ANCHORAGE - Elite squads of anti-terrorist maritime police embarked on a new mission in Alaska last September.
The officers, called sea marshals, load their guns and don bulletproof vests and orange float coats marked U.S. Coast Guard in bold white letters.
That visibility is crucial for the deterrent aspect of the job: to make somebody think twice before taking over a cruise ship in Seward or riding a foreign freighter into Valdez Arm.
The marshals probably will never know whether they made a terrorist change course, said Cmdr. Robert Forgit, who created the state's sea marshals program as head of port security for Western Alaska.
"We want the message to be clear that the Coast Guard is out there," Forgit said.
The sea marshals, together with long airport lines, are the most visible face of counter-terrorism in Alaska and are a big part of the Coast Guard's new homeland security program.
Since Sept. 11, the Coast Guard here has spent $17 million on homeland security and added about 48 positions, many of them in Valdez. Since last fall, sea marshals clocking in more than 3,500 hours have boarded more than 70 boats and ships.
On one day, a team might climb aboard an oil tanker outside Kachemak Bay, muscling up a pilot ladder in choppy seas. On another, they might double-check security plans aboard tankers in Nikiski bearing liquefied natural gas overseas.
Or, as on Saturday, an armed boarding team might walk the gangway into the 109,000-ton cruise ship Star Princess docked in Seward with about 2,500 people on board.
Marshals toured the ship's 16 decks, checked the crew's immigration papers and reviewed on-board security measures with Staff Capt. Tony Herriott and security chief Alex Groves.
The United States faces a steep learning curve defending against possible attacks on home soil, said Groves, a British Army veteran who did a tour in Belfast in 1986 before he was 18.
"To be brutally honest, you've had it rather gentle until now," Herriott said.
Forgit created the sea marshals from scratch last year.
Other commanders added about 36 positions to operations in Valdez. An entire unit was formed to protect the port where tankers get oil from the trans-Alaska oil pipeline, one of the state's few obvious targets.
The five 110-foot cutters stationed in Alaska rotate one at a time through the Valdez harbor on regular patrols. Many new personnel patrol a new security zone around the tanker port from two new 27-foot boats.
People regularly on the water and dockside say they're seeing more of the Coast Guard with its stepped-up security role.
Passengers on glacier cruises have noticed instant cutter escorts as they sail into Valdez Arm. Commercial fishing boats out of Cordova report cutter crews turning them back to the dock for safety violations. People boarding ferries might spot uniformed Coast Guard patrols walking the docks.
So far, all those cutters, small boats and increased patrols have yet to run across any sign of terrorist activity, commanders in Juneau and Anchorage said.
"People in Alaska really recognize the impact of the maritime industry on the state economy. They want to make sure nothing happens on their watch," said Capt. John Schott, the Coast Guard's Alaska chief of operations.
Distributed by The Associated Press.
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