Visiting cutter headed to Arctic
Heidi Zemach | For The LOG
The USCG Bertholt, docked over the weekend at the Alaska Railroad/cruise ship dock.
During a five-month deployment that has already included an exercise in Honolulu, south Panama and the Aleutian Islands, the new U.S. Coast Guard cutter Bertholf arrived in Seward this weekend to give its crew of 118 a little recreation and relaxation before traveling to other areas, including the Arctic Ocean for its new mission, “Arctic Shield.” The 415-foot national security cutter Bertholf, home ported in Alameda, Calif ., is named after the Coast Guard’s first commandant, Ellsworth Prince Bertholf, who in 1897 led an expedition that herded reindeer with teams of dog-sleds across 1,600 miles of frozen tundra to help feed 200 starving whalers, trapped in the ice at Point Barrow.
But it is the legends to come that will truly mark this ship’s history. Already, the Bertholf was the first and largest in its class of new U.S. National Security cutters to be built. It was commissioned in 2008, and since, there have been two other national security cutters built of the eight planned.
The Bertholf also is making history as the first cutter to patrol the Arctic Ocean where new navigable shipping channels are fast opening with the melting of sea ice. Although it will be providing security throughout Alaska territorial waters, it will soon be headed to patrol the Chuckchi and Beaufort seas, for as long as, and wherever the floating ice allows. The cutter’s mission is to provide safety and security in the area, and meanwhile to test its capabilities and limitations in the Arctic, and that of the other Coast Guard cutters.
The ship’s captain, Tom Crabbs, promises to take particular caution in caring for the safety of the ship and crew in this remote, largely unexplored marine territory. After all, he said, the cutter is not an icebreaker, and relatively little is known about what it can do there. The captain expects the Coast Guard’s Arctic mission will continue well into the future, with the assistance of other cutters.
A driving factor for its Arctic presence is also Shell Oil Company’s drilling plans off Alaska’s coast. The oil company will bring 33 ships and 500 people to the North Slope, and shuttle 250 people in weekly on helicopters to work on drilling platforms.
Greenpeace International, and a crew of environmental activists and researchers are also currently there with its largest protest vessel, Esperanza. That vessel also stopped in Seward recently for repairs, and to change out crew members before heading to the Arctic, where it is conducting research in areas that Shell Oil, and other oil companies hope to develop.
Heidi Zemach | For The LOG
USCG Bertholt’s Captain Tom Crabbs relaxes in front of the ship Sunday before traveling to Kodiak, and then to the Arctic Ocean.
Another of the Bertholf’s capabilities will be patrolling and engaging illegal high seas driftnet fishing operations that cross international maritime boundaries. Captain Crabbs has participated in some of the Coast Guard’s driftnet monitoring operations in the past, and says this ship is far better equipped to actually engage, and hopefully catch future violators. Unlike older cutters, the Bertholf has dedicated ballast tanks that allow the ship to maintain its stability over extended periods of time, he explained. Older cutters that must continually take in seawater along with spent fuel, have to move elsewhere to offload their ballast, so they can’t stay in one area long.
The engines also are more environmentally friendly, and far more efficient than the older cutters, he said, although it still uses diesel fuel.
The Bertholf also carries two helicopters on board that it can launch from the deck — an HH-60 Jayhawk and an MH-65 Dolphin. It carries two smaller boats that can be launched, and an unmanned aerial drone. It has state-of-the-art machine gun fighting capabilities.
Captain Crabbs thanked the people of Seward, and the American Legion for the warm reception given to him and his crew. Looking at the surrounding mountains with patches of snow, glimmering bay and warm sunshine, he said it looked like Switzerland.