Crew for the new sleeker, faster, modern fast-response cutters are trickling into Key West and with them, the future of the Coast Guard.
"Folks are beginning to check in and they'll be ready for the arrival of these new ships -- they'll be schooled up and ready to go," said Sector Key West commander Capt. Al Young.
The new 154-foot Sentinel-class ships -- arriving over the next 18 months, beginning in August -- will make Key West home to the newest Coast Guard hardware in the country.
The crew of the incoming Charles David will be ready come August to take over their new ship, as all 58 of the Coast Guard cutters being built in Louisiana will go through Key West en route to their home ports to be outfitted and made sea-ready, said Sector Key West spokesman Lt. Jay Hagwood.
Of those 58, six will stay in Key West: the Charles David, Charles Sexton, Kathleen Moore, Joseph Napier, William Trump and Isaac Mayo, one arriving every three months.
The Miami-bound Margaret Norvell is in Key West right now being outfitted, Hagwood said.
"The whole Sentinel class is named after heroic members of the Coast Guard," he said. Charles Walter David Jr. died of pneumonia after rescuing other sailors from the Atlantic Ocean off Greenland during World War II. David volunteered to dive into the frigid water to rescue exhausted crew from a troop transport sunk by a German U-boat, then rescued several of his own crew when they tired in the water.
There will be a commissioning ceremony for the new Charles David when it arrives, Hagwood said.
The ships are part of the Coast Guard's $1.5 billion plan to update its fleet with the latest in electronics, imaging, sonar and communications. Known as the "C4ISR project" in military circles, it is designed for interoperability with other law enforcement agencies.
The new ships will replace the aging 110-foot Island-class cutters nationwide. In Key West, that includes the Pea Island, Kodiak Island, Knight Island and Key Biscayne. It was decided to replace them after a failed retrofit in 2004 that was plagued with structural problems.
The new ships, with room for 24 crew, can cruise at 28 knots and sport a remotely operated 25 mm chain gun and four .50-caliber machine guns. The cutters' go-fast boats can be deployed via their sterns as opposed to the cranes used now -- a big improvement in the hunt for drug submarines.
Called "over-the-horizon interceptors," the feature will allow the Coast Guard to deploy go-fast boats more quickly and in rougher seas than the current setup.
The 270-foot Thetis and the Mohawk will remain based in Key West, as will the 87-foot Sawfish, but the 110-footers will either be decommissioned or sent to another port, Young said.
"Cutters belong at sea, so for the most part, residents won't see all six of the new cutters in port at one time," he said. "The Mohawk and Thetis are much larger ships that operate in areas that extend much further out in our area."
The arriving crews are excited to get the new ships.
"Anytime you having something this new with sailors leveraging technologies that their brethren don't have, you're going to have excited crews," Young said. "This is cutting-edge."