Subscribe
Petty Officer 1st Class Lanieka Towle mans a M240 machine gun at the bow of a patrol craft, providing security for U.S. Navy ships visiting Bahrain Oct. 9, 2014.

Petty Officer 1st Class Lanieka Towle mans a M240 machine gun at the bow of a patrol craft, providing security for U.S. Navy ships visiting Bahrain Oct. 9, 2014. (Hendrick Simoes/Stars and Stripes)

Petty Officer 1st Class Lanieka Towle mans a M240 machine gun at the bow of a patrol craft, providing security for U.S. Navy ships visiting Bahrain Oct. 9, 2014.

Petty Officer 1st Class Lanieka Towle mans a M240 machine gun at the bow of a patrol craft, providing security for U.S. Navy ships visiting Bahrain Oct. 9, 2014. (Hendrick Simoes/Stars and Stripes)

A patrol craft from Naval Support Activity Bahrain's harbor patrol unit guards the aircraft carrier USS George H.W. Bush during its port visit in Bahrain Oct. 9, 2014.

A patrol craft from Naval Support Activity Bahrain's harbor patrol unit guards the aircraft carrier USS George H.W. Bush during its port visit in Bahrain Oct. 9, 2014. (Hendrick Simoes/Stars and Stripes)

A patrol craft from Naval Support Activity Bahrain's harbor patrol unit patrols the area where U.S. Navy ships are moored, Oct. 9, 2014.

A patrol craft from Naval Support Activity Bahrain's harbor patrol unit patrols the area where U.S. Navy ships are moored, Oct. 9, 2014. (Hendrick Simoes/Stars and Stripes)

Petty Officer 3rd Class Josh Kirk, from Naval Support Activity Bahrain's harbor patrol unit, keeps an eye on commercial boat traffic transiting the area where U.S. Navy ships are moored, Oct. 9, 2014.

Petty Officer 3rd Class Josh Kirk, from Naval Support Activity Bahrain's harbor patrol unit, keeps an eye on commercial boat traffic transiting the area where U.S. Navy ships are moored, Oct. 9, 2014. (Hendrick Simoes/Stars and Stripes)

The USS Philippine Sea heads out to sea Oct. 9, 2014, after a port visit in Bahrain. The ship is escorted out of the port by the Naval Support Activity Bahrain's harbor patrol unit.

The USS Philippine Sea heads out to sea Oct. 9, 2014, after a port visit in Bahrain. The ship is escorted out of the port by the Naval Support Activity Bahrain's harbor patrol unit. (Hendrick Simoes/Stars and Stripes)

A patrol craft from Naval Support Activity Bahrain's harbor patrol unit guards the aircraft carrier USS George H.W. Bush during its port visit in Bahrain Oct. 9, 2014.

A patrol craft from Naval Support Activity Bahrain's harbor patrol unit guards the aircraft carrier USS George H.W. Bush during its port visit in Bahrain Oct. 9, 2014. (Hendrick Simoes/Stars and Stripes)

Petty Officer 3rd Class Josh Kirk, from Naval Support Activity Bahrain's harbor patrol unit, keeps an eye on commercial boat traffic transiting the area where U.S. Navy ships are moored, Oct. 9, 2014.

Petty Officer 3rd Class Josh Kirk, from Naval Support Activity Bahrain's harbor patrol unit, keeps an eye on commercial boat traffic transiting the area where U.S. Navy ships are moored, Oct. 9, 2014. (Hendrick Simoes/Stars and Stripes)

KHAWR AL QULAY’AH, Bahrain — As the guided-missile cruiser USS Philippine Sea was leaving port here last week, a nearby Navy patrol craft noticed something not quite right.

“I have a white pleasure craft coming towards me,” Petty Officer 3rd Class Josh Kirk said, alerting fellow sailors by radio.

Sailors never determined what the boat’s intentions were. But they couldn’t take any risks. They were prepared to open fire if necessary.

“This is probably the most critical port in the U.S. Navy, especially given a lot of the operations in theater right now,” said Chief Petty Officer Jason Boatman, the training chief for the harbor patrol unit in Bahrain, the Navy’s largest and busiest.

It’s no secret that Navy assets in Bahrain are a prime target for those seeking to do the United States harm, or that militants have active supporters in Persian Gulf monarchies. And everybody remembers that terrorists used a small boat laden with explosives to strike at the destroyer USS Cole in the port of Aden in 2000. In that attack, 17 crewmembers were killed and 39 wounded.

Officials, therefore, take security very seriously here.

As the white boat continued on its course toward the USS Philippine Sea, Kirk briefly turned his sirens on. But the incoming boat showed no sign of slowing down or changing course.

He hit the sirens again, but there was still no change.

On the bow of the patrol craft, Petty Officer 1st Class Lanieka Towle saw one of the passengers on the fast-approaching boat raising an object. It could have been a weapon, but it was hard to tell.

Towle grabbed ahold of her M240 machine gun in preparation for a possible attack, while Kirk bumped up the throttle to intercept. He conducted a “screen out” maneuver — coming within 10 yards of the boat — as he attempted to block its path to the Philippine Sea. A brief chase ensued, but the unknown speeding boat continued on away from the ship.

At its nearest point, the boat came within 315 yards of the Philippine Sea. More aggressive action would have been taken if it had broken 300 yards, Kirk said.

For Towle it was the closest she’d ever come to another boat in this kind of situation, but she said such encounters are routine “to some degree.”

“It does make you realize how important you are here in the water,” she said

The U.S. Navy base in Bahrain, which is home to the U.S. 5th Fleet is the most strategic in the Middle East. Located in the Persian Gulf, it’s a major stop for ships involved in operations against Islamic militants in Iraq and Syria and ships patrolling the Gulf of Aden for pirates.

Along with protecting various assets and infrastructure, the unit escorts about 60 U.S. and coalition ships a month in and out of port.

“They are some of the hardest working sailors,” said Capt. David Meron, the base commander of Naval Support Activity Bahrain. “They are out there in all kinds of weather day and night providing waterborne security for all the ships that come into port.”

5th Fleet has minesweepers, coastal patrol ships and other vessels based in this tiny island Persian Gulf nation — a presence that’s increased substantially in the past few years. The port is a popular stopping place for the bigger ships — including aircraft carriers and amphibious ships — on lengthy deployments to the region.

All of the ships depend on the harbor patrol unit to provide security, whether they’re based here or just visiting. Kirk said when on patrol he’s always scanning the water for swimmers, divers and vessels acting suspiciously. It’s a difficult task because there’s so much activity at the port: all sorts of fishing boats, barges, recreational speedboats and commercial vessels moving around.

Boatman, the training chief, said it’s more dangerous here than on other mainstream Navy bases like Norfolk and San Diego. “Our sailors on the boats are always on their toes,” he said. “We’ve got a lot of young sailors out there that are doing a fine job and protecting assets that are most critical.”

For Kirk and Towle there was little time to reflect on the close encounter with the speedboat on this particular day. Later, the unit was tasked to escort the aircraft carrier USS George H.W. Bush out to sea after a port visit.

simoes.hendrick@stripes.com

Sign Up for Daily Headlines

Sign up to receive a daily email of today's top military news stories from Stars and Stripes and top news outlets from around the world.

Sign Up Now