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Coast Guard Patrols Windward Pass, Protects U.S.

Coast Guard Patrols Guantanamo Bay's Windward Pass to Protect U.S. Shores

Three weeks out of every four, Coast Guard Petty Officer 1st Class Daniel Figueroa studies the North Atlantic waters from an HU-25 "Falcon" aircraft, looking for illegal fishing ships and vessels in trouble.

But on a rotational basis, Figueroa and other members of from U.S. Coast Guard Air Station Cape Cod, in Massachusetts, carry out a distinctly different mission here. The deployed Coast Guardsmen patrol the Windward Pass for boats carrying cargos of drugs or illegal migrants toward U.S. waters.

Twice every day, the five-person crew flies across the Caribbean Sea toward Haiti, then north toward the Bahamas before returning to the Guantanamo Bay airfield in southeastern Cuba. The patrols, which typically cover about 700 miles, run about three hours.

Capt. Steve Pittman manned the aircraft controls last week on the second mission of the day as the crew studied the Haitian coastline from about a quarter mile offshore. Fellow pilot Capt. Eric Popiel scanned from the forward right seat. In the crew compartment, Figueroa and Petty Officer 2nd Class Robert Byrne, both aircraft mechanics and jumpmasters, peered through the left and right windows, calling out vessels as they spotted them. In the rear, Petty Officer 2nd Class Sean Benners trained his eyes on a console that included a radar system, infrared camera that captured images from below the pilots' seats, and nautical map.

"We're an intelligence-gathering platform," Pittman explained.

When crew members spot something suspicious -- speedboats with several large engines that could be running drugs or overloaded sailboats that could be transporting illegal migrants -- they report their findings.

Coast Guard "fast boats" -- transportable port-security boats -- operating from Guantanamo Bay, Coast Guard cutters in the region, or HH-60J "Jayhawk" helicopters based on Great Iguana Island in the Bahamas, responds to investigate and possibly board the vessel.

The Windward Pass here is critical because it offers a straight shot from the western Caribbean to the United States. It's a favored route for drug runners seeking to shortcut the route west around Cuba and Haitians bound for U.S. soil in dangerously overloaded wooden sailboats. "We try to catch them loading before they move out," Pittman said. "Our objective is to find them here, before they move north."

Ship traffic is relatively sparse in the region, so it's easier for the crew to pick out suspicious vessels before they move into more heavily trafficked sea lanes in the Bahamas, Benners said.

As he studied the waters 1,000 feet below, Figueroa demonstrated skills that earned him the nickname "Eagle Eyes" early in his Coast Guard career. "My scanning techniques are pretty unique," he said. With 20/10 vision, he trains his eyes on individual whitecaps on the water for a full seven seconds. If it disappears, it's a whitecap. But if it remains, he knows he's spotted a vessel.

That was among the techniques that helped Figueroa spot three drug boats in just three weeks during his first deployment to Guantanamo Bay, in 1993. He likes to brag that he can spot most vessels 15 miles away and larger vessels as far as 20 miles away.

During a mission last week, a 40-foot sailboat with blue-and-white sails captured Figueroa's and his crewmates' interest. They'd identified it the previous day, and it had made more than 60 miles headway north since the initial spotting.

"It shouldn't be out here," Figueroa said. "It shouldn't be here at all."

In addition to protecting U.S. shores, the crew knows it's providing valuable humanitarian support. They conduct about 200 search-and-rescue missions every year in Northeastern U.S. waters and are prepared to assist vessels in trouble here, too.

Byrne spoke of an instance about five years back, when he was aboard a Coast Guard cutter as it pulled up to a capsized Haitian sailboat. It was 4 in the morning, pitch black, and the 90 people crammed aboard had gone a long stretch with no food or water. When their boat capsized, Byrne and his crewmates were able to rescue 72, but the others were lost.

"They didn't make it," Bryne said, shaking his head. "That's why it's so important that we catch them now, before they're able to get too far away."


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