Drug smuggling and rescues on the high seas

“MAYDAY! MAYDAY!... My boat is sinking...!”

This was the distress call heard recently by U.S. Coast Guard radio operators up and down the California coast.

The Coast Guard (USCG) immediately launched helicopters, airplanes and cutters in an effort to save the crew of the civilian pleasure boat.

But the crew and boat were never found.

The next day, the MAYDAY calls continued, and USCG staff monitoring the frantic calls for help on Very High Frequency Channel 16, the international hailing and distress channel, again dispatched search and rescue teams to find the vessel.

But, once again, the search was unsuccessful.

That’s because the caller was not in distress and was not in a sinking boat. He was making bogus, hoax calls. “All distress calls must be treated as if they were real, no matter whether Coast Guard officials think the call is bogus. I imagine there are people who get some sort of satisfaction out of manipulating the government and seeing the government boats and helicopters,” said USCG LT. S. Arumae, who participated in the search.

Dispatching search and rescue crews to reports of boat sinkings, real or fake, is all in a day’s work for the USCG’s Pacific Area Command headquartered on Coast Guard Island in Alameda near Oakland, I was told by Chief Warrant Officer 2 Allyson Conway, spokesperson for the command that encompasses Nevada, Alaska, Washington, Oregon, California, Hawaii, Guam and the other U.S. territories in the Pacific and even Antarctica.

The USCG, which traces its roots to the U.S. Revenue Service founded in early August 1790 and is celebrating its 225th anniversary this month, is a 24/7 operation that not only rescues boaters in distress but has the equally critical responsibilities of port and homeland security, maritime law enforcement and safety, aid to navigation and drug interdiction, according to Conway.

Many of us are thrilled and captivated by tales of the USCG’s daring interdiction and capture on the high seas of drug smuggling boats and their crews, and just last week I read newspaper reports about the USCG cutter Narwahl’s seizure of more than $1 billion in cocaine from a smuggler’s vessel off the coast of San Diego. The cargo, which weighed about 66,000 pounds, was the biggest haul in Coast Guard history and one of 23 drug interdictions during the current fiscal year. This year, the USCG has already seized more than 119,000 pounds of cocaine worth more than $1.8 billion and has apprehended 215 alleged smugglers. These figures amount to more than the previous three year totals combined, Coast Guard officials reported.

Another San Diego-area high seas drug bust also was carried out by the Narwahl, an 87-foot patrol boat which carries a crew of 11, has a wide stern ramp that allows it to launch and retrieve rigid inflatable boats and is named for a whale that has a large, sword-like and spiraled ivory tusk which protrudes from its lip.

While on patrol, the Narwahl’s crew spotted a flat-bottomed “panga,” a type of boat often used by smugglers, heading north from San Diego at low speed. But as the sun went down, it reversed course and headed south at high speed. That suspicious behavior, coupled with the fact that the boat had turned its lights off, caused the Nawahl, which can reach 25 knots, to give chase.

During the 3 1/2-mile pursuit, the captain and crew of the suspicious panga began tossing bales of marijuana overboard. The Narwahl, however, had to give up the chase when it entered Mexican waters. The cutter’s crew, though, retrieved from the sea 126 waterproof bags of marijuana which weighed nearly 10,000 pounds and were worth about $132 million.

While participating in still other high seas adventures:

The Narwahl performed a hazardous nighttime rescue of a man who had fallen overboard from a yacht. The Narwahl’s captain was startled to learn the poor fellow was his nephew! He was discovered by the cutter the following morning after treading water for more than six hours. The Narwahl also has saved four passengers aboard a sinking sailboat; one of them was six months old, and it rescued an ocean kayaker who had become overcome by heat exhaustion.

I also was saved by the U.S. Coast Guard, but my saving was on dry land.

Three years ago — April 16, 2012, to be exact — I was taking photos of wrecked ships on the tiny island of Aun’uu in the American Samoan chain when I was horribly bitten by a roaming pack of wild dogs.

Transported by boat to the Lyndon B. Johnson Hospital in Pago Pago, the territory’s capital, I underwent surgery to stitch up the bites that reached down to the large bone of my left leg. (The scars are still quite visible, and I’d be pleased to show them to readers of this column as well as expand my remarks about my visit with the wild dogs of Samoa.)

Following hospitalization, I took a taxi back to my hotel, but upon arrival there I remembered that the elevator was not working and I would be unable to walk up the countless stone steps to the lobby and perform a further painful hike to my second-floor room.

Earlier that day, I had met several officers in the hotel’s restaurant who were assigned to the 417-foot USCG cutter Waesche that was stopping in Pago Pago for a week during a 90-day goodwill tour throughout the Eastern Pacific. While I was bewailing my plight in the back seat of the filthy taxi after returning from the hospital, one of the Waesche’s officers walked by! I leaned out the window and told him of my condition, and he immediately summoned four of his colleagues from the hotel who joined him in carrying me up the steep stairs to my room.

In a few minutes, sandwiches, a piece of chocolate cake topped with vanilla ice cream, and a large bottle of ice cold orange juice were brought to my room by my saviors. They refused to accept reimbursement, chatted with me as I devoured my dinner, and helped me into bed.

Hats off to the men of the USCGC Waesche! Hats off to the U.S. Coast Guard!

David C. Henley is Publisher Emeritus and may be reached at news@lahontanvalleynews.com.


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