Editor’s Note: This blog is the second in a three-part series from the Coast Guard Cutter Sherman as they chase illicit traffickers throughout the Eastern Pacific Ocean. Please tune in for the cutter’s final blog as the crew comes face to face with narcotraffickers in the zone.
Story by Chief Warrant Officer Allyson E.T. Conroy
Maritime tradition is steeped in superstition. No whistling on the bridge of a ship in case you whistle up a storm. Plants are not allowed because their roots won’t find land.
One of our best known cultural superstitions is expecting something out of the ordinary to occur when the moon is full. On land, traditionally emergency rooms see more patients during evenings when the moon is full, and police departments seem to be especially busy. Take that superstition and couple it with a Friday the 13th, you never know what to expect.
At sea is no different.
The crew of the Coast Guard Cutter Sherman sits in the waters about 230 miles off of the Galapagos Islands on a counter drug patrol in the Eastern Pacific Ocean. It’s been quiet for the past couple of days but the lookouts always have their eyes open looking for anything on the water or in the air.
Friday, Jan. 13, 2017, started as any other day. Runners take to the main deck to get a little bit of exercise. The culinary specialists make breakfast. Revelle is called. The crew has no idea that as the noon hour approaches, excitement will rise and what unfolds will quickly become another sea story to tell for years to come.
“Now, it is requested that OPS lay to the bridge. OPS, bridge.”
That sort of announcement has a tendency to grab the crew’s attention.
Sherman’s operations officer, Lt. Paul Ledbetter arrives on the bridge moments later.
“What’s going on?” Ledbetter inquires of the officer of the day, Chief Warrant Officer Michael Kristiansen.
“We have a target off of our port bow, right at the horizon,” Kristiansen said. “We’ve got a larger boat with four pangas tied off to it. We saw them move a number of their crewmembers to each of the pangas and one of them is now pursuing on [Sherman].”
Kristiansen has no idea what the advancing panga’s intention is, and with this ship and crew’s safety in mind he orders the ship to turn away as the cutter prepares for a boarding.
This is Kristensen’s second Eastern Pacific patrol aboard Sherman. In his experience during the past two years, he’s helped interdict 5,019 kilograms of cocaine and he has seen illicit drug runners employ a couple of different tactics trying to move their product. This situation raises his suspicions.
The bridge buzzes with energy. Sherman’s commanding officer, Capt. Steven Wittrock as well as the executive officer, Cmdr. Jerome Dubay, studies the horizon.
“We aren’t sure what they are doing,” Kristiansen reports to his command. “They started coming toward us. We changed course and they mirrored us.”
“Pipe ME1 Brooks and ME2 Henderson to the bridge,” Capt. Steven Wittrock says.
Petty Officer 1st Class Daniel Brooks and Petty Officer 2nd Class Marcus Henderson are both maritime enforcement specialists assigned to Sherman. The captain calls them to the bridge to inform them of what they are looking at, and use their expertise.
Brooks has a vast experience of operations in the Eastern Pacific. He served with the Pacific Tactical Law Enforcement Team in San Diego prior to being assigned to Sherman. He offers his thoughts on the situation to the captain, and the group decides the best course of action. Time to launch the ready boat and send the boarding team out to investigate.
Before the boat can be launched, the panga continues to advance with three men aboard.
It’s not very often that Sherman’s crew sees a panga pursue them. Generally it is the other way around. As this situation plays out, tensions rise because there is no telling what will happen. The cutter informs Joint Interagency Task Force South the events that are unfolding, that they plan to launch the ready boat and have the boarding team investigate.
But the break-away panga does not change course, it is not heading out on a fishing trip. It continues to head straight for Sherman.
The boarding team is dressed and ready to go.
“Get Burke on the M16,” Wittrock said. Moments later Petty Officer 3rd Class Jonathan Burke stands ready, rifle in hand. The panga comes within 100 yards of the beam of the ship.
“Alejete! Ahora!” “Get away! Now!” Boarding team members call out to the men on the panga, using arm signals with their verbal orders.
One of the crewmembers aboard the Ecuadorian-flagged panga insistently points to his leg, but they comply with the Coast Guard’s orders and turn around.
The atmosphere changes slightly on the bridge, as this now appears to be a medical situation. And just like that, the mission alters and the command makes adjustments deciding what steps to take next.
The ready boat is launched; the boarding team makes their way to the fishing vessel and the other four pangas. Once alongside, the boarding team determines that the fishing vessel and crew are indeed legitimate fishermen, with thousands of pounds of catch onboard.
About 15 minutes after the boarding team arrives on scene they report back to the cutter that apparently a cremember aboard the fishing boat was injured. According to the fishing boat’s crew he was stung by a stingray four days earlier and now has a fever.
“Call Doc,” Wittrock orders. “Have him get ready to head out with the boarding team to render medical assistance.”
Chief Petty Officer Ky Le grabs one of the cutter’s EMT bags and extra bottles of saline water in preparation to flush the apparent wound. He doesn’t really know what sort of condition he will find his patient in. He does know that at the bare minimum the wound will more than likely have to be flushed and dressed. He boards the cutter’s small boat and heads out to his patient.
Upon arriving to the fishing boat Alex the boarding team has the crew assembled on the bow. Doc boards the vessel and the crew moves the patient to a foam pad so that doc can take a better look at his leg. He runs a full set of vitals on his patient and flushes and dresses the wound. He thinks the patient needs antibiotics because the wound appears to be infected.
Doc disembarks the fishing vessel and heads back to Sherman to converse with the flight surgeon in Alameda, California, to determine the best course of action. The flight surgeon suggests the patient should be brought aboard Sherman for closer medical attention. This offer is relayed to the patient and the captain of the fishing vessel.
No, the patient will stay aboard his boat but he and his entire crew are very thankful for the medical treatment.
Doc gave his patient 10 days worth of antibiotics in order to help fight the infection off and prevent sepsis.
The boarding team disembarks the fishing vessel and heads back to their boat.
“Another life saved,” one of the crewmembers says.
The Coast Guard is an eclectic service with the capability to execute multiple missions. One can imagine being out on the high seas with an injured crewmember with little to no means of medical assistance when all of a sudden a big white-hulled boat with an orange racing stripe on the bow comes into view. One can only imagine the relief they must have felt that help was on the way for their shipmate.
The sun drifts toward the horizon as this Friday the 13th concludes. Not a normal day by any means. But when you patrol ‘in the zone,’ what constitutes normalcy?