Then and Now Part 1 – From Sails to Turbines

Post written by LTJG Ryan White

USRC Massachusetts (typical form of early revenue cutters)

USRC Massachusetts (typical form of early revenue cutters)

Let’s wander back in time to a day in March, 1791, when the first U.S. cutter was launched. That cutter was the Revenue Cutter Vigilant, rigged as a schooner. Revenue Cutter Vigilant, first in the fleet and, of course, first in her class.

Now, fast forward 215 years later to another “first in the class,” the Coast Guard Cutter Bertholf.

Times sure have changed but has the hardware? How different is Bertholf from Vigilant?

Vigilant stood a measly 48-feet long next to Bertholf’s 418-feet. That’s just a difference of one number, right? A better comparison might be with Bertholf’s small boat, since Vigilant was just a few feet longer than Bertholf’s largest small boat. Furthermore, you could set three Vigilants side by side and they would still have room to fill in the 54-foot beam of Bertholf.

Of course, Bertholf has a slightly larger displacement than Vigilant at 4,500 tons, to Vigilant’s 35 tons (ok, maybe slightly wasn’t the right word). And, while the roughly 23-foot navigational draft of Bertholf may be a concern for her navigators, the Vigilant crew had much less to worry about since she only drafted about 6-feet.

USCGC Bertholf

USCGC Bertholf

The crew of Vigilant wouldn’t know what to do with Bertholf’s gas turbine engine, two diesel engines and three diesel generators sets. While the Bertholf has an offshore range of 12,000 nautical miles and an endurance of 60 days, the Vigilant’s range was determined by a strong wind and, according to historians, its endurance was based on a steady supply of beer and good food. “Beer?” But, boating under the influence is illegal! Yes, it is now, but back then the concern was the safety of drinking water and alcohol was much less likely to go bad. While Bertholf’s crew won’t enjoy a “cold one” at chow, they do have the luxury of clean water not to mention the fountain drink machine or the ever important deluxe coffee maker.

In terms of providing maritime security, Bertholf would likely be more of a deterrent than Vigilant. While Vigilant’s 10 muskets and bayonets, 20 or so pistols, two chisels and broad axe may have turned heads in 1795, Bertholf’s sizable 57mm and 20mm deck guns, six mounted machine guns and assorted small arms and shotguns surely make a statement.

By the way, you would need just over 10 of Vigilant’s 10-man crews to run Bertholf (and, of course, all the training to bring them up to speed on two centuries worth of technology – but I’m sure Vigilant’s crew would have a thing or two to show Bertholf’s crew about celestial navigation). Oh, and speaking of technology, I bet Vigilant didn’t have an online virtual tour of the cutter.

So, maybe there are a “few” differences between the Revenue Cutter Vigilant of 1791 and the National Security Cutter Bertholf of 2009… One thing you can be sure isn’t different is the fact that both cutters have (or had) a dedicated crew who are (or were) saving lives at sea and protecting the nation from maritime threats. I am sure that as is true of all Guardians, Bertholf’s crew has inherited 219 years of honor, respect and devotion to duty.

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For more information about CGC Bertholf’s features, click here.

For more information about Revenue Cutter Vigilant’s features, click here.

For more information about the first Revenue Cutters and other aspects of Coast Guard history, click here.

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