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A U.S. Navy vessel of Coastal Riverine Squadron-1 Forward Wave 2 skips across the water while on patrol in Djibouti port. The vessels can reach speeds around 40 knots.

A U.S. Navy vessel of Coastal Riverine Squadron-1 Forward Wave 2 skips across the water while on patrol in Djibouti port. The vessels can reach speeds around 40 knots. (Michael Abrams/Stars and Stripes)

A U.S. Navy vessel of Coastal Riverine Squadron-1 Forward Wave 2 skips across the water while on patrol in Djibouti port. The vessels can reach speeds around 40 knots.

A U.S. Navy vessel of Coastal Riverine Squadron-1 Forward Wave 2 skips across the water while on patrol in Djibouti port. The vessels can reach speeds around 40 knots. (Michael Abrams/Stars and Stripes)

Just before dawn, sailors of the Coastal Riverine Squadron-1 Forward Wave 2 prepare their 34-foot Sea Ark vessels for a patrol of Djibouti harbor.

Just before dawn, sailors of the Coastal Riverine Squadron-1 Forward Wave 2 prepare their 34-foot Sea Ark vessels for a patrol of Djibouti harbor. (Michael Abrams/Stars and Stripes)

Petty Officer 2nd Class Javan Wells, the patrol leader, talks to the other vessels of Coastal Riverine Squadron-1 Forward Wave 2, as they patrol the port of Djibouti.

Petty Officer 2nd Class Javan Wells, the patrol leader, talks to the other vessels of Coastal Riverine Squadron-1 Forward Wave 2, as they patrol the port of Djibouti. (Michael Abrams/Stars and Stripes)

Two U.S. Navy 34-foot Sea Ark vessels of Coastal Riverine Squadron-1 Forward Wave 2 patrol the waters of Djibouti harbor.

Two U.S. Navy 34-foot Sea Ark vessels of Coastal Riverine Squadron-1 Forward Wave 2 patrol the waters of Djibouti harbor. (Michael Abrams/Stars and Stripes)

Petty Officer 1st Class Cindy Berkshire keeps a lookout during a patrol of Djibouti port with Coastal Riverine Squadron-1 Forward Wave 2. The Navy's Coastal Riverine Squadrons, formed soon after the 2000 terrorist attack on the USS Cole in Yemen, provide security for Navy ships navigating through dangerous waters around the world.

Petty Officer 1st Class Cindy Berkshire keeps a lookout during a patrol of Djibouti port with Coastal Riverine Squadron-1 Forward Wave 2. The Navy's Coastal Riverine Squadrons, formed soon after the 2000 terrorist attack on the USS Cole in Yemen, provide security for Navy ships navigating through dangerous waters around the world. (Michael Abrams/Stars and Stripes)

Following in the wake of another U.S. Navy Sea Ark, a boat of Coastal Riverine Squadron-1 Forward Wave 2 skips across the water while on patrol in Djibouti port. The vessels can reach speeds around 40 knots.

Following in the wake of another U.S. Navy Sea Ark, a boat of Coastal Riverine Squadron-1 Forward Wave 2 skips across the water while on patrol in Djibouti port. The vessels can reach speeds around 40 knots. (Michael Abrams/Stars and Stripes)

Petty Officer 2nd Class Javan Wells, left, the patrol leader, and Petty Officer 2nd Class Eric Lee go through a search and rescue maneuver while their unit, the Coastal Riverine Squadron-1 Forward Wave 2  patrol the port of Djibouti.

Petty Officer 2nd Class Javan Wells, left, the patrol leader, and Petty Officer 2nd Class Eric Lee go through a search and rescue maneuver while their unit, the Coastal Riverine Squadron-1 Forward Wave 2 patrol the port of Djibouti. (Michael Abrams/Stars and Stripes)

A vessel of Coastal Riverine Squadron-1 Forward Wave 2 passes the German frigate Brandenburg while patrolling in Djibouti port.

A vessel of Coastal Riverine Squadron-1 Forward Wave 2 passes the German frigate Brandenburg while patrolling in Djibouti port. (Michael Abrams/Stars and Stripes)

A U.S. Navy Sea Ark of Coastal Riverine Squadron-1 Forward Wave 2 forces away a French motor boat during training in the Djibouti port. The Navy?s Coastal Riverine Squadrons, formed soon after the 2000 terrorist attack on the USS Cole in Yemen, provide security for Navy ships navigating through dangerous waters around the world.

