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ABOARD THE USS BATAAN — Sailors and Marines climbed up to “Vulture’s Row” to catch a glimpse of the Rock of Gibraltar and to enjoy the rare, panoramic sights of both Europe and Africa.

While the view was spectacular, a small boat fewer than 100 yards away briefly stole their attention. As the USS Bataan left the Atlantic Ocean for the Mediterranean Sea on its way to the Persian Gulf, the wooden boat suddenly turned and pointed its bow at the hull of the massive warship.

A heavily armed Marine AH-1 Cobra attack helicopter, on the prowl for anything suspicious, swooped down and circled the boat to send a very blunt warning: “You’re too close.”

The boat harmlessly passed the Bataan, but the incident illustrated how a trip through the Strait of Gibraltar can go from tranquil to tense in the blink of an eye. Sailors and Marines sometimes must make lightning-quick decisions about whether a nearby boat is an innocent fishing vessel or something a terrorist wants to use as a torpedo.

“The challenge is keeping an eye on the small boats,” said Lt. j.g. Doug Jackson, the Bataan’s force protection and anti-terrorism officer.

“At times there are so many you don’t know what the other person is going to do. That’s the challenging part. You have to be able to know what to look for, to be able to identify whether that particular item is a threat or whether or not it’s just mom and dad out there on a pleasure boat. You can’t write anything out nowadays.”

The terrorist bombing of the USS Cole in 2000 proved that. A small dinghy packed with explosives rammed the destroyer while it refueled in a Yemen port, killing 17 sailors. The tragedy changed many of the force protection procedures aboard ships before the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks against the United States.

The Strait of Gibraltar is a mile marker for Gulf-bound U.S. warships such as the Bataan, which is carrying equipment for members of the Second Marine Expeditionary Force who will be rotating into Iraq. The strait is just one of the many risky choke points along the route. At peak times, it can be as chaotic as rush hour on a major freeway.

Commercial and U.S. warships have been using the strait for decades, and it remains a critical route for vessels supplying the 130,000 U.S. troops in Iraq. The Bataan is carrying a load of helicopters and equipment in support of the largest rotation of U.S. military forces since World War II.

While terrorists have not attacked a ship in the strait, al-Qaida is suspected of plotting a hit on U.S. and NATO ships.

Navy and Marine commanders prepare well in advance for the journey through the strait, which is about eight miles wide at its narrowest point. They will not discuss exactly how they protect a ship from a possible attack because of security reasons, but helicopters play a large role.

Before the Bataan entered the strait, a mix of attack helicopters launched from the flight deck.

Maj. Todd Holder piloted one of the Cobras that guarded the ship like a hawk. The heavily-armed helicopters are fast, sleek and intimidating.

“Largely, we’re a visible deterrent to craft out there,” Holder said. “We can react, if we have to, to protect the ship … or whatever we’re associated with, but largely the main intent of seeing us out there and flying is really to make somebody think twice before they would attempt to do something to the ship.”

The Strait of Gibraltar is the least dangerous of the choke points ships have to pass through, Holder said, but the potential for an attack is there.

“I think that with having the aircraft out there, they [terrorists] have to understand it’s going to make it a lot harder for them to get close,” he said. “It’s going to make their chance for success a lot smaller.”

U.S. Navy ships have some help when going through the passage. NATO-flagged vessels help escort warships and allied commercial ships. The Spanish coast guard also vigorously patrols the coastline.

Most of the Bataan’s trip through the strait was uneventful. After crossing the Atlantic without seeing another ship or a speck of land, seeing the Rock of Gibraltar peaking up through the mist is a refreshing sight.

Some sailors and Marines celebrated the moment by smoking cigars on “Vulture’s Row,” the top deck that offers an excellent vista. Others took out their personal digital cameras to capture the moment.

But as they posed for pictures with Africa on one side and Europe on the other, force protection officers were busy at work.

“It will make you very tense,” Jackson said. “Because you prepare for it, you drill for it and not knowing what the outcome is going to be. Hopefully, everything comes out positive as in the fact that nothing happens. That’s what you train for and that’s what you do. This is our job.”

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