CAPE D - There will be some new faces at U.S. Coast Guard Station Cape Disappointment in coming months after Astoria-based U.S. Coast Guard cutter Alert heads back to its birthplace for some much needed buffing and polishing after 40 years at sea, saving lives and apprehending drug traffickers.
The 210-foot "white hull" will soon leave Astoria and go south through the Panama Canal and back north to the Coast Guard Yard in Curtis Bay, South Baltimore, Md.
The Alert will be dry-docked for eight months to undergo a $6 million overhaul of all its systems, from an all-new galley to its air conditioning system.
Cmdr. Matt Creelman, the Alert's commanding officer, said the improvements are going to make operations easier for everyone living and working aboard the ship.
Alert crewmembers are preparing the vessel for the serious makeover. While their ship is away, some from the Alert will be put to work at Cape D.
"The Alert crew should do whatever Cape D needs help with, working side by side with Cape D personnel to accomplish their missions," Alert Public Affairs Officer ENS Abigail Lafond said last week. "We are grateful to Cape D for accepting our guys as their own and providing them with valuable training and an awesome experience."
Several Alert crewmembers already live here in Washington, though their place of residence won't necessarily guarantee them a job on this side of the Columbia. "I do not know specifically what each person will be doing at Cape D, but it will be related to their rank," Lafond said.
It has been a while ...It's been 16 years since the ship has received such an extensive overhaul, even though it makes a routine trip to dry dock every four years. During the eight months the ship spends out of the water, the Alert's crew will be receiving training to help them take full advantage of the ship's new features.
"Most of these projects have been long overdue and are really going to impact comfort for folks," Creelman said.
But before the Alert leaves Astoria for the four- to five-week trip to Maryland, there's a lot of work to be done.
Engineering Officer Lt. Mark Nelson has been planning the countdown to the overhaul for months, to be sure that when the Alert heads out next month, it is only with the bare essentials onboard.
"It's basically going to be an empty shell. Whatever is billeted down will stay, and everything else will go," Nelson said. The crew will make the journey from Astoria to Curtis Bay with few creature comforts so that work can begin as soon as they arrive. Packing up what's normally in working and living space, he said, is a particular art. The most important items must be packed last so they will be the first out when the Alert is ready to go back into service, and items used less frequently are being put away now.
Nelson's job also extends to finding replacements for the equipment that is to be removed, and he's spent hours making sure new parts will fit into the tight empty spaces.
"My time has been spent walking around the ship to figure out what needs to be done and finding the documentation on specs," Nelson said.
While major items like refrigeration and cooling systems will be replaced, simpler interior upgrades like carpet and cabinetry will occur too. The galley kitchen will be completely replaced, with new industrial-sized appliances like steam kettles and a flat-top grill and a new scullery. Big, time-consuming tasks like blasting and repainting the ship's anchor and its chain will be undertaken and outdated technology will be replaced as well.
The crew is looking forward to the new tools they'll be able to use when Alert's ready to roll. One of the ship's main functions is to catch drug-traffickers transporting their cargo in transit zones within the Coast Guard's 6 million square miles of territory. Apprehending those vessels will soon be easier with new "over-the-horizon" rigid hull inflatable boats the Alert will be equipped with after the overhaul.
Petty officer Ryan Bailey, a machinery technician, said having the new boats will enable him to do his job better - something he relishes.
"It will make us more capable with our law enforcement, and we'll be able to travel farther away from the cutter to do the interdictions," Bailey, 26, said. The Alert's crew recently nabbed drug traffickers in the Eastern Pacific carrying approximately 5,000 pounds of cocaine. A semi-submersible type boat has become the vessel of choice for such illegal cargo - stretching up to 65 feet long and holding up to several metric tons of cocaine.
And so while the Alert's being worked on, Bailey will return to Cape Disappointment to work on his small boat qualifications, hone his skills with small diesel engines and he hopes to attend the Coast Guard's National Motor Lifeboat School - all skills that will come in handy when chasing down the next semi-submersible, he said.
Finding new jobs for a whileAlert's public affairs representative, Ensign LaFond, said that while it was a challenging task to find temporary jobs for the ship's crew, most will be able to focus on areas they are trying to improve.
"We tried to contact local units to see if they could help keep us all gainfully employed," LaFond said. "It's been monumental. We're trying to use that time to be the best prepared we can for our return."
Petty Officer Scott Creel, the Alert's storekeeper, said during his temporary assignment he wants to improve how he keeps the ship stocked with the supplies needed to make it through the standard 60-day lapse between port visits. He'll get training on a new software application in Virginia, which will fine tune how he orders and keeps track of expected shipments. He loves helping his mates find just what they need to keep engines running smoothly and fixing whatever breaks onboard, he said.
"Finding a way to solve problems is one of my favorite things to do," Creel, 23, said. He'll also visit Emergency Medical Technician school in Petaluma, Calif., and have corrective eye surgery in Burlington, Wash.
Petty Officer Nicholas McGowen, 23, a member of the deck department, is hoping his reassignment will fulfill a lifetime dream. He's slated to sail to Europe on the Coast Guard's only active commissioned sailing vessel, the Eagle. Built in 1936 by Blohm & Voss Shipyard in Hamburg, Germany, the impressive ship was a war prize from World War II. McGowen will get hands-on experience with the 20,000 feet of sail and five miles of rigging on the 295-foot long teak and steel ship, sure to enhance his deck skills on the Alert.
"It's going to be a great experience. It will put me right into the action," McGowen said.