MIAMI — At 5:59 a.m. — with the sun yet to peek over the horizon — most bunks of the U.S. Coast Guard’s newest Fast Response Cutter were filled with sleeping crew. One minute later, the peace of darkness on gentle rolling seas was replaced with P. Diddy and Skylar Grey’s version of Coming Home blaring over the public address system.
“Up, up, all hands,” barked out Chief Boatswain’s Mate Steve Kelly in military ship jargon. “Heave out and trice up: 0600 revelry.
“We’re coming home, Robert Yered.”
It had been four long months since Sept. 10, when most of the 25-person crew flew to Louisiana — where Bollinger Shipyards built the 154-foot patrol boat — to learn how to operate the Robert Yered’s high-tech communications, computer-based electronics and engines, stern-launched chase boat and weapons systems that includes a remote controlled machine gun.
“We’ve been training, training, training, training and more training,” Kelly said during the last leg of the maiden voyage from Key West.
After the 6 a.m. P. Diddy wake-up, it would be another four long hours before the shiny ship would motor up Government Cut to its home base of Miami Beach. Although the crew could see the Miami skyline, the cutter stayed a few miles offshore to rendezvous with another Coast Guard boat to pick up two VIPs: Rear Admiral William Baumgartner and U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Weston.
“With redistricting, this homeport is now in her district,” said Baumgartner, Commander of the Coast Guard’s Seventh District. “This was a good introduction to the new constituents she picked up.”
As the $68 million cutter arrived at the base on the MacArthur Causeway, the right bow thruster stopped working, requiring the crew to deftly maneuver ropes to get the big ship docked. It’s another kink to work out before the Robert Yered’s commissioning ceremony at 4 p.m. Friday.
“It’s not like going to a Ford dealer and saying, I want a Ford Expedition, please,” Baumgartner said. “When you are building a new class of ships, they are so complex you can’t anticipate everything. ... It takes a while to work the bugs out.”
But Baumgartner is ecstatic that the Robert Yered is about to be added to his fleet. “This gives us a new capability to stop the bad guys and rescue the good guys,” he said.
It’s the Coast Guard’s fourth Sentinel-class patrol boat. The first was the Bernard C. Webber, commissioned last April. The Richard Ethridge and William Flores followed. The Seventh District, which covers South Carolina to Florida to Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, will receive the first 18 of 58 planned Sentinel-class cutters.
“This is where some of our most persistent threats are,” Baumgartner said. “If we don’t patrol, the drugs come in here. If we don’t patrol, we’ll have a mass migration.”
It’s also a busy district for search-and-rescue and enforcing the laws of federal fisheries.
“You hear a lot of people talk about this cutter as a game-changer,” said Lt. Paul Stepler, the Robert Yered’s commander.
The cutters can travel up to 32 knots and provide safer chase-boat launches and recovery in heavy seas, the ability to detect threats at longer range, more comfort for the crew and the ability to stay at sea for longer periods.
They are part of the Coast Guard’s $21 billion-plus modernization program. A decade in, the program has hit some rough waters but now is showing some good results.
“It’s way overdue,” Baumgartner said. “I came in the Coast Guard 33 years ago as an ensign. My first ship was 13 years old when I stepped aboard in the middle of the Mariel to Key West boatlift in 1980.”
That ship, the 210-foot USCGC Dependable, is still “one of our mainstays.” It was designed to last only 30 years.
“If you were running a highway patrol and you were using a ’65 Impala as your primary patrol vehicle, people would look at you like you were crazy,” Baumgartner said. “We’re still five to seven years away before we could see the first of the replacements for those ships.”
The 154-foot cutters became a priority when a project to upgrade the Coast Guard’s aging 110-foot, Island-class patrol boats backfired. Instead of a stopgap measure, at least eight of the boats had to be scrapped in 2006 — when structural problems arose from adding 13 feet in length for an automated small-boat launch and additional navigation and communications systems.
On Jan. 25, the Robert Yered left Key West Harbor. The boat and crew had been there since mid-November for sea trials, damage control skills and navigation skills. It’s also where the 21 men and four women from 13 states and Puerto Rico built camaraderie.
