tampabay.com

Botched upgrade effort sidelines Coast Guard cutters

Lengthening their hulls left them weakened. Eight are docked as unsafe.

By JEAN HELLER
Published December 2, 2006


The Coast Guard is scrambling to cover vital missions around Florida after eight Key West-based cutters were removed from service.

The 123-foot boats were docked because of structural defects that could cause them to break up in heavy seas.

The boats played major roles in Coast Guard antidrug operations and homeland security, as well as immigration control and boater safety.

The decision to dock them ends a program to upgrade 49 of the cutters so they could remain in service until the next generation of patrol craft can be built.

The problem is viewed as a setback to the Coast Guard's 25-year, $24-billion plan called Deepwater to replace or rebuild all its large cutters, helicopters and airplanes.

"We are making necessary adjustments to deploy aircraft and ships from other areas to maintain our robust coverage in the area while we develop a long-term solution," Adm. Thad Allen, commandant of the Coast Guard, said Thursday.

The eight cutters operated in the Coast Guard's 7th District, an area covering Florida from the Big Bend east into the Atlantic Ocean, north to the North Carolina-South Carolina border and south to Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic.

The eight boats represent a loss of more than 15 percent of the Coast Guard's 52-cutter fleet operating in District 7.

That territory includes all of the Tampa Bay region's coastline.

Rep. C.W. Bill. Young, R-Indian Rocks Beach, a ranking member of the House Appropriations Committee, called the situation very serious.

"I don't know how this situation developed; I don't think the Coast Guard knows yet how this situation developed," Young said in an interview. "The ships are out of service and may never be serviceable. You can't send ships to sea with cracked hulls and cracked decks."

Petty Officer Jennifer Johnson, a Coast Guard spokeswoman in Miami, said that given the damage to the boats, "we were worried about their capabilities in heavy seas."

Asked if the craft might have broken up in those conditions, Johnson replied, "That was our worst-case scenario, yes."

Only eight of the planned 49 hull conversions had been completed - at a cost of $100-million - when problems began to show up last year, and the conversions were suspended. The eight conversions were the cutters involved in this week's announcement.

Whether the patrol craft can be saved or whether they will have to be scrapped has yet to be determined, according to Cmdr. Jeff Carter, a spokesman for the Coast Guard in Washington.

"Right now we have them in what's called Charlie status, that is tied up at mooring to docks," Carter said. "They will remain there until we determine if there is an engineering solution."

Extensive inspections of the ships found significant buckling of the ship's structure beneath a main engine, hull weakness and deformation, engine shaft alignment problems and deck cracking, Coast Guard officials said.

The damage apparently occurred when 13 feet were added to the hulls at the stern, taking them from 110 feet to 123 feet long. The alterations would have increased maneuverability and extended operation life, which is normally 15 years per boat. Some of the boats in question already were 17 years old.

The Coast Guard has a total of 250 cutters deployed around the country.

The hull conversion work was supervised by Northrop Grumman and Lockheed Martin, and performed by their subcontractor, Bollinger Shipyards of Lockport, La.

Jean Heller can be reached at 727 893-8785 or heller@sptimes.com.