Shearwater, 1982 (WSES 3)

Oct. 30, 2020

Shearwater, 1982


Any of various oceanic birds of the genus Puffinus, having a short hooked bill with tube-shaped nostrils and long slender wings that appear to shear the water as the bird flies along the surface.

Builder: Bell Halter Inc., New Orleans, Louisiana

Length: 109' 1"

Beam: 39'

Draft: 9' 7" (full load); 6' (on cushion)

Displacement: 152 long tons

Cost: $5,000,000

Commissioned: 17 November 1982

Decommissioned: 28 January 1994



        Main Engines: 2 Detroit 16V149TIB Diesel engines (1,800 hp @ 1,900 rpm)
        Lift Engines: 2 Detroit 8V92 Diesel engines (378 hp @ 2,000 rpm)

Performance & Endurance:

        Max: 30+ knots
        Cruising: 25 knots; 1,100 mile range

Complement: 17

Armament: Small arms

Electronics: Navigation radar


During the late-1970s and early 1980s the Coast Guard increased its capabilities to meet the growing threat posed by maritime narcotics smugglers.  The Service tested and evaluated the surface effects ship [SES] Dorado (WSES-1) for a period between 1981 and 1982 to test its effectiveness as a patrol craft for the shallow waters around the coast of Florida.  When the tests proved successful, the Coast Guard acquired three SESs for active use: Sea Hawk (WSES-2); Shearwater (WSES-3); and Petrel (WSES-4) beginning in the summer of 1982.  On 1 November 1982 the Coast Guard established the Coast Guard Surface Effect Ship Division in Key West, Florida.  The Division was made up of these three SESs and included a support staff.  This was the first time a Coast Guard "division" of cutters had been formed since the Vietnam War.  The SES Division was tasked with, as a public affairs pamphlet noted: "maritime law enforcement, targeting [their] efforts towards the interdiction of narcotics and controlled substances smuggled into the United States by sea.  Not since Prohibition have Coast Guard cutters been commissioned primarily to support maritime law enforcement.  The Division's secondary mission is in support of the Coast Guard's search and rescue (SAR) duties."  The tasking of the cutters expanded as new problems arose, including the interdiction of illegal migrants, enforcing fisheries regulations, and operating in support of the Maritime Defense Zone operations and exercises, particularly those duties involving mine countermeasures and coastal defense.

These cutters were unique.  Although the Coast Guard had experimented with non-traditional vessels such as hydrofoils as late as the 1970s, no such craft had seen extensive service until the SESs.  They were rigid sidewall hovercraft constructed of a lightweight aluminum alloy.  Their lift engines powered fans that created a pressurized air cushion under the cutter, thereby lifting the craft, thus reducing drag and draft.  The solid sidewalls pierced the water, creating a catamaran hull, and the air cushion was sealed by flexible rubberized skirts at the bow and stern.  This allowed these craft to operate at high speeds in waters both shallow and deep, making them ideal patrol craft for the waters off the coast of Florida and well out into the Caribbean.  Their wide beam and the catamaran hull also made them extremely stable craft, even in high seas.

The Shearwater was built by Bell Halter Marine, Incorporated as an oil rig supply boat and she was purchased by the Coast Guard.  She was placed "in commission, active" status under the command of LT Mark A. Fisher on 17 November 1982 along with the CGC Sea Hawk.  They were assigned to the Coast Guard Surface Effect Ship Division in Key West.  Her first seizure was the F/V Cayman, a 65-foot shrimper that Shearwater's boarding team seized after locating 20,000 pounds of marijuana aboard.  That same day she seized the P/C Zolia for having marijuana residue aboard.  She seized two more vessels during the summer for marijuana smuggling.  On 28 October 1983 she seized the 39-foot lobster boat Noopy with 7,850 pound of marijuana aboard and arrested her 4-man crew.  She seized the P/C Tic Tac on 22 November 1983 and the P/C Plus Ultra on 26 November 1983 for marijuana smuggling.  The Surface Effect Ship Division was awarded a Coast Guard Unit Commendation with the Operational Distinguishing Device  for their service in interdicting narcotic smuggling from 17 November 1982 to 29 January 1984. 

