Miami Beach, Florida: Azure sky frames a super-sized sun. At barely 10:00 on this December morning it’s already 80 degrees and beachgoers are tanning on powder-white sand. The scene is a living postcard of a surreally color-saturated tropical paradise. It’s an utterly beautiful day in South Florida, which is at the moment utterly lost on me because I’m too busy celebrating a much simpler pleasure: I am delighted to not be seasick.
Overjoyed, really. Because from my portside seat near two mounted machine guns on the United States Coast Guard (USCG) Cutter Bernard C. Webber, the “postcard” that is Miami Beach is disappearing fast on the horizon— and that horizon is going UP and DOWN and UP and DOWN, and every so often in an unnecessarily cruel test of the true limits of my digestive system, side to side.I should be seaweed-green with nausea but I’m not. Webber is at wide-open throttle making 28 knots through five- to sevenfoot seas and the sensation aboard is not unlike a very smooth and wet rollercoaster ride. But the 95,000 miles of U.S. coastline patrolled by the Coast Guard is no amusement park and Webber wasn’t built for my comfort. I’m merely a guest aboard the first Sentinel Class Fast Response Cutter (FRC), lucky enough to get an exclusive firsthand look at a ship that’s bigger, faster, more technologically sophisticated and tougher than any similar class of Coast Guard cutter before it.
As I’d learned a month earlier when I visited Webber’s birthplace Bollinger Shipyards in Lockport, Louisiana, when it comes to building vessels for the high seas, there are ships, and then there are United States Coast Guard ships. On behalf of MTU Report, I witnessed how the new FRC is engineered and built to ensure rocksolid performance in the stormiest oceans, and how every weld, fastener and steel plate isn’t merely inspected and tested, but ruthlessly scrutinized for performance. With due respect to more ordinary seagoing craft – meaning those that aren’t built to chase drug runners, defeat terrorists, and save recreational boaters from Mother Nature and occasionally, themselves – Coast Guard ships are of necessity built to a higher standard. I learned just how high that standard is from Bollinger vice president and general manager Scott Theriot, who hosted me on an exclusive inside look at the making of an FRC.
Birth of a Fast Response Cutter
During a daylong tour, Theriot led me on a journey through Bollinger’s sixty-acre Lockport yard, tracing the 11-week manufacturing, assembly and testing route traveled by an FRC under construction. “The goal is to produce an FRC every eight weeks,” Theriot declares. A halfmillion square feet (46,500 square meters) of high-ceilinged, brightly-lit, contiguous industrial buildings houses 600 skilled tradesmen and most of the fourteen major stages required to build an FRC. In the early steps of that cellular manufacturing process, an enormous computer numeric controlled plasma cutter slices raw steel plate into components for superstructures and hulls. Fabrication departments bend, weld and assemble pipe, bulwarks, ladders, mufflers and rails. Later, major subassemblies, or “modules,” as they’re known at Bollinger, take shape. Eventually, a shiny new FRC emerges from Bollinger’s paint booth in the Coast Guard’s instantly-recognizable white and red color scheme and is craned into the yard’s dock for sea trials. Every step in the FRC’s journey through the yard is measured against established metrics in real time by a sophisticated software program written by Bollinger’s own team I tell Theriot the process here reminds me of that used by general contractors to build houses. He pretends to think about it for a moment and then in his Louisiana drawl deadpans, “Well, yes. Building an FRC is a little like building a house, assuming that the house has to last for decades, cruise at 28 knots and function perfectly while getting pounded by ten- to twenty-foot seas.”
So much for analogies. Rightfully so, because not even the Palace of Versailles comes close to the complexity and financial scope of the FRC program - and not just because palaces don’t float. The FRC program is potentially worth billions of dollars, and with that kind of U.S. taxpayer money at stake, failure of any kind is not an option. From materials procurement to production and from builder’s sea trials to each vessel’s commissioning and beyond, everything on an FRC has to work, period. As Prime Contractor on the program it’s Bollinger’s responsibility to make sure it does.
“Gravity is your friend”
If you’re an MTU Report reader, you may have been the kind of youngster who built models of ships, cars, planes or anything else that started as an intimidatingly large cardboard box full of rattling plastic parts. Remember the sense of personal satisfaction that accompanied the completion of each model’s hull section, axle assembly or fuselage? Every subassembly placed neatly on your parents’ card table was a reassuring miniature milestone. That satisfaction is what I imagine. Theriot must feel as we gaze at the hull sections, superstructures, deck portions and other major FRC components covering what is, metaphorically speaking, a card table roughly the size of two football fields. These gunmetal-gray modules will soon become much more than the sum of their individual parts when they are bolted and welded together to form an FRC. And unlike every plastic model I’ve ever built, I’m 100% certain Bollinger won’t have any mysterious leftover pieces. Theriot asks me if I notice anything unusual about the positioning of some of the modules. “You mean other than they’re upside down?”, I reply hesitatingly, wondering if perhaps the news might be an unpleasant surprise for him. “Correct. In efficient shipbuilding, gravity is your friend,” Theriot replies, clearly relieved his guest was paying attention. “We build, assemble, pipe and wire as many of the largest modules in an upside-down position as possible, mounting the assemblies on movable platforms we designed for the purpose. It’s a lot easier for our cra_ smen to work looking down than when looking up.”
