Arctic ambassador: Willow’s voyage north

written by PA3 Luke Clayton

man-overboard drill

ATLANTIC OCEAN - U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Willow crews conduct a man-overboard drill, July 28, 2011, during their transit to the Arctic for Operation Nanook. Crews practice drills to ensure members are ready for any emergency. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Luke Clayton.

The Rhode Island sun shined down on the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Willow the morning of July 28, 2011.  The dew on the black paint glistened as the crew made preparations to get underway.  Families waved at their loved ones. Lines were thrown from the pier.  And the crew of the 225-foot Seagoing Buoy Tender began their journey to the Arctic.

Willow’s crew, along with a team of Coast Guard divers, embarked on a six-week mission t0 test the operational limits of the cutter, evaluate their capabilities in the Arctic, and participate in Operation Nanook, an international operation designed to enhance the maritime interoperability between the United States, Canada, and Denmark.

After only minutes underway, all hands worked together like a well-oiled machine. The deck team began plotting courses, engineers kept their fingers on the pulse of the giant diesel engines, and cooks sliced and diced throughout the galley to make the noon meal.

“Man overboard, starboard side!” echoed an electronic voice over the ship’s intercom. Crewmembers on deck threw over life rings and others hustled to their assigned positions as the cutter leaned hard to starboard, cutting through the dark blue seas. It was only the first of many drills that would keep them busy the next few days.

international fleet

ATLANTIC OCEAN - Her Majesty's Canadian Ship Summerside, U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Willow, and Her Danish Majesty's Ship Hvidbjoernen steam in formation, Aug 7, 2011. U.S. Coast Guard Cutter photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Luke Clayton

Closing in on the first leg of their journey, the crew awoke to a foggy morning, Aug. 2, as they neared St. John’s, Newfoundland.  Deck crews gathered on the bow, staring at an ancient lighthouse, while the navigation team managed a channel with towering rocks on either side.  There in St. John’s, Willow met with the Canadian and Danish navies, and the operation officially began.

After a couple days in port, three ships from three nations began their journey north, in line-astern formation, through the cold waters off the Newfoundland coast.

On Aug. 7, Willow crews finally had a chance to do what they had sailed north to do. “Now make preparations to launch the small boat, starboard side,” piped the ship’s officer of the day.

joint chart planning

ATLANTIC OCEAN - Lt. Erin Chlum, Willow's operations officer, meets with members of Her Danish Majesty's Ship Hvidbjoernen and a member of the Canadian Army Rangers to discuss future joint operations, Aug. 7, 2011. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Luke Clayton

Willow’s small boat crew splashed into the water.  Timing the swells perfectly, they sped away toward the Canadian and Danish ships.  Those remaining aboard Willow watched through binoculars as their maritime partners welcomed their shipmates with outreached hands.

Willow’s operations officer, Lt. Amanda Chlum, and a few other crewmembers toured the foreign vessels, shaking hands with equally interested and excited sailors. It was a learning experience, said Chlum, and a unique opportunity to see how other countries perform the same missions the Coast Guard does on a daily basis.

Americans, Canadians and Danes spoke with each other over charts and meals. They learned new sailing techniques, shared ideas, and identified ways to improve coordination efforts in the Arctic region.  For Willow, the focus included America’s role in protecting shared resources, establishing regional safety and security, and evaluating capabilities for pollution prevention and response.

Over the course of the next few days, Willow offered support to Canadian forces by conducting maintenance visits and community outreach to remote sites along the Labrador Coast. They provided transportation for Canadian Army Rangers, supported dive operations, and participated in drills and exercises based on a variety of scenarios. Naval warfare, maritime law enforcement, search and rescue – no mission was forgotten as the three countries worked side-by-side to learn and test the limits of their crews and ships.

On Aug, 15., the final day of Operation Nanook, Willow’s commanding officer reflected on the experience in the daily operations summary:

log pieceThat day, at 1:19 p.m., the crew celebrated as they entered the third phase of their patrol, and an exciting region for any proud mariner: the Arctic Circle.