Two of four sleek new border patrol boats bobbed on the Charlotte Amalie Harbor Friday as Sector San Juan of the United States Coast Guard unveiled them for the first time.
Some 30 people took a peek at the new vessels at the Marine Safety Detachment dock on St. Thomas during a ceremony led by Coast Guard Sector San Juan Cpt. Robert Warren.
“The Coast Guard’s resolve and commitment to the security of the region is unwavering,” Warren said, adding that the new boats are just a few of the Coast Guard’s initiatives to ramp up operations in the region.
At the end of April, two of the new vessels will be stationed on St. Thomas, another two on St. Croix.
The four new 33-foot Special Purpose Craft Law Enforcement boats — or SPCLE interceptors — will be used mainly for counter-drug at-sea interdictions and intercepting illegal migrants along the United States’ border around Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands, according to Warren. They will also go on rescue missions, he said.
The Defender-class interceptors are faster and more agile than the larger Coast Guard cutters, such as the Protector-class USCGC Reef Shark stationed in San Juan. The crew also appreciates the eight shock-absorbent seats, which make for a less bumpy ride as the boats race at high speed over the waves during missions, according to Warren.
The Coast Guard crewmen took some passengers onboard, including Delegate to Congress Stacey Plaskett, St. Thomas Administrator Lawrence Boschulte, and Samuel Topp, deputy director of communication for Government House. Two interceptors circled the harbor once, navigating private vessels, water taxis and cruise ships.
“Typically this boat will do pursuits,” explained Boatswain’s Mate First Class Chris Fingleman, while steering one interceptor. “We also escort cruise ships that come in and out.”
Fingleman said he, like other crewmen present during the ceremony, was based in Galveston, Texas.
“We’ve come down here to augment Sector San Juan just because they’re spread real thin, and they don’t have enough resource to do the missions,” he said.
Under Operation Unified Resolve, Sector San Juan has been shoring up the Virgin Islands’ border patrol resources with cutters, patrol boats and support aircraft from the continent, Warren said. The increase in number of vessels, paired with interagency collaboration, resulted in the detection and disruption of illegal trafficking of illicit contraband in the region.
Stationing the four interceptor boats in the Virgin Islands strengthens the Coast Guard’s response and the presence of law enforcement in the area, according to Warren. With the new boats, the Coast Guard units in the territory can respond to calls further offshore, he said.
U.S. Attorney Ronald Sharpe said he was pleased by the needed addition to border law enforcement.
“It’s a force multiplier,” he said. “They can do more patrols, more vessels, more resources are always better.”
According to Sharpe, while there has always been a need for more border patrol, the urgency has increased even more. The tightening of border security in the United States’ southwest border, he said, pushed illegal border activity toward the country’s eastern borders, including the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico.
Plaskett expressed similar sentiments.
“In Washington, the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico are known as the third border,” she said. “Drug flow through the eastern Caribbean and the northern coast of South America continues to rise, and with that patrolling these routes is crucial.”
Since 2014, Coast Guard vessels seized more than 15,600 kilograms of cocaine and 5,300 pounds of marijuana from 16 different drug interdictions. The entire bulk of the seizures, if sold wholesale, could have amounted to more than $525 million, according to Warren.
“We’ve seen some of the numbers increase of late,” Sharpe added, “so it’s very helpful to have these additional vessels here to interdict the bad guys and intercept some of the narcotics that’s headed for the States.”
And while it’s a step in the right direction, Sharpe said, the territory will need more than the four new interceptors to eradicate illegal border activity.
“There’s never enough,” Sharpe said. “Until there’s zero trafficking of illicit contraband, we’ll never have enough resources.”