Sofia Laurel Pirri, Special to the Daily Press
In the quickly dimming moments just after sunset, fiercely chasing a distress call, the USCGC Halibut finally reached a stranded commercial dive vessel off the coast of San Miguel Island. Fighting the escalating wind and waves as well as the looming encroachment of nightfall, the crew decided to tow the large vessel, which had damaged its propeller. Later that evening, both boats reached safe harbor.
Dramatic as it may seem, the ordeal was just another day at work for the 13 crew and two cadets stationed at the Marina Del Rey based USCGC Halibut.
One of four cutters (commissioned vessels with a crew) in the Coast Guard’s Los Angeles Sector, the Halibut is tasked with patrolling the vast 300 mile distance from Morro Bay to Dana Point. On patrol, which lasts anywhere from two to four days, the crew listens for distress calls and keeps an eye out for evidence of illegal fishing, recreational boat violations, and smuggling — a responsibility particular to Southern California. Patrol also involves dispatching the small boat, an extremely heavy-duty lifeboat, several times a day to investigate the vessels they encounter.
“The Coast Guard is a unique military service that operates under the U.S. Department of Homeland Security with law enforcement, military, and humanitarian responsibilities,” said the Halibut’s commanding officer Lt. Mark J. Guentert. “We’re here to enforce our Nation’s laws at sea, save lives, and protect our coastline and ports.”
Executing these goals can get intense. The Halibut’s patrol area is not only 300 miles along the coast, but also 200 miles seaward.
“Trying to travel that distance in 6-10 foot seas, it can take a really long time,” says Executive Petty Officer Nathaniel Fraze. “Especially if you need to get there quickly. You’re slamming pretty hard, and things are flying off the walls, and we’re running into each other because there’s not a lot of space.”
Space is certainly limited on the 87 foot cutter, which still manages to sleep twelve people. The Halibut’s living facilities below deck include a single stall shower, a separate bathroom, and a small kitchen, where culinary specialist Officer Samuel Hawksley works his magic (today, lemon pepper chicken with salad).
Behind a metal door lies a minuscule space with two bunks that can barely even be called a bedroom. Lt. Guentert sleeps on the bottom, a foot away from a corded phone — which feels giant in the tiny space — so that he can be woken up at any time.
A narrow ladder leads above to the pilothouse, where large windows and an impressive array of instruments bring to mind the cockpit of an airplane. Only four people in the thirteen person unit are authorized to drive the cutter, after having undergone an extensive six month training period and an oral examination. Next to the navigator, a quartermaster stands watch in four hour shifts.
“Were you expecting a big wheel?” jokes the Lieutenant.
An old-timey captain’s wheel would be out of place amid the rest of the boat’s mostly digital technology. Executive Officer Fraze says, “The backup to the backup to the backup would be navigating on paper charts. It’s kind of a dying art.”
Down in the engine room, Engineer Chief Petty Officer Steven Dunn explains that the maintenance schedule is also computer-based. Technology tracks how long the engine has been running and lets the engineering team know when it needs a tune up. However, the 20 year-old boat needs constant maintenance — hourly when the engine is running — and the mechanical team must be vigilant.
“I’d rather it break when we don’t need it, when we’re not in the middle of a case, that way I know that it’s going to function when we need it to,” he said.
Engineers even have to memorize the wire runs and panels so that in the event of a fire or accident, they know exactly how to shut everything off.
While the high-tech machinery may keep the cutter running, it is the crew’s evident companionship that holds everything together.
“This is another family,” says Chief Dunn. “Everyone would take the shirt off their back to help another crewmate.”
A father of five married to another Coast Guard member, Dunn knows a thing or two about the relationship between family and service. He took the position on the Halibut to be near his wife, but the assignment ended up working out well professionally for both of them. Dunn mentions, however, that he would have prioritized family over position if it had not. It is clear he holds the same strong sentiment for his family aboard the Halibut.
“I’ve been doing it for 20 years, and small crews are my favorite. The whole crew is the core crew,” he said.
Chief Dunn’s fellow engineering crewmate, Assistant Engineer Petty Officer Emily Helterhoff, will be transferring in July, and he compared her departure to his own son’s recent graduation. “I’m not looking forward to it.”
The Halibut’s crew members have become remarkably close despite the short three-year tour length, two years for the Commanding Officer. Their camaraderie becomes evident as the crew lines up for a photo on the bow, joking and chuckling amongst themselves. Officer Hawksley, the culinary specialist, adopts a silly stance and makes a crack about his pose.
“We try to have fun sometimes,” says Executive Officer Fraze wryly when asked about a volleyball on board. If the crew has some time before patrol, they head over to the beach for a quick game.
Between the highly desirable location of Marina Del Rey and the unique merits of a small crew, the Halibut is a top pick for officers ranking their assignment choices. The cutter’s relatively small crew size means a much more hands-on experience. Crewmates have the valuable opportunity to train in all sorts of duties, even those outside their focus — engineers have the opportunity to help with navigation and vice versa. On a larger ship, the duties are much more separated.
Commanding Officer Lt. Guentert has seen his share of diverse duties in the service. He previously served on a Coast Guard Cutter in the Arabian Gulf and when his two-year tour of duty on the Halibut ends in July, he will transfer to the Coast Guard headquarters in D.C.
He will miss the dedication of his current crew.
“Really what it comes down to is that the vast majority of the people in the Coast Guard want to be in service and be a part of something bigger than themselves,” he said.
Their recent mission escorting the hospital ship USNS Mercy at the beginning of the pandemic provided the crew with a tangible sense of accomplishment in that regard.
Lt. Guentert also remarks on his crew’s ability to adapt to challenges, whether those challenges are being separated from family or dealing with brutal weather conditions out at sea, like during their recent mission towing the commercial diving vessel.
“I am on the tail end of my tour here, and the absolute best part has just been working with the people on board. I am extremely proud of and thankful for each and everyone one of them,” he said.
So how does a young coast guard get assigned to the highly desirable Halibut?
The long answer: coast guards can rank their assignment choices by either position, location, or experience, and most of the crew put the Halibut at the top of their list.
The short answer, according to Executive Officer Fraze: “You pray.”