Trump (no relation to Donald!) jumped out of a personnel carrier on the Normandy Beach on D-Day and manually lowered the front when it was stuck, allowing the personnel to disembark for the battle.

Communication antennas and, in the foreground, you can partially see the huge gun that is mounted on the front of the ship.

The U.S. Jack flag is flown by the Coast Guard on ships in harbor.

The bridge
All interior sections of the boat were air conditioned.

Combination day room/dining room/tv room
This is the common area that is used by the men and women assigned to the ship, about 27 or so.  The other side had coffee pots, microwave, toaster oven, water dispenser - anything that an individual would need during off time.  The flat screen TVs on either end had satellite reception and wifi was available.

There are two cooks assigned and they cook pretty much non-stop.  Their job is to feed the crew, as well as any migrants that are picked up.

The boat used to approach migrant vessels and ferry migrants to the larger ship is contained within the larger ship.  The back folds down and the smaller boat is launched from there.

I didn't photograph any of the crew sleeping quarters out of respect for privacy, but let me tell you, they were tiny!  The largest contained two bunks, a tiny sink and a small cabinet.  The smaller rooms (given as punishment for minor infractions) had only two bunks and were barely large enough to swing the door in.

No part of the ship was off limits, so we saw the engine rooms and all the mechanical parts as well.  Drinking water is made from sea water by a desalination method and black waste water is dumped at sea.  Laundry is done by individuals in a small, RV style combination washer/dryer that takes 3 hours per load.  Showers are individual rooms but shared by all, with female personnel given a separate stall so "they don't have to deal with men's dirt."

As interesting as the tour of the ship was, even more fascinating was the education we received about what happens when a migrant vessel is encountered.  Until recently, the crew was not allowed to use any weapons against the migrants.  You can imagine, they are not very happy to be intercepted and many would fight being taken aboard the Coast Guard ship.  It was quite a dangerous undertaking for the crew.  Now, crews have been issued what was described as a cross between a paint ball gun and a pepper spray canister used by police in any large city.  It's very unpleasant to be shot by one of these things, and word has leaked back to Cuba that the Coast Guard is thus armed.  Resistance is limited now.  However, the whole "wet foot, dry foot" policy of the United States makes the migrants very inventive about getting to put a foot on any U.S. soil.  One man took a flying leap off the Coast Guard cutter when he spotted land, planning to swim the 12 miles they were still away.  Needless to say, he was recaptured!  Another delivered her baby at sea, all the while trying to convince the crew she needed to go to land to have the child.

Migrants are treated well on the boats, given food and water and examined by a doctor.  The boats return them to Cuba, basically to a single dock as they are not allowed to actually land in Cuba.  No one knows what changes will happen now that relations are being reestablished with the country.

This, to me, was a once in a lifetime opportunity and we were so happy we got to do this.  The boatswain's mate couldn't have been nicer and, all told, we were on the ship for about an hour.  It was an experience neither one of us will ever forget!

Until next time...

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