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Coast Guard sidelines 8 cutters

Failed renovations take the craft out of service. Other vessels will be brought in to patrol the Florida Straits.

December 04, 2006|Robert Nolin | South Florida Sun-Sentinel

FORT LAUDERDALE, FLA. — Eight Coast Guard cutters have been sidelined in Key West by $93 million worth of failed renovations, but officials said their duties would be assumed by other vessels and aircraft.

The cutters taken out of service have been responsible for migrant interdiction, drug patrols and search and rescue in the Florida Straits.

"We have a number of other cutters, small boats and aircraft at our disposal to maintain the presence we always have in the Florida Strait," Petty Officer Jennifer Johnson said in Miami. "They can come from anywhere in the Coast Guard, but the details of that are sensitive and unreleasable."

The loss of eight out of 10 Key West cutters won't affect Broward or Palm Beach counties, Johnson said. Their area of responsibility is Key West and the Florida Straits, and there is a "slew" of cutters in Miami and Fort Lauderdale ready for action, she said. A total of 52 cutters are assigned to the Coast Guard's 7th District, which encompasses the Florida, Georgia and South Carolina coasts.

The eight cutters were declared temporarily unseaworthy and remained moored at a pier in Key West. "What will actually happen to them physically is unknown," Johnson said.

"We tied them up until we can find an engineering solution," said Cmdr. Jeff Carter with the Coast Guard's Washington, D.C., office.

The 110-foot vessels had undergone refittings in which their sterns were extended 13 feet as part of a service-wide modernization program. Problems soon appeared.

"They have significant deck cracking, hull deformation and some problems with [propeller] shaft alignment," Johnson said.

"We have for a while been utilizing additional cutters from other districts to manage the gap in operations the 123s couldn't meet," Johnson said. "We're going to have to evaluate how many more assets we're going to bring in."

Johnson said the shift of other vessels to Key West wouldn't cause a vacuum in their home areas. "Cutters move around quite a bit," she said. "We routinely have cutters from other districts, other states, transit down here."

Carter said the fill-ins could come from anywhere along the East Coast. "As a general rule, we don't disclose where we're going to be moving assets, but it's not uncommon for vessels as far away as New England to come down to patrol the Caribbean," Carter said.

Buoy tenders could even assume some patrols, Johnson said. "We'll still be here," she said. "We'll just look different."

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