After three months on patrol in Alaska’s Bering Sea, the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Sherman sailed into the home port of San Diego Thursday morning, delivering on the promise of being home for Christmas.
KTOO has been following the patrol since September, when the high-endurance cutter stopper in Juneau on her way north. This concludes our series.
Commanding Officer Captain Joe Hester’s first trip to the Bering Sea was on the Cutter Hamilton for the Opilio crab opening in January 2004.
“I remember standing out on the bridge wing and I felt like I was in a darkened bowl full of snow turned upside down over the cutter,” Hester recalls.
So this year when the cutter cruised into Kodiak in late September, it seemed a different island.
“Typically, you schedule your arrival for first light in the morning,” he says. “And when I came to the bridge and we arrived off Kodiak for the first time, it was emerald green, calm seas, it was actually warm and I honest to goodness went in and said, ‘You guys are kidding, right? Are you sure we’re at the right island? This is not the Kodiak I remember.’ ”
Weather also was still good when the ship first called at Dutch Harbor in October, “but already there was just a hint of snow on the mountaintops,” he says.
Twenty-one year old Seaman Christian Rocquin, from New Orleans, joined the Sherman crew in August, straight out of boot camp. He had never seen snow until that first day in Dutch Harbor.
Hester says he told him, “You just watch that snow, because by our last call here it will have crept all the way down the mountain.”
Not long after, Rocquin experienced that snow at sea level, during a Dutch Harbor port call.
“It was almost like a white Christmas for me,” he says. “The whole crew got off the boat and in a matter of seconds a snowball fight broke out.”
Captain Hester collects what he calls “sea stories” from his tours, and encourages his crew to do the same.
Rocquin’s sea stories are all about the weather.
“I was not prepared,” he says. “I had no idea what I was getting into coming this far north.”
Rocquin says he’s only been in boats on a lake when the waves are small, but in the Pacific they were seeing 20 to 30 foot waves.
And one night on watch, he says, “a couple of waves broke over the bow and soaked me and that was pretty fun.”
Seaman Rocquin says he wants to be a rescue swimmer and his first Coast Guard patrol in the Bering Sea was good preparation.
“Looking back on my first patrol, I’m glad Alaska was my first,” he says.
Seaman Emma Olague boarded the Sherman in Dutch Harbor on October 26, just 12 days after boot camp graduation. The 20-year-old came from Southern California.
Captain Hester says bad weather had already delayed her flight into Dutch — and her introduction to the sea came quickly.
“She hadn’t been on board five minutes before we began rolling,” he says.
Like Rocquin, Olague needed seasickness medication, but soon she was able to stand watch on a night of “crazy waters.”
“One time when I was on watch we had a really really big wave come over. It broke one of our stanchions and went over our heads and the wind was blowing so rapidly the water just started spinning,” she says with a laugh.
Captain Hester says about a third of the Sherman crew had been on Bering Sea patrols before, including Chief Warrant Officer Matthew Boyle.
“To call Chief Warrant Officer Boyle an Alaska enthusiast is sort of the understatement of the century,” Hester says.
The 51-year-old Boyle is the old guy on the Sherman. Next month will mark his 28th anniversary in the Coast Guard. Alaska is his favorite tour of duty.
“And the worse the weather got, the bigger his grin got. And he’s a big guy, so he’s got a big grin,” Hester says.
An electronics specialist, the Sherman is Boyle’s sixth cutter assignment. He’s been in the Bering Sea more than a dozen times.
One of his sea stories comes from the Cutter Boutwell.
“We hit 43 degree rolls while going on the way to a Russian processor boat,” Boyle recalls. “And we had things let loose and had to tie down boats with chains and the whole bit. So that was a very memorable patrol, but that was really because we were more busy trying to hang on than get other things done.”
He says this Bering patrol was the usual mix of search and rescues, assists and fishing boat boardings, but as far as weather and seas go, it was more mellow than many, despite the big November storm that made headlines across the country.
The history of Bering Sea patrol goes back to the days of the U.S. Revenue Cutter Service. Some of the most famous early revenue cutters have sailors buried in the grave yard behind the Bering Sea Memorial in Unalaska.
Captain Hester’s favorite story from this fall’s Bering Sea patrol comes from the last day, when a small group of young men and women from the Sherman were part of a ceremony to replace the weather-tattered Coast Guard, Alaska and U.S. flags in Memorial Park.
“We spoke about the long and storied history the Coast Guard has had in Dutch Harbor and throughout Alaska. It’s been a unique relationship, bringing missionaries, bringing the federal court system and bringing caribou to stranded whalers,” he says. “The whole history of the Coast Guard and Alaska are entwined. And for that moment I just wanted the young folks on the crew to learn what an important task it is, what an important heritage and history of service we have in Alaska.”
For the next month, the Coast Guard Cutter Healy will be on patrol in the Bering Sea.
The following photos and stories are courtesy Capt. Joseph F. Hester III, Commanding Officer, USCG Cutter Sherman, on patrol in the Bering Sea. (click inside picture for captions)