History: The Piracy Mission – Then and Now

This month’s history post tells the story of two Coast Guard cutters separated by nearly 200 years of history that have one thing in common – they led the way in combating piracy that threatened American vessels. As told by Dr. David Rosen, the Coast Guard historian for the Pacific Area, this story begins with the Louisiana taking on the pirates of the Caribbean and resumes in the Gulf of Aden as the Boutwell takes on pirates of another kind.

Post written by Dave Rosen, Ph.D., historian, Pacific Area.

The Revenue Cutter Louisiana. (U.S. Coast Guard image)

The Revenue Cutter Louisiana. (U.S. Coast Guard image)

Piracy in Early America
Cutters of the Revenue Service helped suppress piracy in the Caribbean in the early 1800’s. In Caribbean waters about 500 merchant vessels worth $20 million were seized illegally, far more loot than pillaged by the Barbary Coast buccaneers. One reason was the shelter the Caribbean pirates found in the newly independent Latin American nations. They first plundered wealthy Spanish traders, then American ships.

1819-20: The USRSC Louisiana
In one banner year the new Orleans-based cutter Louisiana wrecked havoc on the privateers. She had already freed the schooner Felicity from privateers in 1805 and fought off pirates near Belize in 1812.

On August 31, 1819 the Louisianaunder Captain Harris Loomis stopped the pirate frigate Bravounder Jean Defarges by firing a shot across her bow. Working with the USRSC Alabama under Captain Taylor, the Louisiana boarded and captured the Bravo. Her crew suffered four injuries. The cutters also freed a Spanish schooner, the Filamena, which was transporting flour and a dozen passengers, who had been robbed and stripped of their clothing. This successful interdiction occurred just north of the Dry Tortugas. Fifteen of the buccaneers were later hung from the yardarm of a naval vessel in New Orleans harbor as punishment for their crimes.

The Bravo was owned by Jean Lafitte, the pirate who had helped Andrew Jackson win the Battle of New Orleans. Lafitte won a temporary reprieve for Defarges from President James Monroe, which delayed his execution.

On April 16, 1820, the Caribbean pirates were dealt a severe blow by the Revenue Service. The Louisiana worked with the Alabamato destroy a key pirate base near Bretons Island, burning their houses and rendering the camp useless. Soon thereafter Captain Loomis and the Louisiana netted four pirate craft off Belize.

Two years later, under a new skipper, Captain John Jackson, the Louisiana worked with the American and British navies to capture five pirate ships off the Cuban coast. Finally, in 1827, her crew arrested 30 pirates harassing the ship Isabella off Vera Cruz. The menace to American trade had been obliterated and would not be a major threat to U.S. shipping for nearly two centuries.

Suspected pirates surrender to crew members of the CGC Boutwell. (U.S. Coast Guard photo by LCDR Tyson Weinert)

Suspected pirates surrender to crew members of the CGC Boutwell. (U.S. Coast Guard photo by LCDR Tyson Weinert)

2009: The CGC Boutwell

Nearly 200 years later the Coast Guard is currently engaged in anti-piracy missions off the Horn of Africa. A drastic spike in piracy late in 2008 prompted the formation of Coalition Task Force 151 the following January. CTF 151 is the operations arm of an international naval group called the Combined Maritime Force under Vice Admiral William Gortney of the Navy’s 5th Fleet.

During the period of January to July 2009 the Coast Guard Cutter Boutwell joined the 5th Fleet Strike Group under the flag ship USS Boxer on an anti-piracy mission off the coast of Somalia. The Boutwell met up with the Strike Group in Oahu and made several stops stretching from Malaysia to the Maldives.

En route to the Gulf of Aden, the Boutwell stopped in Karachi to participate in a 30-nation maritime exercise in the framework of Operation Enduring Freedom. The cutter worked primarily with the British and Australians and also transported marines for guard duty in the Pakistani port.

Piracy Off the Somali Coast
The counter-piracy mission is complex. The Gulf of Aden is full of tankers, container vessels, bulk carriers, dhows and pleasure boats as well as hundreds of legitimate local fishing vessels of all sizes. Naval ships from NATO, Russia, China, Japan, et. al. receive a steady stream of SOS radio signals from trading ships who have sighted pirates or suspicious craft. The panic attacks are often “stampeding buffaloes” in the words of Lieutenant Chris Parrish of the Boutwell who, as operations officer, must try and distinguish between actual and perceived threats from pirates.

Fewer than one-percent of the vessels targeted by the pirates are US-flagged, as we import much of our oil from Mexico, Canada and Venezuela as opposed to the Middle East. Aside from one recent and highly publicized pirate attack involving the Maersk Alabama, most of the distressed calls are from non-US carriers.

A Successful Interdiction
On April 28, the Boutwell’s helicopter crew was on a routine patrol when it saw a skiff attacking the merchant vessel Skaftafel, a container ship under the Gibraltar flag. Although the helo was unarmed, the pirates broke off their attack and sped off toward Somalia. Covered by an armed Navy helicopter, the Boutwell’s helo descended to 500 feet and photographed the pirates according to a first person account from aircraft commander LCDR Tyson Weinert.

Meanwhile the Boutwell headed directly for the skiff, launching the new Over The Horizon Boat (OTHB), capable of as much as 50 knots and with a range of 250 miles. The approach of the OTHB forced the Somalis to ditch their weapons and surrender.

In an ever-changing world that has seen the Life Saving Service and Revenue Cutter Service combine to become the Coast Guard and seen the Coast Guard reside within the departments of the Transportation, Navy, Treasury and now Homeland Security, the importance of the mission and the dedicated people of the service has remained constant. The story of the Coast Guard’s engagement in anti-piracy mission is just one example of how the service has remained Semper Paratus for more than 200 years.

The information on the Boutwell pirate interdiction included above was based on interviews by Dr. Rosen with Coast Guard aviator LCDR Tyson Weinert, Lt. Chris Parrish of the Boutwell and CDR Cary Porter, former Coast Guard liaison to NAVCENT. LCDR Weinert’s “birds-eye” view from the helo is recounted by him in the current issue of “Talon” magazine. For more information on the Louisiana, see also Donald Canney’s “The U.S. Coast Guard and Revenue Cutters, 1790-1935;” Stephen Evans’ “The United States Coast Guard, 1790-1915;” and Irving H. King’s “The Coast Guard Under Sail.”

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