Coast Guard cutter forced into retirement

After 23 years of service, the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Roanoke Island ends its tour of duty. Sometime soon it will sail away to be decommissioned at the Coast Guard Yard, Baltimore, Md. A farewell ceremony is at 10 a.m. today at the Homer Elks Lodge.

Homer won’t lose the 18 crewmembers and their families, however. An Island Class patrol boat, the 110-foot Roanoke Island will be replaced in Homer by a sister ship, the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Sapelo, now stationed in Sector San Juan, Puerto Rico. 

The current Roanoke Island crew will take the ship to Baltimore and then return to Homer to operate Sapelo, said Petty Officer 3rd Class Meredith Manning, a Coast Guard spokesperson in Anchorage. She did not know the exact date when Sapelo would arrive at its new homeport.

“We’re glad to hear there’s another ship to replace it, at least in the short term,” said Homer Harbormaster Bryan Hawkins. “They (the Coast Guard) recognized the work the Roanoke has done and the fact they would be leaving a pretty big hole in their coverage by not having a ship here.”

Island Class cutters are scheduled to be replaced by a new patrol boat, the Sentinel Class fast-response cutter. Manning said she did not know if or when a Sentinel-class patrol boat would be assigned to Homer. In discussions with Rear Admiral Daniel Abel, commander, U.S. Coast Guard 17th District, Juneau, on a visit this winter, Homer Mayor Beth Wythe said she learned three uncommissioned fast-response cutters will be assigned to Alaska at a port to be named, but not until 2022. Alaska will get five 135-foot fast-response cutters total. Two have already been commissioned in Southeast Alaska ports. The Coast Guard said it wants the other three to be in one port. Homer would need a harbor expansion to accommodate three fast-response cutters.

“If Homer is interested in having them, we’re going to have to do some pretty quick work to get that east harbor,” Wythe said, referring to a proposed harbor expansion on the northeast side of the harbor.

The upside to Homer’s future as a Coast Guard port is that in January the Coast Guard extended its lease for another 20 years to lot 20 on the Homer Spit, Wythe said. The lease was set to expire in 2023. The Coast Guard has secured funding for a cutter support building to be completed by December 2016. The Homer City Council approved the extension at an annual rate of $13,000. Lot 20 is near the Pioneer Dock where the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Hickory is moored.

“That’s encouraging as far as maintaining our existing facility,” Wythe said.

Looking at the future of the Coast Guard in Homer should be part of a larger community conversation about how the city wants to grow and how to fund it, Wythe said.

“There’s some bigger discussion that we have to be engaged in,” she said. “I think we have some opportunities. We’re in a place we need to decide what it is we want to do. Do we want to be available for Arctic expansion? Do we want to be available for Coast Guard expansion?”

Commissioned in Homer on Feb. 8, 1992, Roanoke Island had an expected service life of 20 to 25 years. It most recently had an overhaul in October 2012 at the Ketchikan shipyard. Its 18-member crew conducts general missions of homeland security, search and rescue, law enforcement and environmental protection.

Island Class cutters are named after American islands. Roanoke Island is off the coast of North Carolina and Sapelo Island is near Darien, Ga. Like the Kachemak Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve, Sapelo Island is an estuarine reserve, with a small town of 50, Hog Hammock, a historic African American village settled by freed slaves.