Coast Guard cutter, 49, shows its age: 35 breakdowns in 19 days

A series of equipment casualties on a 49-year-old Coast Guard cutter forced an early end to its counter-narcotics patrol, underlining the needs behind the Coast Guard’s ongoing fleet recapitalization.

The Alert, one of 14 remaining 210’x34’x10’6″ Reliance-class medium endurance cutters, returned to its homeport at Astoria, Ore., Friday after a 39-day deployment in the Eastern Pacific, according to Coast Guard officials.

The Alert had departed Feb. 5 and almost immediately began suffering engineering malfunctions — some 35 in all, over just the first 19 days at sea.

Problems cropped up in the Alert’s radar, propulsion and fuel systems. The topper was a crankcase explosion in one of the Alco 16V-251 diesel mains, resulting from a seized oil pump. That required a week-long layover in Panama while the crew inspected the engine, and ultimately a decision to end the patrol early, said Coast Guard officials.

Crew members work to repair a generator on the Coast Guard cutter Alert. Coast Guard photo.

Crewmembers work to repair a generator on the Coast Guard cutter Alert. Coast Guard photo.

“We left on patrol with great hopes and a crew at top performance, thoroughly trained and operationally tested, but one of our main engines broke, sending us home before we got into any operations, which was very disappointing for everyone,” said Cmdr. Tobias Reid, the Alert’s commanding officer, in a prepared statement. “Our engineers did an outstanding job responding to the casualty and put a huge amount of effort into repairing the engine on station, but it requires an extensive overhaul that can only be completed at home.”

Commissioned in August 1969, the Alert was the last of the Reliance class to come down the ways, and today is one of three in the class stationed in Oregon and Washington. From 1986 to 1997 the entire class underwent midlife overhauls at around $20 million per vessel. They are scheduled now for replacement by new 360’x54’x17′ offshore patrol cutters beginning in fiscal year 2021.

“The offshore patrol cutter will be the backbone of Coast Guard offshore presence and the manifestation of our at-sea authorities,” said Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Paul Zukunft, who is winding up a four-year term when he pushed for more sustained funding of the recapitalization program. “It is essential to stopping smugglers at sea, for interdicting undocumented migrants, rescuing mariners, enforcing fisheries laws, responding to disasters and protecting our ports.”

Coast Guard officials have candidly described the troubles with operating aging vessels in the news media and before Congress. One of those recent cases involved the 399’x83’x31′ heavy icebreaker Polar Star, built in 1976, whose crew overcame major challenges – including a shaft seal leak and engine failure – on their last resupply mission to the National Science Foundation bases in Antarctica.  The Navy and Coast recently issued a long-anticipated request for proposals to build the first of three planned heavy icebreakers, but in the meantime the Polar Star must keep going into the 2020s.

About the author

Kirk Moore

Associate Editor Kirk Moore was a reporter for the Asbury Park Press for over 30 years before joining WorkBoat in 2015. He wrote several award-winning stories on marine, environmental, coastal and military issues that helped drive federal and state government policy changes. He has also been a field editor for WorkBoat’s sister publication, National Fisherman, for almost 25 years. Moore was awarded the Online News Association 2011 Knight Award for Public Service for the “Barnegat Bay Under Stress,” 2010 series that led to the New Jersey state government’s restoration plan. He lives in West Creek, N.J.

10 Comments

  1. Avatar

    The 210 I served on in 1972-73 (Courageous) was a few years younger than the Alert but had so many issues over the years, the CG gave up on her and sold to Sri Lanka in 2001. The fact there are still 210’s in service is impressive enough. Time (and rust) marches on.

  2. Avatar
    terry LEE SAWYER on

    u make me feel old serve on the venturous 625 back in the 70 my cousin was a plank owner on her we did the first in-flight refueling of and HH 52 I know this because I ran the JP4 pumps from below

  3. Avatar

    My fist assignment was DECISIVE, just a little older than ALERT. She outlasted me, I met my service limit of 30 years in 2010, “Dirty D” is still on watch. A testament to the hard work and dedication of her crew, and the foolishness of Congress.

  4. Avatar
    Edward J. Tracy on

    I used to think that the Coast Guard had tons of money due to the fact they were part of the Department of Transportation ie; gas taxes from the gas pumps. How naïve I was!! I also trash talked the Coast Guard because I was career US Navy. Silly me! Now that I’m hopefully a grown up retired Chief Boatswain’s Mate, Licensed Merchant Marine Master, the Coast Guard needs our support! We need to tell our elected representatives that the Coast Guard needs vibrant funding!!! They along with our other branches of the military need the tools to get the mission accomplished NOW!!! God Bless the US Coast Guard! God Bless America!

  5. Avatar

    The military doesn’t take care of their vessels. That may be the fault of congress not allocating enough money, but the ships will be sold to foreign governments that will make them work. I’ve got a lot of experience with former US military vessels in commercial use. Some go 50 years and more past the time they left the military. The Polar ice breaker that is out of service has bad piston rings. How tough is that? New sleeves, pistons and rings, I bet I’ve done that a thousand times.
    I also live aboard a former USCG built in 1942. Still running.

  6. Avatar

    I was a plank owner on the CGC DAUNTLESS (WMEC-624) in June 1968. I spent 30 years on active duty and retired. DAUNTLESS was homeported in Miami Beach until it was FRAMed then went to Galveston, Texas and is still in service. The Coasties on these cutters are proud that they are able to keep the cutters operational, not always at 100%, but operational. “We’ve done so much for so long with so little, now, they want us to do it with nothing.”

  7. Avatar
    Peter J Duffy on

    Lack of quality maintenance is the problem. Not the age of the boat. Sounds like an excuse to get a new boat.

  8. Avatar
    Curtis Conway on

    The National Security Cutters should replace the twelve (12) Hamilton Class High Endurance Cutters one-for-one. Nine have been funded, and we only need three more while the line is hot.

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