UNITAS 2011: War games and coded messages

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The Brazilian Navy ships Almirante Gastao Motta, Niteroi and Bosisio head south in formation. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Stephen Lehmann.
The Brazilian Navy ships Almirante Gastao Motta, Niteroi and Bosisio head south in formation. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Stephen Lehmann.

Written by Ens. Ray Chaisson, Coast Guard Cutter Escanaba, with contributions from Petty Officer 3rd Class Stephen Lehmann.

It’s been roughly a week into Coast Guard Cutter Escanaba’s UNITAS experience and while it has been educational, it has been a very formidable experience as well.

Escanaba and crew rendezvoused with U.S. Navy ships and proceeded south to meet up with the Mexican and Brazilian naval forces to complete the UNITAS training team. This brings the total of ships involved to six. Six vessels, each with more than 100 persons aboard. Each ship with its own personality, its own obstacles, and generally speaking, one of three languages. Any one of these things could make the transit alone increasingly difficult. Thanks to a great deal of pre-planning and open communication between the ships via embedded translators, any issues that have come up have been handled efficiently and speedily by the expert crewmembers.

“When you have more than one country involved there can be a lot of miscommunication between the two, but in this instance, for this event, we have three different languages being spoken, which make my job all the more interesting,” said Mr. Antonio Viana, the Coast Guard Auxiliary translator for UNITAS. “Everything from vessel movements to ship tours takes longer due to the translations, but the effects of our cooperative efforts are being realized by all involved, on all levels.”

Petty Officer 3rd Class Patrick Humphrey and Seaman Joshuah Heath raise signal flags during a joint signaling drill with the Brazilian Navy. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Stephen Lehmann.
Petty Officer 3rd Class Patrick Humphrey and Seaman Joshuah Heath raise signal flags during a joint signaling drill with the Brazilian Navy. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Stephen Lehmann.

Since meeting up with the last three participating ships, the crews have accomplished some amazing things and have conducted exercises that many will never see in places many will never go.

They’ve done flag signaling exercises where one crew will raise a series of flags, signaling something that the other crews need to decipher and respond to. Escanaba’s crew took this particular evolution as a chance to prove their mastery of seamanship and worked hard to be the first one to respond back and respond correctly.

“We’ve practiced flag hoisting on many occasions, but to be able to practice with ships from other countries really reaffirmed the importance of what we do and why we do it,” said Seaman Joshuah Heath, a member of Escanaba’s signal team. “Throw in some friendly competition and we can even have some fun with it.”

Another exercise was a mock war scenario, where allied ships work together to remain undetected from other ships and attempt to accomplish a pre-determined goal. From an outside perspective, it might look like a giant game of battle ship or hide-and-seek, but inside the Escanaba command center, it was a game they were dead set on winning.

Crewmembers from Coast Guard Cutter Escanaba deploy the starboard anchor off the coast of Salvador, Brazil.  U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Stephen Lehmann.
Crewmembers from Coast Guard Cutter Escanaba deploy the starboard anchor off the coast of Salvador, Brazil. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Stephen Lehmann.

“During my time aboard Escanaba or even in the Coast Guard, I’ve never been more excited to run these drills and show the other services and countries just how hard we train and what we’re capable of,” said Petty Officer 2nd Class Justin Overdorf. “Not only did we demonstrate a mastery of electronic warfare but we demonstrated our ability to adapt on the go and execute successful plans under pressure.”

It hasn’t all been war games and coded messages though. Escanaba has had the opportunity to practice some familiar and immediately applicable operations. On their way into Salvador, Brazil, the crew conducted two anchorages, two mooring and a fueling evolution all in less than a day.

All in all, the UNITAS experience has been a good one for the crew of Escanaba. They’ve learned some new tricks and have perfected old ones. They’ve embodied the Coast Guard tradition of adapting on the fly, applying creative solutions to complex problems and, of course, competing with other maritime services. All this and we’re only a week into UNITAS.

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