On 14 February 1984 she intercepted a 20-foot sailboat 20 miles east of Boca Raton with 30 Haitians on board and transferred them to the CGC Alert for transport back to Haiti.  On 25 February 1984 she rescued the crew from the P/C Owl and Pussycat near Andros Island when the crew had scuttled their craft to avoid inspection.  Two days later, she seized the the P/C Michel on 27 February 1984 for marijuana smuggling.  On 9 March 1984 she seized two P/Cs attempting to transport illegal immigrants into the country.  On 30 March 1984 she seized the P/C Ive near the Great Bahama Bank carrying 10 tons of marijuana.  On 12 April 1984 she seized the F/V Teruca near Orange Cay carrying 10 tons of marijuana.  On 4 June 1984 she seized two outboards in the Bahamas after an aircraft attempted to drop them drugs.  On 12 June 1984 she seized two P/Cs off Andros Island carry8ing marijuana residue, with 400 pounds floating nearby.  On 14 June 1984 she seized a 40-foot lobster boat, Mabelu, northeast of Cay Sal Bank with marijuana on board.  On 2 July 1984 she seized a 41-foot F/V in the Old Bahama Channel with marijuana on board.  On 12 November 1984 she seized the F/V June Bug 10 miles west of Bimini, Bahamas with 1 ton of marijuana on board.  On 25 December 1984 she seized the F/V Barracuda in Key West carrying 1 ton of marijuana in a hidden compartment.  On 2 February 1985 she seized the F/V John carrying 1-1/2 tons of marijuana.  She and her crew were awarded the Coast Guard Unit Commendation Medal with the Operational Distinguishing Device on 22 March 1985 for her participation in Operation Wagonwheel Forces, and inter-agency effort to interdict drug smuggling in the Caribbean.

On 5 March 1986 she helped fight a fire on the burning tug Navigator 18 miles southwest of Key West.  On 8 October 1986 she seized the Jouer carrying 214 pounds of marijuana.  On 16 May 1987 she seized the S/V Algernon 200 miles southwest of Key West, carrying 100 bales of marijuana in a secret compartment.  On 13 January 1988 she, along with the entire SES Division, were awarded the Coast Guard Meritorious Unit Commendation Medal with the Operational Distinguishing Device  for their participation in Operation Checkmate Forces, a "International Winter Law enforcement Operation to disrupt maritime and air smuggling of marijuana and cocaine into the United States," which was underway from 1 October 1986 to 30 June 1987.  

On 5 July 1989 she seized the merchant vessel Barlovento 200 miles southwest of Key West carrying 3,359 pounds of cocaine concealed in a cargo of cement.  She, along with the SES Division, were awarded another Coast Guard Unit Commendation with the Operational Distinguishing Device for "exceptionally meritorious service from October 1988 through September 1989" in conducting law enforcement patrols and search and rescue.  Her boarding team seized the 35-foot sloop Derriere Rouge on 20 January 1991 180 miles west of Fort Myers after they discovered 60 pounds of marijuana aboard.  A Coast Guard Air Station Miami HU-25 had located the suspect vessel the day before and vectored the Shearwater to its location.  During the following months into the next year Shearwater, along with the largest grouping of cutters seen in a single operation since World War II Mariel, attempted to save thousands of lives during an exodus of migrants from Haiti.

On 6 April 1992 the Commandant approved the award of the Humanitarian Service Medal for Coast Guard units, including Shearwater, that participated in the "Haitian Alien Migration operations" from 26 October 1991 through 14 February 1992.  On 19 June 1992 she and her crew were awarded the Coast Guard Meritorious Unit Commendation Medal with the Operational Distinguishing Device for their work during the Haitian migrant interdiction operations from 25 November 1991 to 27 December 1991.  Her citation noted: "While assigned to Task Unit 44.7.4, SHEARWATER helped in averting a major tragedy at sea as 3,419 Haitians were interdicted from 83 hopelessly unseaworthy vessels and brought to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, for processing.  SHEARWATER had a direct hand in rescuing 245 of these economic migrants."  

She was decommissioned on 29 January 1994 and prepared for storage at Key West.


Cutter History File.  USCG Historian's Office, USCG HQ, Washington, D.C.

Robert Scheina.  U.S. Coast Guard Cutters & Craft, 1946-1990.  Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1990.