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OpSail 2012: U.S. Navy, Coast Guard inspire patriotism, bond multinational community

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Posted: Wednesday, June 13, 2012 11:43 am | Updated: 4:30 pm, Thu Jul 12, 2012.

Boater safety, security was paramount

NORFOLK -- Beautiful American and international tall ships, military vessels, tugboats and more lined the Downtown Norfolk Harbor, June 8, for the OpSail 2012 Virginia Parade of Sail.

Crowds waited patiently and cheered as the impressive fleet made its way down the Elizabeth River and culminated at Town Point Park in Downtown Norfolk. In addition to the many American and international tall ships, the presence of the U.S. Coast Guard Barque Eagle was a crowd pleaser.

This year, Operation Sail Inc. (OpSail) Virginia and the U.S. Navy commemorated the Bicentennial of the War of 1812 and “The Star-Spangled Banner,” spanning 12 days. The Norfolk-specific portion started on June 6 with the Sea and Air Parade of Sail, and ended with the Parade of Sail Up The Chesapeake, June 12. The events included: historic tall ships from several different countries, many open for public visitation; fireworks; concerts; festivals; a chef’s challenge; educational events and programs, and much more.

Leading the way for this year’s parade was the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Shearwater (WPB 87349) with its dedicated crew of 10, homeported in Portsmouth. Though the day was full of breathtaking views from the water – full of cannons firing, patriotic singing and aircraft flyovers – the Shearwater was there to make sure safety and security remained paramount.

“[My main goal] is the safety of the ships in OpSail and the public,” said Master Chief Boatswain’s Mate William “Bill” James, who has been in the U.S. Coast Guard for 28 years, but this was his first time participating in OpSail. “Both safety – it’s a crowded harbor – and also security, this is a high-interest event.”

For the Shearwater crew and the Coast Guard, the Parade of Sail was “normal routine business.”

“Fortunately, for us here in the port of Hampton Roads, this is a normal mission for us,” said James. “We normally escort Navy aircraft carriers, submarines and other high-value ships in and out of port, protecting them from external threats. So, this is kind of a fun version of that … we’re still doing the same mission, but I would say it’s a little less stressful.”

The crew also participated in the Sea and Air Parade of Sail earlier in the week and had an opportunity to forecast Friday’s main event.

“There was not as much boat traffic … and the warships are a little more able to take care of themselves,” he explained.

The Shearwater was well prepared for whatever the day’s event experienced, including medical and emergency rescue support.

“It depends on the type of emergency … everything from medical to security to attack. We have different plans in place already,” said James. “I have control of all the boats that would respond in an emergency in the parade itself. I would direct a unit, and if I needed other assistance, I can reach back to my superior commander and get other vessels.”

For two of Shearwater’s more seasoned crew members, Boatswain’s Mate 2nd Class Robert McConnell, Jr. and Machinery Technician 2nd Class Damien Gayle, safety for all ships involved was a top priority.

“My major concerns today is the safety of the sailboats, the safety of the people actually out there trying to get close to the sailboats, and make sure they understand that they don’t have as much maneuverability as a small boat would,” said McConnell.

Gayle echoed similar safety concerns and explained how the Coast Guard assists international ships participating in the parade.

“We have pilots on all the boats to escort and help them out, and show them the waterways on the way in,” he said.

With such a small crew manning the boat, each crew member had specific duties to ensure everyone stayed safe on and off the water.

“I’m the only person onboard that has just one job,” said James. “Everybody else has two to 10 – and everybody can pretty much fill in for anybody else.”

The highlight for many of the Shearwater crew members, and spectators alike, was the U.S. Coast Guard Barque Eagle, the only active (operational) commissioned sailing vessel in the U.S. maritime services.

“The Eagle is the flagship of the Coast Guard. People always remember when they see it,” said James. “I was lucky enough to sail on it for a couple of months, so it’s an important part for anyone in the Coast Guard to see it.”

“Two hundred years ... that’s what we’re celebrating,” said McConnell. “Everybody is here to see the tall ships, see The Eagle, and see all the other countries Armed Services, whether it be Navy or Coast Guard, and the civilian sailboats.

The Shearwater was available for public tours while it was docked in port, as well as other U.S. military vessels including: “The Eagle;” the dock landing ship USS Fort McHenry (LSD 43); the patrol coastal boats USS Monsoon (PC 4) and USS Shamal (PC 13); and two U.S. Naval Academy yard patrol (YP) boats.

OpSail 2012 will be in Baltimore / Annapolis, Md. from June 13 – 19; Boston, Mass. from June 30 - July 6; and New London, Conn. (tall ships only) from July 6 - 9. Visit http://opsail.org for more details.

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