WSES-2 Sea Bird
During the late-1970s and early 1980s the Coast Guard increased its capabilities to meet the growing threat posed by maritime smugglers. The Service tested and evaluated the surface effects ship [SES] Dorado (WSES-1) for a period between 1981 and 1982 to test its effectiveness as a patrol craft for the shallow waters around the coast of Florida. When the tests proved successful, the Coast Guard acquired three SESs for active use: Sea Hawk (WSES-2); Shearwater (WSES-3); and Petrel (WSES-4) beginning in the summer of 1982. On 1 November 1982 the Coast Guard established the Coast Guard Surface Effect Ship Division in Key West, Florida. The Division was made up of these three SESs and included a support staff. This was the first time a Coast Guard "division" of cutters was formed since the Vietnam War.
They were tasked with, as a public affairs pamphlet noted: "maritime law enforcement, targeting [their] efforts towards the interdiction of narcotics and controlled substances smuggled into the United States by sea. Not since Prohibition have Coast Guard cutters been commissioned primarily to support maritime law enforcement. The Division's secondary mission is in support of the Coast Guard's search and rescue (SAR) duties." Those duties expanded as new problems arose, including interdicting illegal migrants, enforcing fisheries regulations, and operating in support of the Maritime Defense Zone operations and exercises, particularly those duties involving mine countermeasures and coastal defense.
These cutters were unique. Although the Coast Guard had experimented with non-traditional vessels such as hydrofoils as late as the 1970s, no such craft had seen extensive service. These three SESs were an exception. They were rigid sidewall hovercraft constructed of a lightweight aluminum alloy. Their lift engines powered fans that created a pressurized air cushion under the cutter, thereby lifting the craft, thus reducing drag and draft. The solid sidewalls pierced the water, creating a catamaran hull, and the air cushion was sealed by flexible rubberized skirts at the bow and stern. This allowed these craft to operate at high speeds in waters both shallow and deep, making them ideal patrol craft for the waters off the coast of Florida and well out into the Caribbean. Their wide beam and the catamaran hull also made them extremely stable craft, even in high seas.
The Sea Hawk was built by Bell Halter Marine, Incorporated at Chalmette, Louisiana, as a oil rig supply boat. Her keel was laid down on 20 May 1980 and she was launched as Stride Command for Command Marine to be used as an off shore crew boat. After undergoing shakedown she was purchased by the Coast Guard on 12 June 1982. She was commissioned under the command of LT Kenneth M. Bradford on 17 November 1982 and was assigned to the CG Surface Effect Ship Division based at Key West. She commenced her first law enforcement patrol on 26 November 1982, which lasted for six days.
She made her first seizure on 29 January 1983 when her boarding team discovered 8,500 pounds of marijuana on board the S/V Family Affair. On 26 January 1984 she seized two vessels with 400 bales of marijuana on board in the Bahamas. The Surface Effect Ship Division was awarded a Coast Guard Unit Commendation with the Operational Distinguishing device for their service in interdicting narcotic smuggling from 17 November 1982 to 29 January 1984. On 2 February 1984 she intercepted a 45-foot sailboat north of Cay Sal Bank with 143 Haitians on board and transferred them to the CGC Hamilton for return to Haiti. On 15 February 1984 she seized the P/C Michelle off Bahamas carrying 10 tons of marijuana. On 8 March 1984 she seized two F/Vs south of Williams Island after observing them transfer bales of marijuana.
On 13 October 1984 she seized a F/V 40 miles east of Andros Island with marijuana on board. Later that same day she seized the F/V Nice 75 miles southeast of Miami, Florida, carrying five tons of marijuana. On 15 October 1984 she intercepted 10 Haitians on a 20-foot P/C and delivered them to immigration. From 31 October to 31 December 1984 she participated in Operation Wagonwheel Forces, an inter-agency operation that attempted to disrupt narcotics trafficking in the Caribbean. The Sea Hawk was awarded the Coast Guard Unit Commendation with the Operational Distinguishing device for her part in the operation.
On 4 December 1984 she intercepted a sailboat 190 miles southeast of Miami, carrying 265 Haitians.
On 14 January 1985 she seized the P/C El Cid 150 miles southeast of Key West, carrying marijuana residue. On 9 March 1985 she seized a F/V 100 miles southwest of Miami carrying marijuana and cocaine in a secret compartment. On 7 April 1986 she collided with the abandoned P/C Profiteer 75 miles northwest of Dry Tortugas while trying to disable the P/C by entangling its propeller; Profiteer, carrying eight tons of marijuana, sank. From 1 October 1986 to 30 June 1987 she participated in an inter-agency winter law enforcement operation to disrupt the maritime and air smuggling of marijuana and cocaine. The SES Division, including Sea Hawk, was awarded the Coast Guard Meritorious Unit Commendation with the Operational Distinguishing device for this operation. On 22 July 1987 she intercepted over 100 Haitians on Deu Minnocen 20 miles southeast of Miami and turned them over to Immigration. On 31 August 1987 she assisted following a bomb threat against the cruise ship Scandinavian Star. On 1 September 1987 she seized the Haitian M/V Lucelia 25 mile northeast of Dog Rocks carrying 869 bricks of cocaine.
She, along with the SES Division, were awarded another Coast Guard Unit Commendation with the Operational Distinguishing Device for "exceptionally meritorious service from October 1988 through September 1989" in conducting law enforcement patrols and search and rescue. By the summer of 1989, she was responsible for the seizure of 31 vessels, resulting in the interdiction of 184,000 pounds of marijuana and 4,525 pounds of cocaine. In addition, she interdicted over 1,077 aliens attempting to illegally enter the U.S., and conducted 91 search and rescue cases.
The Sea Hawk was awarded a Coast Guard Meritorious Unit Commendation "for meritorious service from 11 through 21 November 1991, 30 November through 7 December 1991, and 7 through 14 January 1992 while engaged in search and rescue and interdiction of an unprecedented outpouring of Haitian immigrants." She earned a final Coast Guard Unit Commendation with Operational Distinguishing Device on 26 January 1994 for "exceptionally meritorious service from June 1992 to January 1994 in the execution of a multitude of missions throughout the Seventh Coast Guard District. SEA HAWK rescued, recovered, and medically screened 281 Cuban migrants and saved 80 lives and 131,000 dollars in property in 88 search and rescue cases. SEA HAWK completed 34 patrols totalling [sic] 3,437 hours."
All three WSESs were decommissioned on 28 January 1994 and were laid up for storage in Key West.
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