Sunday, September 26, 2010

Tying Up a Cyclone

I don't usually read the stories that get incessantly emailed to me by military.com, but something about the title of this one caught my eye.
The Navy has sidelined its fleet of coastal patrol boats operating out of Bahrain after inspections revealed "significant structural damage," and has limited the operations of five patrol boats homeported at Joint Expeditionary Base Little Creek.
Chris Johnson, a spokesman for Naval Sea Systems Command in Washington, said the Navy has ceased operating five Cyclone-class patrol vessels in Bahrain until they can be permanently repaired and restored, a process that may take months.
Inspections of the Little Creek boats are ongoing, and those patrol craft could be pulled from service, too. In the meantime, crews will operate them under certain restrictions.

The lightweight, 169-foot steel-hulled boats were built by Bollinger in the 1990s and expected to serve 15 years. With one exception, all have hit or exceeded that milestone.
Problems discovered in the boats' hulls -- warping and buckling of the steel frame, as well as corrosion in various tanks -- are a cumulative result of hard use and severe operating conditions, Johnson said. The extent of the damage was first discovered this spring, after two of the Little Creek boats, the Hurricane and the Thunderbolt, sustained some damage in a storm off Cape Hatteras in April while en route to Florida.
When engineers looked closer, they found pre-existing hull damage on those boats. A formal inspection process followed, which determined the damage potentially affected all the vessels in the class, including three that were transferred from the Navy to the Coast Guard.
Most of the repairs on the overseas ships will be done by shipyard personnel in Bahrain, Johnson said, although some U.S. specialists might be sent to help. Johnson said the work will take a couple of months, and said it was too soon to estimate how much the repairs will cost.
The 30-person crews of the Bahrain-based boats deploy from Little Creek and typically serve six month tours. The crews rotate, but the Cyclones stay in Bahrain.
Um, where do I start?

I guess I should start by saying that I'm no longer *on* a ship, and am not easily able to keep up with fleet news, not having access to my CG computer profile.  Last thing I really heard about the status of the Coast Guard's cutter fleet was that DALLAS and GALLATIN were in drydock for 18 months to repair significant structural damage. And honestly, I haven't heard if they actually made it out. Though reading GALLATIN's mishap about their drydock fire gave me the willies for the remainder of KISKA's time on the blocks. So, anything I say has the high likelihood of being out of date, if not out of touch.

But what does the Navy know that we don't? What is it about their Cyclone-class ships that is so significantly different from our Island-class cutters? I can immediately identify two things that are different, one which should help us, and one which might be worse.

First, and probably grossly simplifying some of the differences, the way the crews are managed between the Cyclones and Island-class ships are different. The Navy crews don't stick with one hull, they rotate between the various ships, serving six months on a ship in the NAG, and then rotating back to the states for 12-18 months (I think that's the right ratio) of training, etc. They remain together as a crew, but switch around on ships. From my perspective, that undermines the development of a sense of pride about their ship that encourages the crew to really care about what happens to the ship, spending those extra hours on maintenance, taking deep pride in doing what's right for the ship, because, hell, they're just gonna turn it over to someone else in a few months and then they won't have to deal with it. Like I said, gross simplification, but still significant.

On the other hand, the CG ships are already older than the Navy ships. Built in the 1990's and expected to serve 15 years, which they've already exceeded--sounds familiar...are we talking about WPBs or PCs? If I remember my dates right, USCGC MAUI (WPB 1304), second oldest currently operational hull in the WPB fleet, was commissioned in 1986. She's 24 years old. She was 23 years old when I served onboard.

I remember one patrol on MAUI, we were supposed to be going into drydock for a regular maintenance period, but because another ship (can't recall if it was WPB or PC) had a more immediate maintenance issue, our drydock was delayed by some number of days days to allow them time to complete repairs. No biggie, the schedule changed *all the time* out there, and we were all pretty used to it. But somewhere along the way, MAUI had picked up a small hole, maybe dime-sized, in the hull just below the exhaust port in the engine room on the starboard side. Below the water line...in the engine room. Nothing about that made me feel good.

The shoreside DCs patched us up, and away we went. I had been pretty diligent about specifying my concerns with the materiel condition of the ship in our daily status report. I felt that as long as the weather stayed good, and we weren't pounding into the seas, we should be able to limp along and just get through the patrol and safely into drydock for more permanent repairs. It was February, so while it wasn't FAC like the summer months in the NAG, we also weren't taking the 24-hour ass-beating we had during the late fall, early winter months. Until our last day in theatre, and a shamal came winding up from the southeast.

Within the span of about four hours, the winds shifted around to the southeast and sped to 35 kts sustained, gusting to 45 kts. Seas built to solid 10-12 footers. Our tasking had us on an upswell, downswell ride on a track about 1.5 miles long. So, 20 minutes of a nice downswell ride, followed by a sketchy, sketchy turn to come about, and then 30 minutes of complete, 100% snot.

We'd been doing this for about 2 hours, when our tasking group came over the radio, and told us to head 14 miles away because they had a report of a Kuwaiti fishing vessel taking on water. I threw down a but, sir, recommending that one of the PCs might just have better sea keeping abilities in current conditions, and OH YEAH...they didn't have a HOLE IN THEIR HULL!!! And by the way, we were only making 7 kts into the swell so it would take us over two hours to get on scene because there was no *way* I was gonna try to speed up in that shit.

Thankfully, the taskers saw the wisdom in that logic, and make arrangements to send a PC. And fortunately, by the time the arrangements were made, another vessel had assisted the fishing vessel.

The weather stayed shamal-ly for the next 12 hours, and it was really weird once the winds did shift. Within 30 minutes, the winds shifted 180 degrees, but stayed up around 35-40 kts. The seas answered the winds, and for about two hours, it was a googly mess out there, as the northwest swell countered the southwest swell. But MAUI made it through, and we sailed safely back to Bahrain and drydock.

I did spend a significant amount of time second-guessing my reaction to the tasking. My operational commander had said the repairs were good enough to send us out to do the job. It's not a comfortable position to say that your ship is not safe enough to go out and potentially save lives. Are the lives of my crew more important than the lives of the unknown fishermen? Was there really a risk of us sinking? I assuaged my discomfort somewhat with the knowledge that there was another unit available and better suited to respond, but what if there hadn't been? Would I have turned down the tasking?

I think in some ways, a ship is more than just the ship. She's a triumvirate of the ship (the steel, the hull, the engines, the bridge), the crew, and the command. None can do without any of the others. And each has to implicitly and utterly without doubt, trust the others. I did not trust my ship in that case. I knew my crew would overcome whatever was thrown at them, but my poor, battered ship with a hole in her skin, she was having a hard time of it. And that undermined my confidence, which in turn undermined my effectiveness as the Captain.

So, is the Navy doing the right thing by tying up the ships? There's definitely an operational impact to what they're doing. I can only imagine what the scramble looks like to overcome the gap in coverage. And at least in the CG, we've got the FRCs on the way to replace the WPBs, so there is a long-term solution in the works.

But it's the meantime that worries me.

3 comments:

Liomoana said...

And the CG is supposed to thank the Navy for hand-me downs?

Just a Girl said...

I'm pretty sure the CG has already given back most of the PCs we were given. And they were a useful stop-gap between the loss of the unsuccessful 123s and the arrival of the remainder of the 87s. So, yeah, we do kinda gotta thank them for the assist.

tko24 said...

According to uscg.mil and a few other sources the 3 Cyclone class boats on loan from the Navy are still in CG commission. So the question is, what is the CG planning to do with them since the Navy is pulling them out of service??