ROCKLAND, Maine — Maine's Coast Guard fleet hasn't been stuck in port when rescue calls, law enforcement, oil spills and ice-breaking duties summon them to sea. But given the age of the fleet, that record could be in jeopardy.
"We're still able to get the missions done," said Lt. Nick Barrow of the Coast Guard's Portland office.
But the Tackle, the 65-foot icebreaker tug based in Rockland, marked its 50th year in service this year. And next year, the 65-foot icebreakers Bridle, based in Southwest Harbor, and Shackle, based in South Portland, also will hit the half-century mark.
"They're beyond their intended service life," Barrow said.
The small icebreaker vessels -- the Coast Guard also operates the 140-foot Thunder Bay, based in Rockland -- are critical to Maine in late winter and early spring, he said. The 65-foot vessels are the only ones able to navigate upriver from the Richmond bridge on the Kennebec River.
Recent years haven't seen heavy icing in the rivers, but if Maine has an especially cold winter, ice jams could cause serious flooding, Barrow said.
Though it is in the 20- to 25-year-old range, the 110-foot patrol vessel Jefferson Island, based in South Portland, is currently in drydock in Rockland for repairs.
"There's some pretty significant pitting and hull intrusion," Barrow said.
The Maine fleet also includes the 87-foot patrol vessel Moray, based in Jonesport. And each of the Coast Guard's six rescue stations in Maine -- Eastport, Jonesport, Southwest Harbor, Rockland, Boothbay Harbor and South Portland -- have at least two smaller boats, 25-foot and 47-foot vessels, all newer.
Sector Northern New England has been able move vessels around to handle rescue calls and other duties, but the aging resources take their toll, Barrow said.
The 50-year-old ice-breakers have crews of 7-8, "and those crews spend a great amount of time and effort to maintain the ships," he said.
And when vessels are out of service due to unscheduled maintenance or repair issues, the Coast Guard is missing opportunities to do random inspections and other, nonemergency work.
Sector Northern New England's aging fleet is part of a national problem. In the years after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the U.S. Coast Guard became part of the Department of Homeland Security, and so is on the front lines of national security. But the fleet is one of the world's oldest and a multibillion dollar replacement program is years behind schedule.
In addition to ships staying in service beyond their intended years of use and frequent breakdowns, many of the vessels are equipped with obsolete electronic and other gear, further hampering their ability to complete their missions.
More funding from Congress to bring the $29 billion replacement program up to date is unlikely, given the belt-tightening U.S. budgetary environment.
The Coast Guard's 11 missions range from busting drug smugglers to icebreaking. In the last fiscal year, it carried out 20,000 search-and-rescue missions, seized 75 tons of cocaine, detained almost 200 smugglers and conducted more than 10,000 vessel inspections.
The burden falls mostly on the fleet of 378-foot high-endurance cutters, 270- and 210-foot medium-endurance cutters and 110-foot patrol boats. Some may be twice the age of the sailors on board. The service also operates about 1,400 boats under 65 feet long.
At average ages of about 43 and 23 years, respectively, the high-endurance cutters and patrol boats are three years past the ends of their estimated service lives, according a report by the General Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress, released this summer.
The midsize cutters also are fast nearing the ends of their estimated service lives.
In fiscal year 2011, the fleet fell about 40,000 hours, or 23 percent, short of its benchmark for operating without major equipment problems, the GAO said.
The number of hours the biggest cutters spent on drug interdiction fell by almost two-thirds from fiscal years 2007 to 2010, mostly because of equipment breakdowns.
The fleet "is in overall poor condition and is generally declining," the GAO said.
The shortfall in operating hours would "likely result in more cocaine and illegal migrants reaching U.S. shores and a decreased capability to protect U.S. waters and fish stocks from the encroachment of foreign fishing vessels," it said.
The Department of Homeland Security rejected a GAO recommendation this summer that the Coast Guard reduce its overall benchmark for operating hours without major breakdowns. The target has remained unchanged for at least eight years despite the maintenance headaches.
To deal with equipment problems, the Coast Guard has streamlined maintenance operations and is nearing the end of a 10-year, $453 million program to refurbish some patrol boats and upgrade midsize cutters until new ships come on duty.
Reuters news service contributed to this story.