Coast Guard unveils its newest cutter; base will be Miami Beach

10/18/2012 5:38 AM

10/18/2012 6:53 AM

As the brand new Coast Guard cutter William Flores prepared to leave port in Miami Beach Wednesday morning, its 24 crew members stood at their posts.

Some were on the bridge, directing departure procedures. Others were on deck making sure docking lines were retrieved properly. Still others were inside the boat, including the galley where the cook began fixing lunch – pork chops and Goya garbanzo beans stewed in Puerto Rican Sofrito seasoning sauce.

Puerto Rico-born petty officer Rafael Rivera-Barrios was among crew members who on Wednesday took the 154-foot William Flores on a demonstration voyage in the Atlantic Ocean just east of Miami Beach.

The cutter will be based at the Coast Guard’s Miami Beach station after its commissioning ceremony in Tampa Nov. 3, honoring William Flores, a 19-year-old Mexican-American seaman apprentice who died while rescuing 27 shipmates when their cutter collided with an oil tanker near the entrance to Tampa Bay in 1980.

“To be able to serve on a ship that’s named after someone that is such a hero to our service, I have chills right now,” said Catherine Gillen, the William Flores’ executive officer.

The William Flores’ demonstration voyage Wednesday drew media attention partly because it came a day after the Cuban government announced the easing of travel restrictions, dropping its widely-despised exit permits for citizens traveling abroad as of Jan. 14.

But the William Flores did not encounter any Cuban migrants on rafts or boats as it plied the water off Miami Beach. Migrant interception is one of the missions of Coast Guard cutters assigned to patrol waters in South Florida, along with drug interdiction and search and rescue operations.

“We are always ready,” said Lt. Cmdr. Craig Allen, Jr., the captain.

During fiscal year 2012, which ended Sept. 30, at least 1,275 Cuban migrants were interdicted in the Florida Straits, according to Coast Guard figures. So far in fiscal year 2013, which began Oct. 1, at least 36 Cuban migrants have been intercepted.

Under the wet foot/dry foot policy, Cubans interdicted at sea are generally returned to the island while those who make it to shore are allowed to stay.

Though crew members of the William Flores were ready for any contingency, the goal of Wednesday’s mission was to show off the new cutter to the media and spark public interest in the coming commissioning ceremony.

“What we are trying to do is just garner some attention for our upcoming commissioning,” said Allen. “This is a big deal for the Coast Guard. It’s a new platform for the Coast Guard.”

Garner said the William Flores is the third Sentinel-class cutter built by Bollinger Shipyards, Inc., in Lockport, La. According to a Coast Guard brochure, the contract with Bollinger includes options for up to 34 fast response cutters like the William Flores. The first six will be delivered to Miami and the next six to Key West, according to the brochure.

The new vessels replace the aging fleet of 110-foot Island-class cutters.

Perhaps the most popular crew member, whom everyone aboard praised, was Rivera-Barrios who -- to a record of Edith Piaf singing La Vie En Rose -- showed how he fixed pork chops and the side dish of stewed garbanzo in Sofrito.

“I would say he is one of the best cooks in the Coast Guard,” said boat’s mate first class Christopher Valdés, also from Puerto Rico, who is in charge of supervising deck operations, and piloted a small response boat launched to perform maneuvers around the cutter while photographers and cameramen shot pictures.

The highlight of the 2 ½-hour trip was the launching of a small boat typically used to check suspicious activity near the cutter as it patrols at sea.

The boat, piloted by Valdés, is launched from a rear platform – released quickly as if it were a rocket leaving a spaceship. Once it splashes into the water, it operates on its own power like a fast boat.

It was launched three times and performed similar evolutions around the William Flores so all the photographers could shoot still pictures and videos.

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