Theriot notes the FRC is faster than the aging 110-foot Island Class cutter it’s replacing in the Coast Guard fleet, thanks to the FRC’s twin 20V Series 4000 M93L engines. “The MTUs have the right horsepower-to-weight ratio and the company has a great history of building highpowered, lightweight engines,” adds Theriot.
Back onboard a “critical acquisition”
Back aboard Webber, that power - 5,095 horsepower per MTU engine - is being put to the test today. From the ship’s panoramic bridge, Commander Herbert Eggert gives orders to push the throttles while civilian technicians sitting nearby monitor engine and system performance. Today is the first day of a seven-day patrol and once I’ve finally established my sea legs, I go on a little mission of my own, clambering down a gangway in search of my official escort, Lieutenant Junior Grade Melissa McCafferty. McCafferty typifies the overachievers in this cutter’s crew, most of who competed to win a coveted position on Webber’s 24-person team of twenty enlisted and four officers. A 2011 graduate of the elite U.S. Coast Guard Academy, McCafferty is pleasantly direct, super-smart, and at the ridiculously young age of 24 seems perfectly at ease helping drive a brand new $88 million (US) ship. Since meeting her today at the Coast Guard’s Base Miami Beach Station dock at the painfully early hour of 0600, she’s introduced me to her fellow officers and a handful of the enlisted crew. From Webber’s gourmet cook, Food Service Specialist Third Class Michelle Sacco, to Senior Chief Engineer Richard Libbey, I’ve noticed a pattern: This is a Coast Guard All-Stars cruise.
I say as much to McCafferty, who modestly replies, “The crew here is very senior because Webber is first-in-class of the FRCs,” and further notes the Coast Guard has a history of attracting the best and brightest of America’s youth. McCafferty believes the relatively small head count (42,000) of the Coast Guard combined with the USCG’s vast array of gear that floats or flies results in more leadership opportunities early in a Guardsman’s career. Senior Chief Libbey’s status as the highest-ranking enlisted crewmember on Webber seems to support her opinion. The 21-year veteran joined the Coast Guard fresh out of high school. Now 39, he’s a commanding presence in charge of the ship’s engines. Libbey says he began his career “cleaning bilges on a 378-foot Hamilton Class cutter.” Since those humble beginnings he’s steadily risen through the ranks, moving from ship to ship and often relocating his family from town to town. “It’s the life,” Libbey says simply, who quickly adds that the experiences he’s enjoyed would have been impossible in civilian life — including most recently a comprehensive four-week engine training course he attended at Tognum in Friedrichshafen, Germany and later at Tognum America’s Product Training Center in Canton, Michigan.
Libbey escorts me into the engine room, where the big MTUs are humming steadily in the background. We’re greeted by Miami-level heat and glare, with every visible surface spotless, burnished and gleaming. There’s little space to spare between the twenty-cylinder engines, exhaust manifolds, electronic controls, and enough piping and overhead cabling to plumb and wire my small home town. I recognize subassemblies from my Bollinger tour, including the deck plates I’m standing on. Scott Theriot is right, I think to myself; gravity really IS your friend in shipbuilding, especially when assembling an engine room.
Over the diesels’ steady soundtrack, Libbey shouts, “The Series 4000s perform really well and are very dependable. They’re way more technical than the older MTU engines on some of our other cutters, like the 87-footers, but they’re still simple to operate,” he says. “How simple?”, I shout back. “We start them up for patrol by opening all the cooling valves and fuel valves, push a button and the engines start. We idle them for about thirty to fortyfive minutes. They’ll run on ten cylinders first, and then all twenty kick in as the engines warm up. After that, we’re set. We simply monitor their performance during the patrols,” Libbey explains.
Minutes later, McCafferty finds me and says it’s time for me to prepare to return to Station Miami. Seven hours ago I worrie I’d be spending the day running between the ship’s railings and the nearest head; now I’m surprised to find myself sad to leave. I cheer up when McCafferty explains how I’ll be departing Webber. It turns out my ride isn’t over after all - I’m just switching boats. I’m being shuttled back to shore on the very coollooking rigid-hull inflatable housed in Webber’s stern ramp. Twenty minutes later, wearing a hardhat and neon-yellow life preserver, I’m seated behind the inflatable’s coxswain. After a series of rapid-fire commands and confirmations pass between him and the officers standing outside Webber’s bridge, the coxswain asks if we’re good to go.
The content of the stories reflects the status as of the respective date of publication. They are not updated. Further developments are therefore not taken into account.