2014 09 12 Friday
The event started late in the afternoon. We received a rather vague notification that a vessel of interest (VOI) may be heading through our operations area. It figured because we had just lost yet our fourth helicopter to mechanical failure. On the upside, we were supposed to be getting a C-130 sometime in the evening. OPS said there was a 50/50 chance we’d see something. I finished my watch and headed up to the bridge to talk with the ensigns and have a look around. About 30 minutes into my visit, I damn near cut off the top of my right ear with a giant pair of binoculars mounted to the bridge rail. Later, after Doc glued the wound shut, I decided it would be best to lay below and go to bed.
At about 0130, maybe 4 or 5 hours later, the constant and shrill law enforcement/collision alarm sounded throughout the ship. Everyone held their breath, waiting on the announcement as to whether or not they were sounding collision or setting the law enforcement bill. Groggy, we roused ourselves, dressed out, and prepared for what was to come. I made it to CIC (Combat Information Center), also known as “combat,” or “OPCEN”, and plopped myself down in front of the COMDAC/COMARPA/COP workstation. After reading the intel notes, I plotted our position and that of the suspect vessel our C-130 had apparently just spotted. The room was full of people, all four operations specialists, an ensign, the CO, XO, and OPS. It quickly became a scene out of a movie. Three or four radios were going off at once; people were talking over each other: numbers, coordinates, vectors, furious note-taking, and event logging.
A buddy of mine was operating the FLIR (forward-looking infrared) thermal camera next to me. At the same time, I continuously updated our position and changed the VOI to a TOI (target of interest). In this part of the world, most VOIs are referred to as a “panga.” The C-130 overhead had issues with its radar and was reduced to strictly visual observation of us and the panga. They kept requesting to go lower to get a better fix, but that might have let the target know we were on to them. OPS was insistent that they not go to “overt” status. Honestly, the sea state was so rough for any vessel under 100 feet that I doubt the occupants would have even equated the rumble of the aircraft’s engines with a potential threat. The plane would have had to buzz the panga at tree-top height for them to hear and recognize it. OPS, however, had done this much more than I have, and being too aggressive too early can tip your hand. So, we continued the overly complex game of Battleship with the aircraft calling out positions as we relayed that data to the small boat we’d lowered into the frothing sea. A twenty-four-foot boat does not do well in eight-foot waves, especially in the dark.
Finally, after an hour that felt like an eternity, my friend spotted a shape in the grey-scale haze that was the FLIR image. The panga was so loaded down that her gunnels were maybe a foot out of the water. The shape blended in perfectly with the waves and was damn near impossible to see. This is what it must feel like to hunt foxes. The captain had gotten into it; he was on my left, calling out directions for the small boat. We vectored our hound in on the fox, a bobbing sliver of wood and fiberglass on the water. The panga operators must have finally heard something because they throttled up and started to run. We had them on camera and in range. They weren’t getting away. Part of me itched to go down and rip the cover off the 25mm cannon to bring the chase to an appropriate climax of thunder fire and gore.
It is difficult to understand the stress and hardship a small boat operator endures in those conditions. It is absolute darkness. The only light is the dim glow of the compass bulb and radio screens. They cannot see the waves to anticipate the impact of the bow on the water, much less read the wind and ocean to smooth out the ride. With the cutter running dark and three miles behind, they may as well be three hundred miles out and alone. All they know is that there is a panga somewhere out there with them, maybe armed, maybe not. The hound doesn’t know if it is chasing a fox into an empty log or a badger’s den. The only direction they receive is over a patchy radio connection. “20 degrees off your port bow… 90 degrees to starboard, big wave coming, brace! … They’re dead ahead 20 yards! … Circle back. You just missed them….”
The coxswain’s (pronounced cock-sun’s) eyes are a pair of boarding team members using night vision, which is like looking at the world through the cardboard tube inside a roll of paper towels. There isn’t enough light to pick out the horizon; even if they could, the waves would blot it out at forty feet. After dozens of near misses and moments when we thought they might jump the next wave and land in the panga, the coxswain sang out. “We’ve got ‘em! Closing distance! They’re DIW (dead in the water), commencing boarding!”
He began rattling off numbers, names, and descriptions of the illicit cargo and craft. The adrenaline still hammering through our veins begins to run out. Now it is down to custody, paperwork, offloading the cargo, and ensuring our TACON (tactical control) is fully aware of what’s happening. Making arrests in international waters can be a bureaucratically messy affair. TACON says “Good job,” to file everything in triplicate and to keep them appraised. The sun wasn’t even up yet.
Navigation, tactical maneuvering, and apprehension over and done. I was hungry. Time to let the ensigns handle the case package paperwork. After a bit of bacon, eggs, and coffee, I stripped down and crawled back into bed.
K.C. Aud has made a career of being lucky and has managed to find something positive in nearly every poor decision he’s ever made, even if it was only a new perspective on how not to do something.
Enlisting in the U.S. Coast Guard in 2010 he became an Operations Specialist (radio and navigation) and did his first tour in Georgia guarding submarines from drunk fishermen. In 2014, tired of the heat and the bugs he transferred to a 210-foot medium endurance cutter in Washington state. The cutter then regularly deployed to the hot and buggy west coast of Central America to hunt down drug runners. Aboard USCGC Active he traveled 94,194 miles and personally handled enough cocaine to keep a small country high for a decade. Somewhere in there, he learned to write, if not spell.
Three years later, daunted by the prospect of spending the rest of his career in a windowless command center, he separated from active duty. After 13 different jobs ranging from beer brewer to dairy farmhand, to machinist, to Navy civilian contractor, he reenlisted in 2020 as a Coast Guard reservist, changing rates to Maritime Law Enforcement Specialist. When not helping the Navy assets in the Puget Sound troubleshoot radios, he’s on drill in Seattle doing water cop stuff and or flailing away at his keyboard. Though married and now a father, he misses the mission.
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