On the Coast

San Diego - U. S. Coast Guard crews from the San Diego area intercept a suspected drug smuggling boat and crew in international waters off the coast of Baja California in Oct. 2011. The suspects and boat were turned over to Mexican authorities for prosecution. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Henry G. Dunphy.

Two 87-foot Coast Guard cutters float peacefully on smooth waters at U.S. Coast Guard Sector San Diego one recent Monday morning. Across the bay, the sun shines on glass buildings downtown as crew members ready for the day ahead. The calm and quiet belie the serious mission of the cutters: search and rescue; maritime law enforcement; and drug and migrant interdiction. Look closely at the sides of the cutters Haddock and Petrel, and you'll find decals of marijuana leaves with a big red "X" marked through them. The decals on each cutter represent the number of drug busts made - seven for the Haddock and four for the Petrel - and are a source of pride for crew members. Two additional patrol boats - the Edisto and Sea Otter - sit docked at Ballast Point, Naval Base Point Loma, ready to launch with up to 14 sailors aboard when needed. "Drug interdiction is a big part of our mission," says Lt. Dave McCarthy, the sector's public affairs officer. "We work closely with RECOM (San Diego Regional Coordinating Mechanism), which includes a number of federal, state and local agencies that fight drug and human smuggling." Coast Guard and other agency crews regularly patrol the waters off Southern California to detect, deter and disrupt smuggling activity, McCarthy says. The RECOM seized more than 100,000 pounds of drugs in fiscal year 2012. And on March 31, Coast Guard members offloaded 3.3 tons of marijuana into San Diego from the 210-foot cutter Alert. The seizure, 90 miles west of San Nicolas Island, was made after a Coast Guard C-130 Hercules spotted a suspicious vessel during a routine offshore patrol. The suspects jettisoned more than 245 bales of contraband that was recovered by the Coast Guard. The Coast Guard falls under the Department of Homeland Security and is responsible for all navigable waterways and 95,000 miles of shoreline in the United States. Its mission touches all facets of the U.S. maritime environment. Its 42,000 active duty members carry out an array of responsibilities, from search and rescue to marine environmental protection. The U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary - the uniformed volunteer component of the Coast Guard - has about 30,000 members who support the mission. Since 1937, Coast Guard Sector San Diego has been a landmark on Harbor Drive. The familiar orange and white MH-60T "Jayhawk" helicopters are a welcome sight. The sector's small boat station is home to three 33-foot law enforcement vessels and two 45-foot response boats. Additional Coast Guard assets in San Diego include two 378- foot cutters - the Boutwell and Sherman - docked at Naval Base San Diego, that report directly to the Pacific Area Command and deploy for months at a time. Petty Officer 3rd Class Chad Denny is a maritime enforcement specialist from Grapeview, Wash. He says the mission at the San Diego sector is preparing him for a future in federal law enforcement. The job doesn't get boring, he says "We recently went out on a search and rescue case where a sailboat had lost its rudder and we had to tow the sailboat back into a certain point," he says. "We also board vessels to make sure they are all within safety regulation." He and other crew members helped protect President Barack Obama when he was in town for the Battle on the Midway basketball game last November. "It's the exciting stuff that really makes it all worth it," he says. Denny says the support of the Coast Guard Auxiliary is critical to the mission. "They conduct training, help us with our charts all the time and keep our maps up-to-date," Denny says. The Coast Guard Auxiliary has more than 300 members in the San Diego region, McCarthy says. "They are often the unmentioned folks of the Coast Guard," McCarthy adds. "They are an integral part of our maritime safety mission." Auxiliarist Angelo Skiparnias commands the Oceanside Harbor Flotilla. The longtime sailboat racer says the flotilla's 55 volunteers are a unique blend of patriots from many different walks of life. All volunteers receive - at a minimum - basic training in boating safety and first aid. "All of our members share one common bond and purpose and that's to give back to their country," Skiparnias says. The Coast Guard Auxiliary is built on the foundations of public education; vessel safety checks; operations; and fellowship. "We want to let those guys be the heroes," says Susane Bittner, division vice commander of Coast Guard Auxiliary Division 1, San Diego. "We want to be the support for them to get the job done. We volunteer so they can do what they need to do to really save lives and do their mission." ABOVE: San Diego - U. S. Coast Guard crews from the San Diego area intercept a suspected drug smuggling boat and crew in international waters off the coast of Baja California in Oct. 2011. The suspects and boat were turned over to Mexican authorities for prosecution. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Henry G. Dunphy.