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Why the Bertholf matters to Alaska

Posted: April 16, 2011 - 9:26pm

The U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Bertholf stopped into the State Capitol for a brief port visit earlier this week. It was the first Alaskan port visit for this new class of ship that will become critically important to Alaska. Symbolic of its importance, Governor Parnell went aboard and graciously thanked the crew for their service to Alaska and the Nation.

The Bertholf was named after the first “commandant” of the Coast Guard, Commodore Ellsworth Price Bertholf who led the Coast Guard from 1911-1919.

Of course Coast Guard cutters patrolled Alaska long before Bertholf’s time as Commandant. After the Senate ratified the treaty-purchase of Alaska from Russia on April 9, 1867, the Cutter Lincoln was dispatched north to carry the United States Flag and first U.S. agent to Sitka.

Bertholf is famous for his participation in the Alaskan Overland Expedition as a junior officer aboard Revenue Cutter BEAR in 1897.

The Overland Expedition began when the White House received word that eight whaling ships and crews were trapped in heavy ice above Point Barrow, Alaska.

President McKinley directed the famous Revenue Cutter Bear to head north to rescue the sailors.

Unfortunately, due to the lateness of the season, the Bear became stymied by heavy ice in December near Nunivak Island.

Lieutenants Jarvis, Bertholf and the ship’s surgeon Dr. Samuel Call volunteered to forge ahead and attempt to rescue the sailors.

Disembarking Bear, the intrepid trio raced north 1500 miles by dogsled, in the dead of the Arctic winter, herding 300 reindeer.

In March of 1898 they arrived on scene and saved 265 starving sailors.

The rescue was followed closely by media throughout the United States. Congress presented Bertholf, Jarvis and Call specially minted gold medals commemorating their remarkable feat.

Aptly named for a ship expected to routinely patrol Alaskan waters; the Seventeenth Coast Guard District looks forward to seeing how well Bertholf will perform in the extreme weather and vast distances of the challenging Alaskan maritime operating environment.

Eight, new, 418’ Bertholf class cutters are planned to be built to replace the twelve, aging Hamilton class cutters that served Alaska so well for so many years.

When the cruise ship Prinsedam sank in the Gulf of Alaska in 1980, it was the Hamilton class cutters Boutwell and Mellon that responded to rescue 520 passengers and crew.

When the oil tanker Exxon Valdez ran aground in Prince William Sound in 1989, it was the Hamilton class cutter Rush that provided seaborne and airborne command and control.

When the fishing vessel Alaska Ranger sank far out in the Aleutians in 2008, it was the Hamilton class cutter Munro that responded and rescued 20 of 42 surviving crew members.

Just this past February when the fishing vessel Terrigail was driven aground in heavy surf north of Unalaska Island, it was the Hamilton class cutter Morgenthau that responded and rescued all five crew members.

And in February, Hamilton said goodbye to Juneau and Alaska making her last Alaskan port call in the State Capitol before heading south to be decommissioned.

Not only did Hamilton class cutters conduct major rescues and serve prominently in major events in Alaska, the Hamilton class cutters ushered in a new era of fisheries management in 1976 known as the Magnuson Stevens Fisheries Conservation Management Act (FCMA).

These 378’ cutters enforced the FCMA and helped preserve the world’s largest, most sustainable biomass in the Bering Sea and Gulf of Alaska. This was at a time in the late-70’s and early-80’s when foreign fishing vessels were ruthlessly vacuuming the Bering Sea clean of fish.

What remarkable service Hamilton class cutters have provided to Alaska and the Nation.

Their day job was to help maintain the Bering Sea and Gulf of Alaska fisheries biomass; the model of fisheries sustainability for the world.

Their night job was responding to and making incredible rescues in horrendous weather conditions long before Deadliest Catch became a household name.

Hamilton class cutters have returned the lives of many Alaskans that would otherwise have been lost to the sea and helped sustain the remarkable Alaskan fisheries industry that feeds much of the Nation and the world.

Unfortunately, when fish are gone they seem to be gone forever as demonstrated by the results of various nations overfishing the unpatrolled, unregulated, international “donut” area of the Central Bering Sea.

In the adjacent United States Exclusive Economic Zone the regulated, sustainable fisheries industry protected by Coast Guard Cutters has become a two billion dollar a year enterprise that catches and processes more metric tons of fish in Alaska than the rest of the United States combined.

Two billion dollars is important. Protecting the environment is important. Saving lives is priceless.

And now Hamilton, commissioned in 1967 has passed the flag to Bertholf.

Fewer and fewer Hamilton class cutters will be seen in Alaskan waters over the next several years. The “378’s” as Coasties affectionately call them, built in the late 60’s and early 70’s will all be decommissioned during the next few years.

Bertholf, Waesche and Stratton, are the first three of the Hamilton class replacements. A fourth is currently being built with arrangements being made to build a fifth. Eventually the Nation plans to build eight Bertholf class cutters.

For Alaska, it is important that the eight new Bertholf class cutters come on line as quickly as possible.

The Bering Sea and Gulf of Alaska routinely see “no name” hurricane force storms for over half the year.

The challenge of man versus extreme weather in Alaskan waters is well-documented by the popular TV show Deadliest Catch.

With the exception of the Bertholf and Hamilton class cutters plus one old Navy ship, Coast Guard Cutter Alex Haley home ported in Kodiak, no other Coast Guard cutters are capable of safely and effectively operating year round in the Bering Sea and Gulf of Alaska.

As Hamilton class cutters quietly fade away, much of the future safety and success of the Alaskan maritime rides with the aptly named Bertholf.

The Bertholf is the latest in a long line of cutters that have protected, defended and helped preserve the Alaskan way of life.

And with “at best” only eight Bertholf class cutters to replace 12 Hamilton class cutters; and with essentially no other cutters capable of safely and effectively operating year round in Alaska, the Bertholf class becomes even more important to Alaska.

That’s why Bertholf “matters” to Alaska; because the maritime is critically important to Alaska.

After all, Alaska, with more coastline than the rest of the Nation combined, is the Nation’s foremost maritime State.

• Colvin is the Seventeenth Coast Guard District commander based in Juneau. During his afloat career Rear Admiral Colvin conducted Alaskan patrols aboard Hamilton and sister ships Morgenthau, Sherman, and Midgett. He was also assigned to Mohawk and commanded Cape Upright, Diligence and Hamilton class cutter Dallas.

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