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Coast Guard cutter visits Juneau

The Hamilton visits town after Bering Sea deployment

Posted: Sunday, February 06, 2011

The 378-foot high-endurance United States Coast Guard Cutter Hamilton, built and commissioned in 1967, docked in Juneau Friday after a three-month deployment in the Bering Sea.

Klas Stolpe / KLAS STOLPE
Klas Stolpe / KLAS STOLPE

Home ported in San Diego, the Hamilton serves under the Pacific Area Commander out of Alameda, Calif. Tactical command for the Alaska patrol was under Coast Guard District 17 and its commander, Rear Adm. Christopher C. Colvin.

This was the last scheduled Alaskan patrol for the Hamilton as it will be decommissioned this year and the crew will “cross-deck” to a similar cutter in this class and continue service in San Diego.

“I feel privileged to have the opportunity to be out here as the last commanding officer and make this last trip on Hamilton,” said Capt. Matt Gimple. “I learned about a unique tie with Rear Adm. Colvin relating how he had been on the ship as an executive officer, second in command, on one of the first passes the ship made to Alaska.”

Gimple has 22 years active commissioned service in the Coast Guard and took command of the Hamilton in June 2010. This mission started in San Diego Nov. 29, 2010.

The Hamilton’s 170-plus person crew on the Bering Sea patrol were responsible for search and rescue, conducting maritime fisheries law enforcement and enforcing national sovereignty missions such as going out to the maritime boundary line between Russia and the United States to monitor activity.

The Hamilton conducted 13 law enforcement boardings on this patrol; 12 of those were U.S.-flagged pot- or trawl-fishing vessels in the Bering Sea.

Boarding teams consist of four to six armed crewmen in 25-foot Over The Horizon (OTH) cutter boats.

An additional boarding was performed on a 450-foot cargo vessel coming from Korea to Dutch Harbor, verifying the crew list and searching the vessel in a three-hour sweep before the vessel entered the harbor.

“Fortunately there was just one search and rescue case,” Gimple said. “But we did a lot of training, deploying with a helicopter out of Air Station Kodiak.”

The Hamilton’s flight deck and hangar can handle Coast Guard and Navy helicopters, which extends the vessel’s rescue and law enforcement operations.

The crew is occupied with a full schedule of routine work on board even when not on duty, including standing watch, maintenance, cleanup, paperwork, training, preparing for a shipboard emergency and working on professional development, such as rank advancement.

Serving three meals a day to the contingent requires an inventory budget of more than $140,000 for a three-month patrol. The cutter’s bunking design is from the 1960s with 16-20 person berthing areas equipped with two- to three-high bunks. More senior officers bunk in four- or two-person rooms.

The Hamilton’s two 1,800 horsepower gas turbines propel it to speeds up to 28 knots; two additional 3,500 horsepower diesel engines allow for economical sailing at 17 knots for 9,600 miles without refueling. The Hamilton can carry 197,000 gallons of fuel and the ship fueled nine times on this mission.

“My philosophy is when you pull into port, refuel,” Gimple said as he stood on the deck watching crew take fuel in Juneau. “Don’t leave port without a full tank.”

In 1988, the Hamilton was renovated and modernized with improved navigation, radar, AIF for identifying ships and information on them, high-tech electronics and radio communications, including radios to communicate coded or classified information. The ship also has forward looking infrared radar for use at night.

As a small naval combatant, the Hamilton has a 76-millimeter main gun, 50-caliber machine gun, 25-millimeter machine gun, and law enforcement teams are armed like regular police with handguns and long guns.

Dutch Harbor was the hub for refueling, logistics, and crew rests during the mission. During large storms, the Hamilton might find a lee or shelter behind Unalaska Island or one of the islands in the area.

“We did that at least twice,” Gimple said. “Sometimes, as in the nature of our business, you are out in the middle of the Bering Sea and one of the storms come through and you just put the bow into the waves and wind and ride it out. We had the opportunity to enjoy that experience as well.”

Gimple, a former executive officer on the cutter Mellon during a winter into spring Alaska patrol in the Bering, wanted to highlight the scenic vistas of the trip for his crew, taking the Hamilton near the Arctic ice edge flowing through the Bering Strait, south of St. Matthews Island and above the Pribilof Islands.

“We were able to get up alongside the ice edge and see it and let the crew who hadn’t seen something like that experience it,” Gimple said. “The Hamilton wasn’t made to be an icebreaker, so we didn’t traverse into it. For me, coming back up and seeing the scenery was one of the highlights of the trip.”

Nicer days yielded views of Unimak Island and the volcanoes along the Aleutian Chain.

Gimple said the crew acclimated really well to the conditions. The Hamilton’s regular duty area is near Central America, conducting drug operations off of Columbia.

“We normally have a full compliment of surfboards,” Gimple laughed. “In this case most of those disappeared and were replaced with snowboards. There are some unconfirmed reports of some of our hardcore surfers in wet suits in Dutch Harbor finding a break somewhere. You can’t take the Southern California out of a surfer.”

A prior 2008 trip to Alaska involved the Hamilton working above the Arctic Circle studying how the ship operates in that environment and what the Coast Guard needs to do to enhance future missions there.

“We got to experience the good weather in the Bering Sea and the bad,” Gimple said. “We know how to handle the bad weather, this ship is made for extreme conditions.”

Gimple said the Hamilton went through a mid-January storm of 35-foot seas and winds gusting to 70 knots. On three occasions freezing spray and temperatures required the crew to break and chip away three inches of ice formed on the decks.

“We are enjoying the opportunity to spend a day in Juneau,” Gimple said. “It is nice to get out of the Gulf (of Alaska), come through Glacier Bay and enjoy Juneau with the new Coast Guard members who haven’t done that before.”

Hamilton public affairs officer and assistant navigator Lt. j.g. Ryan Newmar was born on the East Coast. He said he would cherish and remember this trip.

“This has definitely been an experience,” Newmar said. “Not just for the 35-foot seas but also the great sights. It was a learning experience, a lot different from what we are used to. Although I can’t wait to get an In-And-Out Burger at home I am definitely going to be thinking about glaciers.”

The Hamilton left Juneau Saturday for Chatham Strait, Queen Charlotte Sound, and the inside passage to Vancouver, British Columbia, then out the Strait of Juan de Fuca and down the coast to San Diego where they expect to arrive mid-February.

The Hamilton is named in honor of Alexander Hamilton, the first U.S. Secretary of the Treasury, who founded the Revenue Cutter Services in 1790. The Revenue Cutter Service was the forerunner of today’s Coast Guard.

• Contact Klas Stolpe at
523-2263 or klas.stolpe@juneauempire.com.



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