Vol. 2, Issue 42, December 21, 2004
U.S.S. Constitution Makes Drug Bust
The U.S. Coast Guard has struggled to fulfill its mandate of protecting America's vast coastlines in the heightened state of alert since 2001. It has attempted a variety of strategies to cope with insufficient funds and disorganized direction from the Department of Homeland Security. When it took the unusual step of borrowing an historic sailing vessel from the Navy, many thought the Coast Guard had finally lost all credibility, not to mention common sense.
"When we asked the Navy if we could use the Constitution for patrols, our critics were laughing coast to coast," said Rear Admiral Sally Brice O'Hara, commander of the Coast Guard Fifth District. "They're not laughing now."
The 207 year old U.S.S. Constitution is the oldest commissioned vessel in the U.S. Navy, and has been engaged in an educational outreach program since 2000. At the request of a desperately short-handed Coast Guard district, it set aside its educational duties and sailed forth on patrol December 15. It promptly captured a fast-running drug boat and confiscated an estimated $23 million in cocaine.
"Old Ironsides still has it in her," said O'Hara. "It hasn't survived for two centuries out of charity."
The U.S.S. Constitution is a 44-gun, 3-masted frigate launched in 1797. The one-time flagship of the U.S. Navy was famous for its victories over British and French warships in the early 19th century; it has served as a training ship or been in dry-dock since the 1850s. However, its recent restoration to its original condition, and subsequent sailing tour, convinced Coast Guard officials that it was seaworthy enough to at least provide some backup for their regular fleet of cutters.
But "Old Ironsides" had bigger plans. Without any engines to make noise, the frigate went unnoticed by the drug running boat Marciela on December 17 when it nearly ran into the sailing vessel. The Marciela opened fire on the Constitution with automatic weapons; but the heavy-caliber bullets, which would have blasted through a standard fiberglass hull, proved useless against the Constitution's 25-inch thick oak hull.
"Then we gave 'em a broadside," said Commanding Officer L.C. Wright. "Man, that was fun." The deafened crew of the drug-running cruiser, staring at twenty smoking cannons and water pouring through the resulting twelve-inch holes in their hull, decided to surrender quickly.
However, despite the success of the Constitution with the Coast Guard, its future on shoreline patrol is likely to be very brief.
"Old Ironsides is a Navy vessel first and foremost," said Gordon England, Secretary of the Navy. "Now that it's shown it can handle active duty, I want to get it over to the Mediterranean ASAP."
"Aw, the Navy gets to keep all the good stuff," said O'Hara. "First they scuttled our request for a carrier group, and now this. They never would have gotten away with taking back the Constitution if Ridge was still in office."