ST. PETERSBURG - By air is faster than by sea.
The U.S. Coast Guard is now using helicopters to reach and inspect foreign ships entering ports across the country, including Tampa Bay, where the antiterror technique began.
"This allows us to board these vessels a long way out, so if there's any threat on board, we can identify it before it reaches U.S. ports or waterways," said Paul Rhynard, Coast Guard petty officer in St. Petersburg. "Basically, what we're doing is pushing the border out."
On Thursday, the second anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, a Coast Guard crew in St. Petersburg flew to Omiros, a 600-foot cement carrier registered in Greece.
The boat was waiting 20 miles from the Sunshine Skyway bridge to enter the shipping channel leading to the Port of Tampa.
While a helicopter hovered above the ship, up to a half dozen armed officers were lowered one by one mechanically by cable onto the deck.
"Everything checked out," said Rhynard.
Up until March of last year, the Coast Guard traveled to ships by boat, taking up to eight hours for each mission. The helicopter reduces the operation to three hours, allowing Coast Guard officers to check two boats waiting miles offshore to enter ports.
Coast Guard officers typically search engine rooms and engine shafts for suspicious packages and stowaways. They also check passports, licenses and the crew manifest. Each search takes up to two hours.
"Anything that might bring up a flag," said Petty Officer Scott Talbot. "We'll sweep up through the cabin and living space and pilothouse."
The vessels are selected randomly, the Coast Guard said. However, if there's a specific threat, or if people on board are from nations with terrorist ties, the Coast Guard immediately boards them.
The helicopter program began in the Tampa Bay area and is now being used in San Diego and New Orleans.
Rhynard said the Coast Guard in the Tampa Bay area has conducted 76 helicopter missions on boats entering the ports of Tampa and Manatee with no problems.