A U.S. Navy Sea Ark of Coastal Riverine Squadron-1 Forward Wave 2 forces away a French motor boat during training in the Djibouti port. The Navy?s Coastal Riverine Squadrons, formed soon after the 2000 terrorist attack on the USS Cole in Yemen, provide security for Navy ships navigating through dangerous waters around the world. (Michael Abrams/Stars and Stripes)

U.S. Coast Guard Cmdr. Alan Tubbs, who leads 69 sailors deployed with Coastal Riverine Squadron-1 Wave 2 to Camp Lemonnier, Djibouti, talks to a French counterpart while their crews train in the port of Djibouti.

U.S. Coast Guard Cmdr. Alan Tubbs, who leads 69 sailors deployed with Coastal Riverine Squadron-1 Wave 2 to Camp Lemonnier, Djibouti, talks to a French counterpart while their crews train in the port of Djibouti. (Michael Abrams/Stars and Stripes)

Following in the wake of another U.S. Navy Sea Ark, a boat of Coastal Riverine Squadron-1 Forward Wave 2 skips across the water while on patrol in Djibouti port. The Navy?s Coastal Riverine Squadrons, formed soon after the 2000 terrorist attack on the USS Cole in Yemen, provide security for Navy ships navigating through dangerous waters around the world.

Following in the wake of another U.S. Navy Sea Ark, a boat of Coastal Riverine Squadron-1 Forward Wave 2 skips across the water while on patrol in Djibouti port. The Navy?s Coastal Riverine Squadrons, formed soon after the 2000 terrorist attack on the USS Cole in Yemen, provide security for Navy ships navigating through dangerous waters around the world. (Michael Abrams/Stars and Stripes)

CAMP LEMONNIER, Djibouti — Before sunrise, the sailors slip off base in a boat-hauling convoy through the darkened streets of Djibouti, harbor-bound.

Sailors of the Coastal Riverine Squadron-1 Forward Wave 2, deployed to Camp Lemonnier to guard big U.S. Navy ships cruising into Djibouti’s port, have the tricky task of offloading their 34-foot Sea Ark vessels onto a crowded ramp occupied by rickety fishing canoes.

“You have to be careful here. People sometimes are sleeping under those boats,” said U.S. Coast Guard Cmdr. Alan Tubbs, who leads 69 sailors deployed with CRS Wave 2.

On a recent morning, the offload went off without a hitch as the three Sea Arks slid past the overturned wooden fishing boats and headed out to deep water.

With Yemen a mere 50 miles across the narrow stretch where the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden meet, and Somalia directly to the south, the tiny nation of Djibouti is nestled in a key strategic zone where the U.S. maintains drones, special operations forces, crisis-response soldiers and an array of airlift capability. It’s all aimed at countering threats and building the capabilities of partner militaries.

But when it comes to securing Djibouti’s waterways for passing U.S. Navy vessels, the job belongs to the Navy’s Coastal Riverine Squadron. Formed soon after the 2000 terrorist attack on the USS Cole in Yemen, Coastal Riverine squadrons provide security for Navy ships navigating dangerous waters around the world.

The high-speed boats, which can reach speeds of about 40 knots (46 mph), are mounted with two .50-caliber machine guns and one M240 7.62mm machine gun at the front.

“When you are postured like that, people don’t want to come near you,” Tubbs said.

Ultimately, the squadron’s job is to de-escalate tensions and ensure no unknown vessels get near U.S. warships, which often refuel in Djibouti.

The hardest part of the job, sailors say, is distinguishing when an unidentified boat poses a true threat. In a busy harbor often filled with fishing boats, language barriers pose a challenge, sailors said.

If a boat does approach, the team goes through a variety of measures to ensure the boat keeps its distance. Loud speakers, flares and aggressive boat maneuvers that kick up white water all send a message of warning to the approaching vessel, sailors said.

“It’s to show an aggressive posture, said Petty Officer 2nd Class Javan Wells, patrol leader. “Our job is to prevent things from developing into a threat in the first place.”

As the team cruised the Djiboutian waters, running through maneuvers and monitoring the security landscape, Tubbs quizzed team members on the rules of engagement.

If a true threat emerges, there is no time to call up the chain for approval to open fire. That means the decision to attack is delegated to the boat’s coxswain.

There is no room for mistakes. Any misfire on civilians would result in a major diplomatic row, Tubbs said.

“That’s why we go through these test rides,” he said. “I need to be comfortable in what they are doing out here.”

vandiver.john@stripes.com

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John covers U.S. military activities across Europe and Africa. Based in Stuttgart, Germany, he previously worked for newspapers in New Jersey, North Carolina and Maryland. He is a graduate of the University of Delaware.

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