The U.S. Coast Guard is known for sending off its captains in style, but Friday's ceremony on a lawn at the Los Angeles waterfront had some special flourishes.
The staff chose to wear their full dress blues, with white gloves and swords strapped to their sides. A cadre of helicopters flew overhead. And as the ceremony ended, a city fireboat sent streams of water shooting toward the sky.
The captain of the port, Peter V. Neffenger, was stepping down from a job that has become more prominent since 9/11.
Under overcast skies at the Coast Guard's local headquarters on Terminal Island in San Pedro, 200 public officials and other guests showed up for the change of command ceremony. They gathered in the salty air at the water's edge, giant port cranes looming on the skyline and a bevy of boats belonging to the Coast Guard and other enforcement agencies waiting at attention offshore.
As the local commander, Neffenger oversaw the port area and 320 miles of California coastline, from Morro Bay to the San Diego County line.
Most people think his agency spends its time searching for missing fishing boats or rescuing wayward sailing crews. But amid growing concerns about terrorism, the Coast Guard has taken on a major role in homeland security, guarding the nation's coastline and its seaports while also assisting with military operations in Iraq.
Neffenger has won strong praise from law-enforcement officials for reaching out to them to plan anti-terrorism activities for the Los Angeles and Long Beach ports, the largest seaports in the country.
The twin ports handle an estimated 47% of the nation's seaborne container cargo, and officials worry that terrorists might seek to shut down port operations, bringing the U.S. economy to a virtual standstill.
In a region with numerous public safety agencies, a coordinated response would be a challenge.
So Neffenger oversaw the launch of what became the nation's first maritime security committee, with members representing more than 20 federal, state and local agencies
On Friday, some of those agencies saluted him.
The Los Angeles Fire Department sent a helicopter and one of its newest and largest fireboats, the Warner Lawrence, which in just a minute can spout 38,000 gallons of water forcefully enough to send it over the Vincent Thomas Bridge.
"It was something that we just wanted to do in honoring Capt. Neffenger, who has served in a real leadership capacity down here at the port during his tenure," said Battalion Chief Lou Roupoli. While agencies had their own emergency plans, he said, "what he was able to do was to get us to recognize how we had to come together and try to formulate a plan that would be united."
Long Beach Mayor Beverly O'Neill commended Neffenger and his predecessor, Capt. John Holmes, for their security planning. "The coordinated effort has been a model. It's become a vital part of our homeland security," she said.
From Washington, Congresswoman Jane Harman issued a statement commending Neffenger and Holmes for leadership. "Everything changed on 9/11, and the Coast Guard role at the port complex is totally changed," said Harman, ranking member on the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence.
Port security has become a hot-button issue nationwide in recent months amid criticism that the federal government's security measures are lax and severely underfunded. Harman and others on Capitol Hill are calling for more funding to protect ports nationwide.
The Coast Guard's duties widened three years ago when it was moved from the Department of Transportation to the Department of Homeland Security.
The Los Angeles command also changed, with the merging of the marine safety office and other units to create what is now known as Coast Guard Sector Los Angeles, under Neffenger's command.
Neffenger, 50, local commander since July 2003, is moving to Coast Guard headquarters in Washington to be chief of programs and budgets -- a job, one officer quipped, that makes him the most powerful captain in the Coast Guard. He passed the command Friday to Capt. Paul E. Wiedenhoeft, who has served as his deputy commander since last summer.
The ceremony was a formal one, with an invocation, benediction and the playing of "Semper Paratus," the Coast Guard anthem.
Just as Wiedenhoeft took command, the fireboat began spouting, first slowly, then so fiercely that spray blew ashore and the boat was scarcely visible in the mist. Five helicopters from the Fire Department and other agencies swooped overhead, in a fittingly coordinated salute to the outgoing captain.