Coast Guard Sector Key West is gearing up right now for one of the biggest make-overs to its fleet in decades.
The first of six brand spanking new 154-foot Sentinel-class ships called Fast Response Cutters is set to arrive on Aug. 17 in Key West and crews of the new vessels are arriving to train.
"Equate this to how a child feels on Christmas morning," Coast Guard Sector Key West commander Capt. Al Young said with a chuckle. "But with all this comes tremendous training and that's what's happening. That's what you're going to see."
The crew of the incoming vessel Charles David Jr. will be ready come August to take over their new ship, but many of the 58 Fast Response Cutters being built in Louisiana will go through Key West en route to their home ports to be outfitted and made sea-ready.
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.
After the Charles David Jr. arrives on Aug. 17, the next five ships will arrive in 90 day intervals, said Sector Key West spokesman Ensign Peter Bermont. Sector Key West has already become a bee's nest of activity as crews train up on the new ships.
The Sentinel-class vessels are all named after people who served heroically in the Coast Guard.
The following ships will soon call Key West home:
• Charles David Jr.
• Charles W. Sexton
• Kathleen Moore
• Joseph Napier
• William Trump
• Isaac Mayo
"The crew of the Charles David Jr. are currently in Lockport, La., with the ship and will be returning, but the crew of the Charles Sexton are here now and the crew of Kathleen Moore are trickling in as we speak," Bermont said.
That's all happening as crews aboard FRCs that have already arrived at Sector Miami are passing through Key West for training, he added.
"It's going to get really busy," Bermont said referencing Coast Guard traffic in and out of Sector Key West that may surprise local boaters and those living on the hook. "There's is going to be a lot of training going on, so people are going to see a lot of traffic coming and going. It's a very exciting time."
The new shops can stay at sea for about a week and can operate in 12 foot seas, Young said.
"The mission is the same, but technology is changing the way we go about our business," Young said. "We're going to be operating more effectively and efficiently."