SAN FRANCISCO -- When you count your time in the service in decades and serve aboard a vessel that was sailing before you donned a uniform, certain "lasts" rush to mind as you carry out even the most routine assignments or duties when the ship is set for decommissioning, a U.S. Coast Guard official said.
"You always try to have a sense of history, a sense of what the ship has accomplished," said Capt. Edward Westfall, commander of the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Boutwell, which began service in 1968 -- about 17 years before Westfall did.
On Friday, the 47-year-old vessel took part in a parade of Navy and Coast Guard ships sailing into San Francisco Bay for Fleet Week, a weeklong celebration of the Navy, Marine Corps and Coast Guard. For the Boutwell, it will be the last such event, as she is being decommissioned early next year. Plans call for her to be sold to the Philippines.
"You start realizing that this is the last ‘fill-in-the-blank'," he said. "During our last patrol, we had a helicopter fly off, and sometime during that evolution I thought that may be the last time we have a helicopter fly off our deck."
When the ship left Seattle recently, headed to San Francisco and, ultimately, to its home port in San Diego, Westfall said, someone commented "that was the last most-north we're going to have been."
"Despite the fact that we all understand they really are pieces of machinery, they often feel like they have a personality and a little bit of a soul in terms of what they do," he said. "And kind of how you get at that is understanding what the cutter has done over its life."
During her nearly half century of service, the Boutwell has made a name for itself in rescues and drug seizures. In 1980, the cutter executed the largest at-sea rescue on record when her crew saved more than 500 people from a burning Dutch cruise ship, the MS Prinsendam, in the Gulf of Alaska. Indeed, the Boutwell was in Seattle earlier this month for a reunion organized by the Prinsendam Rescue Association.
More recently, it has made headlines for its role in drug interdictions that have kept thousands of pounds of cocaine off the streets and put drug runners in custody, as well for deployments to the Middle East to defend oil terminals off the coast of Iraq. For these and other missions, the Boutwell was awarded the Admiral John B. Hayes Award for Unit Excellence.
In its most recent tour, the ship conducted five drug seizures, pulling in some 20 tons of contraband, according to Command Chief Daryl Bernard. For him, the southern Pacific tour put into focus what he'll miss most about the ship.
"They were long hours, the crew worked hard," he said. "It was a tight crew, a good crew, from the officers all the way down to the most junior enlisted person -- professionals."
On Friday, more than 100 guests including crew family members, former crewman and others came aboard Boutwell for her final Fleet Week cruise into San Francisco.
Lt. Miles Richardson, a Coast Guard MH-65 Dolphin helicopter pilot, came aboard to show his girlfriend where he previously served as a gunnery officer and then its law enforcement officer. It was his job, among other things, to train crews as boarding teams.
"All I remember is good times, but it's an older ship, so I think it's a good thing. We're getting these big new ships," said Richardson, referring to the new Legend-class national security cutters that are replacing the older Endurance-class that includes the Boutwell.
"They say she's an old girl. She takes a lot of maintenance," said Chief Petty Officer Ryan Ross, the ship's machinery technician and its most recent Sailor of the Quarter. "I work down in the engine room and that's what it takes to keep her going."
Ross said when he joined the ship in July 2013 it already was rumored she was to be decommissioned, but the engineers held on and kept up maintenance as if the plan was to get another 50 years out of her.
"It'll be a sad day to see her go, but until she's actually gone, I'm not going to believe it."