The USS Fort McHenry is heading home, ending a seven-month maiden mission as the lead ship sailing Western African waters for the Africa Partnership Station mission, set up to strengthen U.S.-African ties and impart seafaring knowledge.

For months, the big-deck amphibious dock landing ship assimilated a sailing nation, accommodating an international crew of teachers and students. It made numerous port visits to teach West African navies to secure their coastlines and waterways — an effort to counter drug-smuggling and illegal human-trafficking and to cut down on illegal fishing, a $1 billion industry.

But the ship’s departure does not end the U.S. commitment for “persistent presence” in the Gulf of Guinea, said its commander, Navy Capt. John Nowell.

“The trick here is to keep the momentum going, to continue to push our persistent presence position, and we plan to do that in a variety of ways,” he said. The U.S. Coast Guard will send a cutter this summer, and other U.S. ships have been tapped for deployments later in the year, he said.

The McHenry’s companion ship, the High Speed Vessel 2 Swift, has a few more weeks in Africa before it also ends its months-long deployment, marked by scientific aid, community relations and humanitarian aid missions in the gulf.

The international staff of the APS mission, which aimed to show a softer side to the Navy, is led by U.S. Naval Forces Europe. Crews have worked with naval and military leaders from countries such as Ghana, Cameroon, Senegal, Sao Tome and Principe, and Nigeria.

At the mission’s onset, Navy officials expected to face fears by African leaders that the U.S. military intended to ratchet up its presence on the continent, with the launching of APS and the creation of the Defense Department’s Africa Command, or AFRICOM, Nowell said.

“We found there actually ended up being little suspicion or fear about Africa Partnership Station, about bases or expanding the footprint,” he said. “Every place we went, we were asked ‘When are you coming back? Can you stay longer next time? We want to partner.’

“[I]t was coincidence that AFRICOM stood up as Africa Partnership Station culminates three years of focused engagement.”

In all, the international crew visited 14 West and Central African countries, and trained more than 1,500 maritime professionals in thousands of courses, he said. One of the most successful initiatives was the “ship rider” program, Nowell said, in which naval leaders from participating nations sailed with the McHenry for the duration of its deployment.

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