Story and photos by Petty Officer 2nd Class Ashley Johnson
In the early morning darkness, four Coast Guard air crew members donned their flight suits and, with gear in hand, made their way to a yellow MH-60 Jayhawk helicopter. The same crew who finished a drug smuggling patrol merely hours earlier, launched to search for nine people aboard a sinking boat.
At 3:30 a.m., earlier that morning, watch standers at the Operation Bahamas Turks and Caicos (OBAT) Operation Center, Nassau, received a call from the Great Inagua Police Department, stating nine people aboard the sailboat Change of Life were taking on water 17 miles west of the Great Inagua Lighthouse.
The crew aboard the Coast Guard Cutter Dependable, a 210-foot Medium Endurance Cutter, homeported in Virginia Beach, Virginia, also diverted to aid in the search-and-rescue mission.
The Coast Guard, Drug Enforcement Administration and Royal Bahamian Defense Force maintain a 24/7 presence on the islands in support of OPBAT – a tri-country agreement between the U.S., Turks and Caicos and U.K. governments to combat drug smuggling to and from the U.S., Bahamas and Turks and Caicos. In fiscal year 2015, the operation accounted for the interdiction of more than $80 million in narcotics.
“OPBAT was formed in 1982 to counter wide-open cocaine smuggling from Columbia,” said Lt. Stacey Tate, OBAT’s deputy director. “It has since grown into the multi-faceted operation it is today.”
Currently, 37 Coast Guard members and 21 DEA personnel support OPBAT.
Though the Coast Guard’s OPBAT mission is to counter drug smuggling, air crew members forward deploy to Great Inagua, Andros Island and aboard cutters to support the Coast Guard’s primary mission – search and rescue.
“Most of our rescues are medical evacuations from cruise ships or large tankers,” said U.S. Coast Guard Lt. Rachel Post, a Florida-based Coast Guard Air Station Clearwater helicopter pilot in Great Inagua. “Though, every now and again you get a career-defining rescue.”
Coast Guard members assigned to Air Station Clearwater routinly rotate deployments to Andros Island and Great Inagua. Members include maintenance personnel, ground crews, Jayhawk helicopter flight crews and site supervisors. Coast Guard, RBDF and DEA agents live and work side-by-side during every deployment.
Jeremy Nawyn, a DEA special agent deployed in Great Inagua described the multi-agency partnership as symbiotic.
“The DEA is the primary intel, the Coast Guard has the assets and the country agents are the jurisdiction,” said Nawyn. “You can’t do the operation with just one.”
The rotors of the Jayhawk spun down slowly on the tarmac. The four-hour search yielded no sightings, and the air crew reached their daily fatigue limit. The crew of the Dependable continued to search.
Just as the sun came up, a local fisherman found the sailboat aground. All nine people were aboard.
A Coast Guard over-the-horizon boat crew from the Dependable handed life jackets to the nine suspected Haitian migrants. The boat crew, partnered with the RBDF, transported the nine men from the aground sailboat to Matthew Town. The same combined country and agency effort used to combat drug smuggling saved nine lives that day. The only reported injury – a sailboat.
From the first day of boot camp, Coast Guard members are taught to save lives. Though the counter-drug operation in the north eastern Atlantic continues around the clock, Coast Guard members are prepared for any life-saving call. As Air Station Clearwater’s motto states – Anytime. Anywhere.