Ports mobilize for battle with terrorists

When a pilot climbs aboard a ship outside San Francisco Bay these days, he often brings along some companions: armed U.S. Coast Guard sea marshals.

A heavily armed U.S. Coast Guard boat patrols New York Harbor. Following the attacks on the World Trade Center, the Coast Guard deployed specially trained port security units to New York and Boston. Their presence marked the first time these units, created for assignments overseas, have been used in U.S. ports.

The sea marshal program in California exemplifies the extraordinary security measures put in place aboard ships and in ports, following the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11.

In teams of two, the sea marshals go up the ladder with the pilot and then ride the vessel all the way in to the dock. They also accompany pilots taking ships in the opposite direction.

“They stay with the pilot on the bridge. They go on with us and they depart with us,” said Capt. Charles Rhodes, a member of the San Francisco Bar Pilots. “It’s scary times right now. We have the Golden Gate, the Bay Bridge. If sensational terrorism is the name of the game, taking those bridges down É It’s hard to put in words.”

The sea marshals were established as a trial program in San Francisco. Vessels considered to be high-risk targets, such as passenger ships, regularly get escorted by sea marshal teams, but any ship could be a candidate.

“They come on at random, so you can’t predict what ship they’re on,” Rhodes said. “You can look at these guys and see they mean business.”

The presence of the sea marshals demonstrates how seriously the Coast Guard is taking the terrorism threat.

“Never before have we been involved with armed military security people climbing up and down the ladder with us,” said Capt. Michael Watson, president of the American Pilots Association.

Containership Tampa offloads at the Nashville Terminal in New Orleans. Containers pose particular security problems because of the huge volume of them moving through major ports.

The goal, of course, is to prevent terrorists from hijacking ships and using them as floating bombs, in much the same way passenger planes were used to attack the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

“Needless to say, those vessels are considered high-risk,” Watson said. “The occurrences in New York really demonstrated how lax everything was.”

If things were lax before, they aren’t now. The terrorist attacks galvanized the Coast Guard, ports and the maritime industry. They are now moving aggressively to tighten up a security network whose shortcomings have been exposed.

One of the first things the Coast Guard did was to dramatically increase the number of people it has available to conduct patrols and inspections. In the month following the attacks, the Coast Guard called 2,700 reservists to active duty, one-third of its entire reserve force. That recall may grow in the weeks to come, depending on what President Bush decides is needed in the campaign to rout out and destroy the terrorists and the organizations that support them.

Other measures taken by the Coast Guard included deploying port security units to Boston and New York. These units, which receive intensive combat and weapons training, are normally sent to guard port facilities overseas that might be subject to attack from heavily armed forces. According to the Coast Guard, never before have security units like these been deployed to ports in the United States. That decision provided further proof – as if any were needed – of the seriousness of the challenge facing the Coast Guard as it tries to protect the nation’s ports and the ships that sail in and out of them.

The Coast Guard has also declared safety zones around U.S. Navy vessels. All other vessels are prohibited from coming within 100 yards of a Navy vessel without permission. All vessels coming within 500 yards of a Navy vessel are required to operate at the minimum speed necessary to maintain a safe course.

The security challenge is enormous given the size and extent of the maritime industry. In 2000 alone, 5.8 million cargo containers and 211,000 commercial vessels entered U.S. ports, according to Cmdr. Stephen E. Flynn, a Coast Guard officer and senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, who also teaches at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy, New London, Conn.

In an article that appeared in the November/December 2000 issue of Foreign Affairs, Flynn exhibited a chilling sense of what the future could hold:

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By Professional Mariner Staff