Speedy boats provide extra muscle for state ferry system

Within 72 hours of the London terrorist bombings on July 7, military cargo planes arrived here carrying Coast Guard fast-patrol boats from San Diego.

Today, as the nation's transportation system heads into a third week of heightened alert, the six San Diego-based boats continue to ply Elliott Bay, providing added security for Washington State Ferries.

Coast Guard Sector Seattle, headquartered at Pier 36, has used 13 locally based boats to escort ferries and, occasionally, cruise ships since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

The added muscle from California came after Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff announced on the day of the London attacks that he was raising the nation's threat level, but only for mass-transit systems.

"This includes regional and inner-city passenger rail, subways and metropolitan bus systems," Chertoff said.

For Seattle, homeland-security efforts focused on the ferries.

As Chertoff raised the threat level, Gov. Christine Gregoire announced the State Patrol would increase canine security and the number of troopers on vessels and terminals.

Since San Diego has a huge military presence but a relatively small maritime transportation system, its 25-foot boats were deployed north.

Manufactured in Port Orchard, Kitsap County, the Defender-class boats can motor at more than 60 miles per hour.

So far, all has been quiet.

Coast Guard officials say they have no intelligence suggesting an imminent attack here, or anywhere else in the country.

The Coast Guard Captain of the Port, Capt. Stephen Metruck, likened the patrols to a "cop on the beat."

Ferry passengers shouldn't be alarmed if they see the Coast Guard draw alongside their vessel. The escorts are often random and sometimes change.

Yesterday, for example, two patrol boats waited at Colman Dock on the downtown Seattle waterfront for a ferry to load. After idling for about 10 minutes, the coxswains decided to switch escorts and meet the ferry Hyak just off Alki in West Seattle.

The Coast Guard does not provide security to specific ferries or routes, but keeps a fluid schedule.

"We're here to provide a security blanket," said Lt. Matt Baer, commanding officer at Sector Seattle.

The Coast Guard presence is far from soft. Each boat has a four-member crew. At their disposal is at least one M-60 machine gun, an assault rifle and a shotgun. Each crewman also wears a sidearm.

The marine radio and bullhorn are the most-used equipment.

The Coast Guard enforces a 100-yard security perimeter around ferries and cruise ships.

Errant boaters receive a verbal warning. Repeat offenders, and there have been very few, get a citation.

Coast Guard officials acknowledged there may not be a lot of obvious differences between a negligent boater and a would-be terrorist trying to get close to a ferry.

"It's one of the most challenging things that can happen out there," Baer said. "We know the boaters in the area. We know what's ordinary and not ordinary. We're looking for what's not ordinary."

The 24 crew members from San Diego will head home once the Coast Guard lowers the alert, and only the folks in Washington, D.C., know when that's going to be.

Meanwhile, Sector Seattle and the State Patrol will continue heightened operations around the clock, every day.

Alex Fryer: 206-464-8124 or afryer@seattletimes.com

A Coast Guard defender-class boat escorts the state ferry Hyak in Elliott Bay. It's one of six San Diego-based vessels, which can travel up to 60 miles per hour, added to Seattle's 13-boat security flotilla after the July 7 London bombings. (GREG GILBERT / THE SEATTLE TIMES)