Thursday, November 01, 2007
Boarding a ship is a risky operation. A lot can go wrong quickly, and Navy ship-boarding teams have to be ready for anything, from armed pirates to terrorists. But nobody does it better than the U.S. Coast Guard, whose experience and expertise at boarding ships big and small are widely regarded as unmatched. "It's part of our normal jobs," Coast Guard Petty Officer 2nd Class Jeffrey Huff said. "The Coast Guard has always performed boardings." That is why the U.S. Navy and countries from the Persian Gulf are turning to the Coast Guard to learn the best techniques and tactics when it comes to boarding a potentially hostile ship. Four veteran Coast Guard members run a small training school for boarding teams on this tiny island nation in the Persian Gulf. Since 2005, they have offered crews a chance to hone the skills they have and learn new ways of performing the adrenaline-pumping missions. The team also offers refresher courses for Coast Guard cutter teams deployed to the gulf along with more tailored training for allied nations in the region. The United Arab Emirates and Bahrain have sent teams to be tutored by the Coast Guard instructors. Members of the Coast Guard cutter Monomoy took part in training last week to brush up on their tactics.The makeshift classroom near the pier is made of stacks of empty cargo crates converted to resemble the inside of a ship. During practice runs, boarding teams use pellet guns to make it a little more realistic. Coast Guard cutter crews go through the course between port calls, about every two months. The course is required for crews to remain certified at what teams call "noncompliant" boardings - the missions that involve the most danger. During the course, teams must clear rooms of any threats, learn when to use deadly force and how to avoid getting killed or hurt. On the final day, members of the Monomoy had to use a blowtorch to cut through rusty metal. That exercise gives boarding teams some familiarity with using the torch to slice through a sealed compartment on a ship. Throughout the training, instructors critique performances. "We give them pointers," said Coast Guard Chief Petty Officer Jesse Carns, assistant officer in charge of the Middle East training team. "We tell them, 'Hey, this could better or this could be better.'" Although Navy and U.S. Coast Guard boarding teams rarely come across a hostile crew, those who have performed dozens of boardings say they have to be ready for that possibility. In those situations, time matters. "If something goes wrong, you need to know what to do," Huff said. "That's why you need to continue practicing."