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‘We have to be right 100 percent’

Coast Guard boatswain
Coast Guard boatswain's mate Kain Foglesong stands at the bow of his patrol boat during an escort of the ferry Hyak across Puget Sound this week.
— image credit: DOUGLAS CRIST/Staff Photo

‘Hot-dogging’ is serious training for crews, the Coast Guard says.

“Hard port!” yells Kain Foglesong to his crew as he banks his speed boat left, slicing through a ferry’s white, churning wake.

At high throttle, the twin-engine U.S. Coast Guard vessel cuts a near 90-degree turn, pressing the left-side window ominously close to the water’s surface.

A few second’s later the boat rights itself and bolts past as a crowd of passengers stare from the ferry’s rear deck.

What may look like hot-dogging to ferry riders is actually necessary training for Coast Guardsmen who have recently been given the responsibility of guarding state ferries against terrorist attack, according to Coast Guard officials.

“We’ve got to be familiar with what this thing can do,” said Foglesong, a boatswain’s mate and the vessel’s commander. “We’ve got to be familiar with how it handles this wake and how far we can push it or else we’ll be in trouble ourselves.”

That trouble, according to the U.S. government, became much more apparent after the early July terrorist bombings in London.

In response, the Coast Guard raised its security level for vessels carrying more than 150 people, including state ferry boats. That meant Coast Guard crews would have their hands full protecting the largest ferry system in the nation, with more than 500 waterborne movements per day.

Within 72 hours of the bombings, the Coast Guard dispatched custom-built 25-foot vessels equipped with one or two swivel-mounted M-60 machine guns, a shotgun and pistols for each member of the four-man crew.

The Coast Guard focused its watch on Seattle’s Colman dock, with limited watches for other ferry ports.

Most departing and docking ferries receive a two-boat escort, with crews making sure other boats maintain a 100-yard distance from ferries.

The security level has recently been reduced a notch, but the small orange and silver boats are still a familiar sight to ferry commuters.

Many riders are still asking questions about the purpose and level of seriousness with which the Coast Guard is tackling their new mission. Some have cited alleged daredevil stunts exhibited by crews and portions of ferries given double duty while other parts remain unwatched, as well as a general feeling that the patrols are unnecessary.

Commander Russ Zullick, the Coast Guard’s Seattle Sector response department head, has heard it all.

“We’ve had a lot of darts thrown at us and I take it personal,” Zullick said. “My men and women are working around the clock. They take this job seriously. It’s a hard mission, almost like (the movie) ‘Groundhog Day,’ where everyday it’s the same.

“It’s not a sexy mission, like rescue missions, so it’s always a challenge to keep my crews fresh and alert.”

Zullick says the playful-looking maneuvers riders witness are likely crews challenging themselves and their vessels to improve their skills.

He said the crews are instructed to display some random behavior, such as erratic travel routes or quick changes in positioning. This would confuse terrorists, who seek weak spots in observed routines, he said.

Zullick said this may explain why two boats were witnessed idling on one side of the ferry, while the other side lay exposed. He also said the Coast Guard counts on the ferry’s crew and even commuters to watch for suspicious behavior from nearby vessels as well.

“The ferry crews and the public are our best set of eyes out there,” he said. “They are our first line of defense.”

Zullick casts aside accusations that the small patrol vessels are not stable enough to draw an accurate shot at attackers. He said crew members receive twice yearly training in their weapons, often while the vessels are bounding off waves at high speed.

While Coast Guardsmen say they haven’t yet had to respond to a serious emergency since taking on the ferry escort mission, Zullick says it only takes one successful terrorist attack for potentially hundreds of deaths.

“It’s like President Bush said, we have to be right 100 percent of the time,” he said. “The terrorists only have to get in once.”

For Foglesong, ferry escort duty is typically uneventful, but it’s easy for him to stay alert, he said, “especially in this crazy world we live in.”

Foglesong is constantly watching an invisible perimeter around ferries that he says he and his crew will defend at all costs, even if a boat is obviously dead set on a high-speed ram attack.

“If I see that, my first response is to get in front of it,” he said.

Even if it’s bigger than their cramped, foam-hulled vessel?

“In that case, we’ll make sure to put our seat-belts on.”

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