The crew is mostly young and eager, led by Stepler, 29, a 2006 Coast Guard Academy graduate. PK3 Amanda Jimenez, 24, and the junior engineer, showed off the two 5,000-horsepower engines. “The technology on these things are very precise,” she said. “It’s not like the old engines where you’ve got a little wiggle room here and there.”
EM3 Mariah Chastain, who just turned 21, is the boat’s electrician’s mate. She started to go to college to study chemical engineering but decided to follow in her mother’s military footsteps.
Ensign Colin Weaver, 22 and just out of the Coast Guard Academy, drove the ship out of port while standing on the deck. He used a pendant, which looks like controls from a video game, to navigate the cutter out of the busy harbor. By his side was Lt. Mario Gil, a 15-year Coast Guard veteran from the Dominican Republic but raised in Miami, to provide guidance much as a father would for a teenage son driving on the freeway for the first time.
The cutter tracked 30 miles south to a gunnery range for one last exercise: remotely firing the biggest machine gun on the ship — the Mk 38 Mod 2 25mm automatic — and manually firing the four Browning M2 machine guns to test the structure of the mounts.
GM2 Kenneth Rose, nicknamed “Guns,” briefed the crew about the weapons exercise. “We’re going to be firing 55 rounds through the 25mm and 200 rounds of ball and tracer through the machine guns,” Rose said.
To ensure all 10 rounds are discharged and help deal with adrenaline, Rose told the shooters to lay on the trigger while saying “Run Fuzzy Bunny Run.”
The weapons exercise went smoothly, and the Robert Yered began its course for “home.” The cutter is not operational until it’s commissioned, but the crew still searched the waters in hopes of spotting illegal activity. They discovered an errant bobbing buoy in 300 feet of water. It said: “Danger, coral reef.”
It was a good exercise in using their sophisticated technology to spot small objects in the big ocean.
In the air-conditioned pilot house, Kelly also was on a mission to come up with the perfect wake-up song. One suggestion: Good Morning Vietnam.
“You know, the guy the ship is named after, Robert Yered, served in Vietnam,” Kelly said. “He did his battle in Cat Lai in 1968.”
All the Fast Response Cutters are being named after enlisted heroes. Robert Yered was chosen for his heroics on Feb. 18, 1968, when the Army terminal in Cat Lai was attacked by enemy rocket, mortar and small arms fire. A barge carrying several hundred tons of mortar ammunition was struck and burst into flames, threatening to destroy three nearby ammunition ships carrying more than 15,000 tons of explosives.
“Engineman Yered courageously exposed himself to enemy gunfire as he helped extinguish fires on the burning barge,” according to the Coast Guard’s blog. “His bold act averted not only the destruction of his own ship but also that of the entire terminal.”
Yered is one of only 12 Coasties to be awarded the Silver Star, and he also was awarded the Vietnam Service Medal with four bronze stars and Purple Heart Medal.
Yered did not know he would be honored in such a big way. He died in 2009 from a heart attack in his home state of Massachusetts. He was 69.
“My father was proud and private and never really talked about Vietnam to us,” said his daughter, Lori Geddis. “I hope he would be proud of this. He was never the kind of person to have the attention on him.
“But a lot of people respected my father and I think people will try to live up to his expectations. Even after he left the Coast Guard, he was a groundskeeper at a high school and his fields were perfect.”
The Robert Yered crew is a proud group, starting with the cook, FS1 Edgar Carrelo, who makes sure every meal is fit for a hard-working bunch: from made-to-order omelets for breakfast to churrasco with mushroom sauce for dinner.
On the last night at sea before reaching Miami Beach, some of the crew watched the sun set over the Atlantic Ocean by enjoying cigars and taking pictures. “This is an awesome ship and the crew size is ideal,” Stepler said. “You can be really close to the crew and get to know everybody — their quirks, their likes, their dislikes. That’s one of the fun things of going to sea.”
Gil, who graduated from North Miami Beach High School, said the crew is eager to put the training behind them and begin the real missions.
“We want to be the first Fast Response Cutter with a drug bust,” said Kelly, a father of three from Kissimmee. “Even if we see a bale floating, we’ll take it.”