Two of the Coast Guard's newest cutters are scheduled to arrive in Key West this month, and one will be commissioned Saturday as the Florida Keys' maritime landscape continues to evolve.
The 154-foot Sentinel-class Fast Response Cutter Charles Sexton is set to be commissioned at Sector Key West as the second such vessel to arrive here. It will be one of six by next year that will be homeported in the Southernmost City.
The Kathleen Moore is set to arrive on March 28, and the Raymond Evans is set to arrive next month, said Sector Key West spokesman Lt. Peter Bermont.
All are the Sentinel-class vessels, which feature a 25-foot beam and a maximum speed of more than 28 knots. They are all armed with a 25mm gun and four .50-caliber machine guns, as well as the latest in communications advancements and tracking electronics.
It's a busy time at Sector Key West as all the crews for every one of the $73 million vessels to enter service will pass through Key West to be weaponized and outfitted, not just those that will be homeported here.
Sector Key West will receive a total of six by 2015, but could receive as many as 10 total by 2020, Bermont said.
"Regarding the nine or more cutters by 2020, that is a rumor at this point," said Coast Guard Sector Key West Deputy Cmdr. John Reed, adding that there are discussions going on as to how the Coast Guard will balance operational needs.
The plan at this point is to have six Fast Response Cutters in Key West, six in Miami and another six in San Juan, Puerto Rico, according to the Coast Guard public affairs office headquartered in Washington, D.C.
"The Coast Guard is constantly evaluating future ports and considers multiple factors including mission needs, work life, housing availability, distance to op area, political concerns, and current Coast Guard infrastructure," according to a statement released by headquarters. "The Coast Guard is conducting analysis in anticipation of homeporting additional Fast Response Cutters in the District 7 area of responsibility."
District 7 includes all of Florida, the Georgia coastline, all of South Carolina, as well as Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.
Once the Charles Sexton is commissioned Saturday, she will commence patrolling at once, joining her sister ship, the Cutter Charles David Jr., which was commissioned in November, Bermont said.
Her crew as well as the crew of the Kathleen Moore and Raymond Evans are already in Key West training for their new ships' arrival, Bermont said.
"The rate we're receiving them is a testament to excellent planning on the part of the Coast Guard given all the fiscal restrictions going on," Bermont said.
The Sentinel-class vessels are all named after people who served heroically in the Coast Guard.
The plan is all part of a much larger, roughly $3.4 billion Coast Guard project to replace its aging 110-foot Island-class cutters nationwide. In Key West, that includes the Pea Island, Kodiak Island, Knight Island and Key Biscayne.
The Pea Island is currently in the process of being decommissioned in Baltimore, and the Kodiak Island has also been relocated while the Key Biscyane and Knight Island remain fully operational, Bermont said.
The 270-foot Thetis and Mohawk will remain in Key West, as will the 87-foot Sawfish, but future plans for the remaining 110-footers down the line will ultimately be up to Congress.
The new Fast Response Cutters and their fast-deployable go-fast boats look to have the biggest potential impact in the war on drugs as most drug cartels favor go-fast boats and semisubmersible submarines.
Called "over-the-horizon interceptors," the feature will allow go-fast boats to be deployed more quickly and in rougher seas than the current setup.