Written by Petty Officer 2nd Class Tara Molle
Approximately 2,600 miles south of Hawaii and nestled below the equator in the warm South Pacific waters lay the small islands of American Samoa. It is an unincorporated territory of the U.S. and home to more than 55,000 residents. The economy revolves around the public sector, private sector and the last remaining tuna cannery, which exports several hundred million dollars’ of canned tuna to the U.S. annually. In a place where virtually everything is dependent on the sea, from the fishing industry to tourism to the flow of goods and services in and out of Pago Pago Harbor, there’s a small Coast Guard crew working diligently to keep ports and waterways safe.
Falling under the Coast Guard’s 14th District and attached to Coast Guard Sector Honolulu, Marine Safety Detachment American Samoa is a unique unit. As part of the Coast Guard’s 11 statutory missions, marine safety is crucial to the economy. The Coast Guard investigates maritime accidents, merchant vessels, offshore drilling units, and marine facilities. Additionally, the Coast Guard is responsible for licensing mariners, documenting U.S. flagged vessels, and conducting a variety of safety programs.
Two officers, a first class petty officer, and a GS-12 civilian comprise the crew. They conduct about 50 vessel exams consisting mostly of commercial fishing vessels and 25 to 30 investigations varying from pollution to marine causalities annually. Just down the road from the Port of Pago Pago, the job requires quite a bit of independence and initiative on the part of each member as they divide and conquer, working on various assignments at any given time.
“We’re unique in dealing with our area of specialty,” said Chief Warrant Officer James Gardner, a senior marine inspector at MSD American Samoa. “Our civilian is an investigator as well as a commercial fishing vessel guru, our [first class petty officer] is our go-to guy for pollution response and facilities, and our lieutenant is the supervisor and an investigator as well. He goes out when we do our inspections and takes care of and interacts with the local government on a regular basis.”
Gardner himself examined a local commercial fishing vessel crew that morning, who failed inspection due to a malfunctioning oily water separator. Nevertheless, the vessel crew were given specific instruction how to fix the issue and will receive a subsequent check in the next week to ensure compliance before resuming fishing operations.
“We have an important job to do,” said Petty Officer 1st Class Jarrod Bohler, the marine science technician at MSD American Samoa. “Sometimes we try to go along the lines of educating rather than issuing a violation. Education is essential out here when it comes to understanding regulations. They do things a little differently out here, but we still uphold the Coast Guard’s bar of expectations.”
In February the crew kept a demanding schedule ranging from the usual examinations and investigations, little pollution spills to handling port closures and re-openings for Tropical Cyclone Gita and the response to the grounding of the 88-foot commercial fishing vessel Chu Zai Fa No. 1, 300 yards off the village of Leone Bay.
“Work-wise, the only thing that’s difficult is when things break out here it takes forever to get parts and sometimes we have to have different technicians fly in,” said Gardner. “We only get a couple of flights a week so it can be a very challenging job at times.”
On the heels of Tropical Cyclone Gita, storms bring problems and severely disrupt critical commerce to the community with not only the potential of damage to the port but also affect most of the population living right along the shoreline. Almost the entire crew experienced post-storm issues including power outages and physical damage to their homes. Much of the time their personal lives take a back seat to the time-sensitive work they do.
Being on a remote island so far away from their respective command can be challenging at times, especially separated from family and friends in this unaccompanied tour. Although the billet is relatively short, one year, the days sometimes blend. The crew tends to take it in stride and find ways to enjoy their limited downtime ranging from movies to hiking to barbeques and volunteering in the community.
No one knows this better than Vernatius Thomsen, who goes by Frank, his middle name. Thomsen is the civilian assistant supervisor at the MSD. He has nearly 28 in service to the U.S. military split between his time in the Navy as a young petty officer, civilian service and as a Coast Guard Reservist.
Thomsen is the glue. As the crew changes out annually, he is the familiar face that maintains continuity and relationships in the community year to year. He spends a great deal of time conducting exams, inspections, and investigations. It is not uncommon to find him working multiple cases in a day.
Thomsen also advocates military service to the youth of American Samoa. He’s experienced firsthand the value of gaining skills, getting a higher education and serving his country.
“Our office is the only consistent U.S. Coast Guard presence in 2,600 miles. All maritime matters come to us,” said Thomsen. “Once new personnel hit the ground here, they hit it running because we have our foot in the door covering nearly all Coast Guard missions including aids to navigation and search and rescue.”
One might think of American Samoa as a leisurely tour, but it is not. In addition to being busy with maritime matters, the crew serves as ambassadors of the United States representing the country and Coast Guard in the local community, with the maritime industry, and with visiting patrol vessels from Australia and French Polynesia.
“It never gets boring as we are always on the move,” said Thomsen. “We are a team of four, and we are available at all hours for any response. On the active duty side, their one year may be short, but they leave a positive impact through relationships with industry. Our personnel each have a niche in the MSD. We support each other. We are unique, and we are family. It’s difficult when you make friendships and bond together as a team and as a family tackling a myriad of issues not normally dealt with at other MSDs just to see them leave and you have to restart all over again. But to each of them I say ‘Fa’afetai, fa’afetai tele lava – Thank you, thank you very much.’”
Bohler echoed this, “The lieutenant is the face of the unit here and is out and about a little bit more representing the Coast Guard and he does an excellent job of it. What I love about being here in American Samoa is the opportunity to learn about the culture here and the wonderful people I meet.”
In places like American Samoa, the structure is rooted in their rich culture composed of extended families and friends. Even the local Coast Guard Auxiliarists have Samoan roots, which helps significantly when it comes to outreach and boating safety education within the villages. In the weeks since Gita, the team came together to support the community, despite their housing challenges, to ensure the safety of the waterways and the maritime industry, critical livelihood, as the island restored power and resumed some sense of a routine.
“The people here are amazing,” said Gardner. “They’re very friendly, loving and have a family-based thought process. Being a part of that is the real benefit of being here.”