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At 50, Coast Guard's Diligence is getting a makeover

WILMINGTON, N.C. (MCT) -- The vessel is old enough to qualify for inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places, and replacement parts sometimes have to be individually fabricated because they aren't made anymore.

But as the Coast Guard Cutter Diligence celebrates its 50th birthday, the vessel is getting a facelift -- which should prepare it to stay in service for the foreseeable future.

The Wilmington-based cutter is having maintenance performed on her engines and updates to most of her major systems at the Coast Guard Yard just outside Baltimore. The hull and superstructure also is being blasted and repainted.

But even as the cutter gets cleaned up, the fact remains: The Diligence is getting a bit long in the tooth even as replacement plans remain years out.

Still, the Diligence is looking good for her age.

"As the Coast Guard's only yard, we see a lot of the medium-endurance cutters come through here for work," said Cmdr. Matt Lake, industrial manager of the Coast Guard Yard, "and the condition of the Diligence's engine room and other equipment is probably the best we've seen in a long time, which is a real testament to the exceptional work of her crew."

Lake said the Diligence's 85-day, $3 million drydock maintenance overhaul -- done every four years or so -- is almost complete, with the cutter expected to be back in the water soon for testing and trials.

Once those wrap up, the ship is expected to return to Wilmington.

Old, but reliable

The question is how long a ship that's twice as old as some of its crew can remain effective.

The Coast Guard, once part of the U.S. Department of Transportation and now under Homeland Security, has never been first in line in Washington for funding, and the age of its assets shows that.

Many of its vessels -- like the Diligence -- would have been retired by most navies decades ago. The Battleship North Carolina, for example, was in service for only six years, and most Navy ships are retired before they reach 30.

But plans by the Coast Guard to replace most of its cutter fleet have run into financial, political and technological problems over the years -- although recent progress has been made.

In the meantime, the service's aging cutters soldier on.

The Diligence is one of 16 Reliance-class cutters commissioned between 1964 and 1969 to replace World War II-era vessels. According to Coast Guard records, two of the cutters have already been taken out of service and transferred to foreign navies.

The Diligence itself was briefly decommissioned in 1990 before being extensively modified and brought back into service in 1992.

Equipped with a 25 mm gun, small chase boats and often a helicopter when on patrol, the cutter regularly embarks on migrant and illegal drug interdiction missions in the Caribbean.

New cutters planned

Responding to questions via email, spokeswoman Lorraine Brooks said the Coast Guard anticipates beginning to decommission the 210-foot cutters in 2022, but has not approved a decommissioning order.

The medium-endurance cutters are planned to be replaced by a new series of vessels called Offshore Patrol Cutters (OPC). Earlier this year the service contracted with several yards for preliminary design work for the new vessels, with a final construction program that could include as many as 25 ships worth about $10.5 billion up for grabs.

But Brooks said the Coast Guard hadn't determined any homeport locations for the future OPCs.

"We are conducting a feasibility study and assessment for potential OPC homeports based on operational requirements, logistics support needs and quality of life for our crews," she said.

'Fabric of our city'

If the Diligence leaves and isn't replaced, it would represent the first time in more than two centuries that Wilmington hasn't been home to a Coast Guard cutter.

But the Port City would still have a major Coast Guard presence, with the headquarters for "Sector North Carolina" on Medical Center Drive. That office is in charge of the agency's law enforcement, commerce, inspections and fisheries operations in the state and oversees the local Coast Guard stations at Wrightsville Beach and Oak Island.

Still, the Diligence is the most visible sign of the city's rich and long association with the Coast Guard -- a relationship that was recognized in 2003 when Wilmington was honored as the first "Coast Guard City, USA" on the East Coast.

Mayor Bill Saffo hopes that downtown presence by the service continues for decades to come.

"I'm 54, and as long as I've been around we've had a Coast Guard cutter in downtown Wilmington," he said. "It's part of the fabric of our city and our waterfront, and I hope we will have the opportunity to host another cutter when this one reaches the end of its life and needs to be replaced."

But that decision won't be known for years.

In the interim, Coast Guard officials are making sure the Diligence is ready to go when the call comes.

While tradesmen at the Maryland yard work on the cutter, the Diligence's crew is staying busy during the refit.

Some have temporarily transferred to other Coast Guard units while those staying on board during the refit are working on areas and systems not being renewed or repaired and completing a variety of other tasks to get the cutter fully prepared for her next patrol, according to a release.

Diligence refit

Some of the major work that's being done during the Diligence's 85-day, $3 million refit:
-Full blasting and painting of the mast, superstructure, freeboard and underwater body
-Propulsion shafting bearing replacement and realignment
-Maintenance and repair to the cutter's controllable pitch propeller systems
-Replacement and overhaul of sea valves
-Repair and inspection of voids, rudders, tanks, and the cathodic protection system.
- Repairs to the air conditioning/ventilation system
-Repairs to various piping and auxiliary systems
-Inspection, repair and preservation of engine room/machinery space bilges
-Repairs to the electrical distribution system
-Repairs and maintenance to hull fittings
Source: Coast Guard

(c) 2014 the Star-News. Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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