Norfolk Virginian-Pilot
September 6, 2005

Relief Mission Tests Boat And Crew By Kate Wiltrout, The Virginian-Pilot

ABOARD THE SWIFT, GULF OF MEXICO — The crew assigned to this Australian-built experimental ship numbers just 44, and its lightweight aluminum hull is nothing like the heavy steel that encases most Navy boats.

But make no mistake about it – the Swift can run circles around conventional Navy supply ships. Its four water jets practically allow the ship to turn on a dime. Add in its shallow draft – it needs just 12 feet of water to dock – and you’ve got a ship that’s almost tailor-made for supplying the Navy vessels that are in the gulf region now, offering Hurricane Katrina relief.

Humanitarian missions aren’t new to the Swift sailors, who are based out of Little Creek Naval Amphibious Base in Virginia Beach. The boat and crew were sent to Southeast Asia earlier this year to assist in tsunami relief, acting as a helicopter platform for one of the Navy’s hospital ships, and ferrying that ship its supplies.

Its role in Joint Task Force Katrina, a massive military effort to move people out of, and supplies into, the devastated southern coast, has boat and crew doing even more – and rewriting the manual on its capabilities.

The Virginia crew took over the Swift two weeks ago in Ingleside, Texas. (The Swift has twin crews that swap out every four months on the oft-deployed ship.) Little did the local sailors know that what was to be a quick jaunt from Texas to Virginia would change so rapidly.

Cmdr. Mark Sakaguchi, the Swift’s commanding officer, said his crew has never worked harder than they are now.

“The crew is really pumped up about being able to support this,” said Sakaguchi, whose family lives in Virginia Beach. “They want to stay out here as long as it takes.”

No one knows how long that is, but a flotilla of other Norfolk-based ships can thank the Swift for their stores of fresh fruit and vegetables, maintenance supplies and crucial items such as toilet paper.

Some of those ships – like the Bataan, which happened to be in the Gulf as Katrina roared ashore – sent their own supplies inland to feed hungry storm victims.

Today, the Swift is due to zoom to the New Orleans neighborhood of Algiers, along the Mississippi River. The Swift will deliver supplies to the dock landing ship Tortuga and amphibious assault ship Iwo Jima. The Tortuga’s crew reported Monday on its Web site that it had rescued storm victims from flooded homes and was offering them shelter, food and water on the ship.

The Swift is the web that connects the bigger ships – the Iwo Jima, Tortuga, Shreveport and carrier Harry S. Truman – loading up pallets of supplies in Pensacola, Fla., and Ingleside and ferrying them out to sea.

It’s the runner, the utility boat, the valet. And because it can cruise upward of 45 knots , at least twice as fast as amphibious assault ships, it works much faster than traditional combat store ships.

The hurricane relief effort has stretched the crew and pushed the Swift’s envelope. It carried out its first side-by-side cargo transfer on Saturday, then moved a second load of food onto the supply ship Arctic on Monday.

Lt. Cmdr. Phil Pournelle, the Swift’s executive officer, said he’s impressed each day by the boat’s capabilities. The relief effort has showcased both boat and crew.

Walking aboard the boat for the first time, Pournelle said, “I thought I’d stepped onto the Starship Enterprise. Every day, I find new capabilities for the ship, but more importantly, I find out more about what the crew can do. We have a lot of technology and very intelligent, creative sailors.