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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Friday, July 15, 2005

Battered Guard cutter navigating rough seas

By Curtis Lum
Advertiser Staff Writer

The Coast Guard ship Jarvis, a 378-foot high-endurance cutter based in Honolulu, is shown surrounded by ice in the Bering Sea in this undated photograph.

Advertiser library photo

Michael Jett

When Capt. Michael Jett enlisted in the Coast Guard in 1967, he dreamed of commanding a high-endurance cutter. But Jett never imagined that he would be the commander of one of the ships that came online more than three decades ago.

The Honolulu-based Jarvis is one of two 378-foot cutters home-ported in Honolulu and is among an aging fleet of Coast Guard ships and aircraft requiring constant repair and maintenance. Military and elected officials have said plans to replace the Coast Guard's assets over the next 20 years need to be accelerated to allow it to carry out its post-Sept. 11 mission.

The so-called "deepwater" replacement program calls for $20 billion to be spent over a 20-year period, but that could be increased to 25 years under a White House plan. Some of the Coast Guard's boats are 50 years old. The Jarvis was built in 1970 and commissioned in 1972.

The Jarvis primarily patrols Alaskan waters and the Western Pacific, enforcing U.S. laws and treaties. The crew also hunts down drug smugglers and takes part in exercises with other nations to fight terrorism.

Over the years, the Jarvis has taken a beating as it has traveled through rough waters. Jett said his crew frequently performs repair and maintenance work, rather than its usual duties because of problems with the aging ship.

The Jarvis is on a 90-day patrol mission but recently was forced to dock at Adak, Alaska, for two days of repairs. Jett said one diesel engine is down and can't be replaced until the Jarvis returns to Honolulu at the end of this month, while a turbine is running at reduced capacity.

At any given time, Jett said, something is broken on the Jarvis. Despite its problems, the Jarvis is among the better-conditioned ships in the Coast Guard, he said.

"We're in reasonably good shape, but it is very time-consuming to repair all these things and keep it up and try to do our job at the same time," Jett said.

One of the constant problems is the ship's electrical system, because most of the instruments are outdated, he said.

"As soon as a new electrical piece is developed, the old pieces are forgotten and not supported. Typically a lot of things in the electronics arena are pretty difficult to repair or replace," Jett said.

With one engine down, the Jarvis is at a handicap when pursuing smaller and faster vessels. During a recent operation off Ecuador, Jett said, his crew had to board a Navy vessel to track down and seize a drug boat.

"It's a difficult situation," he said.

In a pursuit, he said most merchant ships cruise at 22 knots, while the Jarvis can do 20 knots, 7 knots below its normal speed.

"During an intercept or if we're chasing someone or trying to get away from somebody who's trying to attack us, we're at reduced capacity and it clearly causes problems," Jett said.

The Jarvis is working with counterparts from Japan, South Korea, China and Canada, but Jett said the Jarvis is having difficulties keeping up with the foreign fleets.

"They had to slow down to wait for us," Jett said.

"Our Coast Guardsmen are very proud of who they are and what they do, and when they got an opportunity to see the kind of ships and equipment that Japan had and Korea had, it was a big eye-opener as far as being not on the top, but third from the bottom," he said. The Jarvis has a crew of 165.

Capt. Paul Zukunft, chief of staff of the Coast Guard in Hawai'i, said the problems with the Jarvis are "not insurmountable" and the aging fleet has not interfered with the Coast Guard's mission. But he said crew members and other personnel have to work "twice as hard" to keep the vessels operating.

Zukunft said the Coast Guard has extended its normal patrol cycles from 60 days at sea and 60 days at home to a 90-day cycle. This allows crews more time to work on the vessels.

"Those 60 days were barely enough and sometimes insufficient for them to get everything fixed to go out an execute their next patrol," he said.

Last year, the Coast Guard lost 200 patrol days in the Pacific because of mechanical and electrical problems.

"We've still been able to execute our missions," he said. "But all of the engineers are working 18 hours a day just to get every last bolt torqued down to make sure all of the systems are up and running."

Jett said he's been told the Jarvis will have to be in service for another 10 years and he hopes the vessel can hold out that long. He said he would prefer to see the money spent on repairs go to building new equipment.

"We have some very talented men and women aboard to make sure we do what we can do. But there are certain things structurally that they can't do that much about," he said.

Jett said it's ironic that he would be serving on a vessel that was the pride of the Coast Guard more than three decades ago.

"When I started in 1967 these ships were coming online and I used to be very envious to be on a ship like this," said Jett, who took command of the Jarvis in 2003. "But that was 1967 and we've gone through numerous wars and engagements since then and I had no idea that toward the end of my career that I would eventually wind up as commanding officer of a ship that came online when I joined."