Standing the Watch: Everyone Counts In Homeland Security

The Coast Guard cutter was on a law enforcement patrol in the northern part of the Mona Passage — the ocean strait separating Puerto Rico from the Dominican Republic. The sea was more or less calm with swells less than a foot. A refreshing Caribbean wind blew through the pilot house keeping us bridge watch standers delightfully cool.

A floating blanket of clouds blocked out the moon making it hard to see far into the night.

A quiet voice filled with doubt and hesitation broke the silence. It was the lookout — one of the cuter’s most experienced seaman.

“Sir — there might be something off of the starboard bow. I saw it once and am having trouble finding it again.”

I acknowledged his report. I and other bridge watch standers quickly scanned the area off the starboard bow with our binoculars. Nothing…..

I checked the ship’s radar. No blips…..

I called the Combat Information Center and asked them to check their radar screens- No contacts…….

I visually scanned the area again and rechecked the radar. Again Nothing….

After gathering my thoughts, I called the Captain who was asleep in his cabin.

“Good morning Captain — it is 2 a.m. The lookout has reported a contact off the starboard bow. The bridge crew cannot visually confirm anything there. We do not have any radar contacts. I recommend we come right 15 degrees to a course of 000 to investigate.”

The captain replied “Sounds good — I will be coming up to the bridge shortly.”

“Yes sir” I replied and then gave the order “Helmsman come right 15 degree steady-up on course 000.”

Less than a minute passed and helmsman reported “Steady on course 000.”

“Roger” I replied.

We slowly sailed forward in the darkness, scouring the sea with our eyes when the lookout excitedly reported, “Sir there is something in front of us. Permission to turn on the spotlight.”

“Yes” — I replied.

Suddenly a ray of light streamed from the top of the pilot house over the bow and down to the ocean. 

Instantly, a white billowing object began emerging from the darkness … about five hundred yards ahead off the starboard bow.

What is it?… I thought for a second.

“It is extremely close. Helmsman all stop!” I commanded.

All at once, we heard a multitude of voices. It was a sail boat riding extremely low in the water and filled with more people than I could count. These people had a high likelihood of dying if they continued on their voyage.

I called the captain. “Sir, I believe we have found a migrant vessel heading from the Dominican Republic to Puerto Rico. It is full of people.”

The captain replied — “I was getting ready to call you. Get the rest of the crew up. Set the Migrant Interdiction Bill.”

We spent the rest of the morning transferring the migrants from their overloaded vessel.

It turns out they had been at sea for days and had run out of food and water. They were in trouble and some would have perished at sea if we had not found them.

We spent the rest of the day working with U.S. immigration officials determining how these migrants would be processed.

I often think about that night. The lookout to me was the night’s hero. He was one of the cutter’s lowest ranking crew members. His eyes and not the cutter’s sophisticated radars found the migrants. He decided to make his report despite not being completely sure of himself and it made all the difference. There are people still alive because of his initiative.

The lookout report speaks to a bigger challenge we face as Americans. Homeland Security is an all hands affair. We cannot truly succeed if we are not looking out for each other. If we see something, we need to say say something in order to prevent harm to our communities, friends, and family.

The Watch — Keeping an Eye on Homeland Security