by Amy Armstrong
Tough Boat, Calm Lake
The mostly placid waters of Lake Lucille in Wasilla, Alaska, aren’t exactly the place where one might expect to spot a 25-foot Defender class patrol boat owned by the United States Coast Guard. On any normal day, you’d see a variety of canoes and skiffs plying the lake as folks practice their canoing strokes or try to catch rainbow trout. But that wasn’t the case on September 11th through the 13th as Secret Service agents were faced with the challenge of providing aquatic protection for Vice Presidential candidate, Sarah Palin, during her two-day visit home. As such, the Secret Service turned to a local Coast Guard unit for assistance.
Palin’s main residence is located on the shores of Lake Lucille. Under normal circumstances, Palin spends time on the lake. But not much is “normal” in Wasilla now that its home-grown mayor turned Alaska governor has taken the national spotlight.
The town is overrun by journalists and curious onlookers.
As word spread that Palin would be home on Friday, a steady stream of locals turned amateur celebrity hunters made their way across the docks of a nearby hotel trying to catch a glimpse of Palin when she ventured outside. Those with fortunate timing might have caught a glimpse of Governor Palin on the family’s private dock with the Palin float plane in view. There was a short time when Palin and ABC-TV’s Charles Gibson could be seen there during his interview with her at her lakeside home on September 12th. But for those who failed to catch a glimpse of the Governor and Gibson, there was the spectacle of two Coast Guard boats – normally reserved for oceanic assignments – taking turns patrolling the shoreline in front of the Palin home.
Escort Where Needed
“We are a deployable unit and we augment other services when asked,” explained Lieutenant Junior Grade Christine Young, the Coast Guard officer in charge of the Palin security mission. “This is pretty exciting for us. This is something of a new skill for us to develop and we are happy to assist the Secret Service.”
As Young watched the back-and-forth progress of the patrol boat from the dock on Friday evening, a Secret Service agent dressed in Coast Guard orange took an alert position on the boat’s stern watching for any suspicious activity on the lake.
The two patrol boats usually serve as escorts for high-value maritime assets, such as cruise ships navigating Alaska’s Inside Passage, Navy vessels operating in the Alaska jurisdiction, or various state ferry boats, Young explained.
Assisting in the security detail is a great assignment, the 24-year-old said.
“It’s beautiful on this lake,” she said.
As per Palin’s wishes, Lake Lucille and the neighboring Wasilla Municipal Airport were not restricted to public access during Palin’s visit home.
Trolling With The Coast Guard; Secret Service
My husband, Bob — a Coast Guard retiree — figured it was the perfect time to take our canoe and its trolling motor out for a cruise to see if we’d have any luck spotting our Governor.
We picked up our son, Ian, after school let out and put the canoe in at the public boat launch. Even from this vantage point a good mile from the Palin shoreline, the spectacle of the patrol boat with its characteristic orange bottom was easy to recognize.
“There’s something you don’t see every day,” I thought to myself.
As we approached the general vicinity of the patrol, we figured the Coast Guardsman onboard would hail us over a loudspeaker and tell us to move along.
Instead, we received a friendly, yet cautious wave.
Only in Alaska, I thought. Anywhere else and it might be a different story. We noticed that the M240B 7.62 mm machine gun mounted on the bow was still covered. But getting it ready for action wouldn’t take any longer than removing the cover from a backyard grill.
A Coast Guard public affairs specialist later told me it is standard equipment on that class of patrol boats. It is used for laying down suppression fire or shooting out an engine of an opposing vessel if necessary while conducting security-oriented missions.
Once we were within earshot of the patrol boat and identified ourselves, we could see four Coast Guardsmen in the main cabin and another man on deck who did identify himself as a Secret Service agent, but did not give us his name. He was cordial and we spoke briefly, although his eyes were constantly glancing across the water.
He gave me the business card of a Coast Guard public affairs specialist and asked that I clear any further interviews with her.
Bob steered us across the lake to a spot where Ian could cast a few lines in hopes of bringing up a rainbow trout. The patrol boat continued its course.
As Ian fished, I talked via cell phone with Sara Francis, who is a Coast Guard first class petty officer based in Anchorage and tasked with handling media requests. I learned that the 25-foot patrol boats we saw on Lake Lucille are manufactured by Safe Boat International in Port Orchard, Washington. These boats come equipped with two 225-horse power four-stroke gas engines that power the boat for speeds up to 45 knots. The boats can easily handle seas of up to six feet and are survivable in 10-foot swells. They were developed after the 9/11 attacks for the federal Department of Homeland Security, which now oversees Coast Guard operations.
“They are incredibly maneuverable,” she said, adding, “They turn pretty easily in a variety of water conditions.”
Not On Ice
There’s just one catch and it might mean that the Coast Guard’s help in protecting Palin at home in Alaska is only a seasonal assignment.
“These boats do not operate in ice,” Francis said. The Coast Guard does have ice-breaking vessels, but those wouldn’t fit in Lake Lucille.
It’s a point Young echoed at the dock.
Calendars may indicate fall had not yet arrived, but Mother Nature on the Last Frontier was saying something very different. Birch trees in the area have already turned to fall’s characteristic yellow and fresh snow — called termination dust by locals — is apparent on the mountain tops.
It won’t be long — probably before the November election — when the waters of shallow Lake Lucille will be frozen. So does that mean Secret Service agents will need snow machining lessons from Todd Palin — Sarah’s husband and four-time champion of the Tesoro Iron Dog — in order to continue efficiently protecting the Palin home front on a lake popular with winter sports enthusiasts?
During our brief conversation alongside the patrol boat, I asked the agent if it’s going to be a challenge for Secret Service personnel to keep up with Todd in February’s Iron Dog if Sarah gets elected. After all, it’s a race across Alaska’s unforgiving interior in which competitors reach speeds of up to 80 miles per hour. It gets pretty rough and Todd likes to win.
He chuckled. His eyes were still watching every ripple on the lake.
“I am sure someone is already training for that,” he said.
Move Along Please
We didn’t talk for long.
Petty Officer First Class Wesley Haslam, the Coast Guard boat’s mate driving the boat inside the cabin, answered a couple questions about this new experience before politely insisting that we move our watercraft along.
No, he never expected he’d be guarding a potential Vice President on an Alaskan lake. No, very few, if any other boaters have approached the patrol boat during this assignment.
“We really cannot stop and talk any longer,” he said. “We have to maintain vigilance at all times.”
But being true to the Coast Guard’s main mission of promoting water craft safety, Haslam thanked us for wearing our personal flotation devices — otherwise known as life jackets — as we departed.
With Palin’s departure from the state to rejoin the campaign trail, the two patrol boats have returned to their base in Anchorage.
To learn more about the Defender patrol boats, visit the Coast Guard’s online fact sheet.
Editors Note: This story was first published at TheSarahPalinStory.com which granted us permission to reprint it here.