Rear Adm. Bell eager for third Alaska Tour
Orders to Alaska were a homecoming for Rear Adm. Matthew Bell and his wife Nancy.
Bell took over as commander of the U.S. Coast Guard District 17 in early May and now works out of the district headquarters for Alaska in Juneau.
A 33-year veteran of the Coast Guard, Bell said he requested the Alaska mission as the couple holds Alaska residency and still makes a home in Kodiak after two prior tours there in the late 1980s and early 2000s.
He has also served as chief of staff and chief of operations for the Coast Guard’s Pacific area, which has afforded him further familiarity with Alaska issues.
“I tell everybody they’re two-year orders but I asked for three even before I got here. We’ve been looking to get back here for a while,” Bell said during a June 18 meeting with the Journal and the Anchorage Daily News. “We like the people; we like the state; we like the challenges; we like the tyranny of distance and the weather, so to me that’s exciting work for us.”
As the District 17 commander, Bell is responsible for nearly 1,900 active-duty personnel, 15 cutters, 18 aircraft and a $430 million-plus annual budget.
He discussed a wide range of topics in an hour-long discussion, but the man tasked with protecting more than half of the nation’s coastline used the phrase “tyranny of distance” repeatedly.
For starters, Bell said he is excited about the new vessels headed to the state that will help the Coast Guard combat that tyranny a little more effectively. Specifically, there are six 145-foot fast response cutters headed north, which will initially be split between the Kodiak and Ketchikan stations. Two other larger, offshore patrol cutters are also destined for Kodiak as well.
Bell noted that the two fast response cutters that have already reached Ketchikan conducted more boardings in four months than the entire Alaska patrol fleet had done in a year prior.
Most of the boardings, particularly in Southeast, are carrying out fisheries enforcement missions in cooperation with Alaska State Troopers and the state Department of Fish and Game, according to Bell.
The Coast Guard also entertains National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration fishery officers on some of its law enforcement patrols in the state.
Further, the Coast Guard regularly coordinates with the Alaska Air National Guard, Civil Air Patrol and even “locals on ATVs” when conducting search and rescue missions, Bell added.
“To me, one of the benefits of living in Alaska is everybody relies on their neighbor for something else. You’ve got to rely on them; well, we’ve got to rely on those partners,” he said.
As for the longstanding issue of adding new vessels to the Coast Guard’s current, operable icebreaking fleet of one, there appears to be progress.
The Senate passed the 2019 fiscal year Defense budget authorization bill June 19 with language authorizing the Coast Guard to contract for up to six heavy icebreakers and a directive for Navy officials to draft a report on what equipment they would like to see on those vessels.
To that, Bell commented that he sees icebreaking as less of a mission and more of a capability, as a vessel with icebreaking ability will undoubtedly be called upon for numerous scientific, navigation and rescue tasks, among others.
“That particular hull, that class of vessel, needs to be able to break ice. That’s not going to be it’s mission; it just has to be able to do that so it can exercise its mission,” he said.
Bell also stressed the importance of mariners taking a note from their aviating counterparts and filing a float plan each time they embark on the water. He said it is still easy for vessels seeking shelter to inadvertently hide from responders as well as the weather along Alaska’s jagged coastline, with Southeast’s Inside Passage being the best example of that.
“When you start a search it’s easy to say, ‘Well, this is where we’re going to start. We’ve got that nailed down and this is where we’re going to end,’” Bell said. “Well, (the vessel) could’ve gone in 50 different directions and as soon as you put an asset out in the water or up in the air, well, now you’ve taken that asset away from another search and rescue case.”
In another example of the “tyranny of distance” he described that a helicopter deployed to a distressed vessel might have to travel hours just to get to the search area, leaving little fuel and time for the actual search, which makes being able to narrow the search area all the more imperative.
The biggest takeaway Bell has from his prior tours in the state might be intuitive to many longtime Alaskans, but its importance can’t be overstated — Alaska’s weather is dynamic.
“You could talk about weather in the state; well, you can’t, because there are five, six, seven different patterns (at once). “If you don’t have an appreciation for that it can set you up for mistakes,” he said, noting a similar recognition for daylight is needed as well.
He is also familiar with some of the state’s most infamous maritime disasters, having responded to both the Exxon Valdez and Selendang Ayu groundings during his previous time in Alaska.
In March 1989 Bell was part of a maritime border patrol in the Bering Sea when his vessel was ordered to turn south and steam full-bore for Prince William Sound.
He recalled feeling “inadequate” when they finally arrived.
“We were a big ship and we do fisheries law enforcement work and we show up in Prince William Sound, and, I mean, you could smell the oil — the ship’s still up on the rocks at the time,” Bell said.
His patrol vessel ultimately became a temporary air traffic control center for all of the aircraft responding to the Exxon Valdez spill and the private pilots flying the area simply to observe the disaster. He described the traffic in and out of Valdez going from “three to 300 flights a day.”
Bell was the skipper of the cutter Alex Haley in December 2004 when the 283-foot vessel responded to the grounding of the soybean-carrying freighter the Selendang Ayu of off Unalaska Island in the Aleutians.
The 738-foot cargo ship lost power, drifted into shallow water along the island and eventually broke up on the rocks during a violent winter storm. Six Selendang crewmembers died in the wreck and a Coast Guard chopper was lost when it was hit by a breaking wave, but the pilot was rescued.
“I’m very familiar, up close and personal, with the risks associated with those Great Circle (shipping) routes,” Bell said.
He urged vessel captains experiencing problems in Alaska waters to notify the Coast Guard of their issues sooner than later even if it appears at the time that a rescue won’t be necessary. The responders would much rather embark on a rescue mission and turn around halfway through instead of arriving late to a scene — often hours away — that has become critical due to weather, injury or other factors.
On a positive note, Bell said relations with the Coast Guard’s counterparts in the Bering Sea, the Russian Border Guard, remain mostly healthy despite the ongoing tensions between Moscow and Washington, D.C.
“We’re maritime neighbors. We have the Bering Strait that’s 40-50 miles across. Their traffic could be our traffic. Their calamity could be our calamity very, very quickly, so to stay at that working level is much better for both nations,” he said.
The nations routinely run communications drills and the Border Guard has expressed an interest in expanding those to include search and rescue exercises, according to Bell.
On fisheries, he said the Coast Guard has a continual dialogue about monitoring shipments offloaded to at-sea processor vessels in areas near the international border.
“Nobody really has eyes on what they caught or where they went so we’re continuing to work on those efforts,” Bell said.
However, he added that based on what his knowledge, Russian officials take fisheries violations seriously. Bell referred to “a couple of instances where the master loses the vessel, catch gets sold off at auction and none of the guys go back to work. I know that’s happened in a couple of cases. That’s pretty extreme. NOAA can issue a fine but would we ever take somebody’s boat away from them and sell off the catch and never let them back on?”
With a desire to visit every community in Alaska with a Coast Guard presence, Bell joked that it will take him three years just to do that.
He also said Vice Adm. Linda Fagan, who took over command of the Pacific Area June 8, will be in Alaska in July and similarly new Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Karl Schultz will visit the state in August for a Coast Guard Foundation event.
“I wish it was January or February because I think they would appreciate the tyranny of distance and the challenges of the weather a bit more but July and August — at least they’ll get to go all the places and they won’t get constrained by weather for the most part,” Bell commented.
Elwood Brehmer can be reached at [email protected].