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In Ever-Changing Bay Area, Coast Guard Captain Has Complex Assignment

Jan 10, 2020
by Carolyn Said
On a fog-shrouded Monday morning, two dozen Coast Guard officers gathered in a conference room on Yerba Buena Island to brief Capt. Marie Byrd, sector commander and captain of the port for San Francisco and Northern California, about what happened on local waters over the weekend.

"Coasties" had embarked on two search-and-rescue missions, including deploying a rescue swimmer from a helicopter for a boat that ran aground at Baker Beach. Environmental teams investigated "mystery sheens" in the Oakland Estuary and Half Moon Bay, as well as tar patties at Seacliff State Beach near Santa Cruz. Two boats sank at harbor in big storms; teams would monitor their salvage operations. A Larkspur commuter ferry had lost propulsion; inspectors would scrutinize its repairs. Several "deep draft vessels" -- big container ships and oil tankers -- had adjusted their schedules for the fog.

"It's a multiuse bay," said Byrd, who has served almost a quarter century in the Coast Guard and is the second woman to hold her position. "All the activity -- commercial traffic, fishing, ferries, people swimming -- is compressed in one area with dynamic conditions, so the level of complexity is dialed up."

Byrd, 46, an unassuming, friendly woman who stands 5 feet 3 in her combat boots, is ultimately responsible for what happens on 16,000 square miles of water inside the Golden Gate -- bays, sloughs, estuaries, channels, rivers and wetlands covering an area larger than Rhode Island. Her territory also covers the coastline from the Oregon border to the San Luis Obispo County line, including 200 nautical miles (230 miles) out to sea, and east to include major lakes and rivers in Nevada, Utah and Wyoming.

The Bay Area, named for a body of water and home to the nation's third-largest ferry system and fourth-busiest port, is a particularly challenging assignment. A ship can quickly go from a foggy 59 degrees to bright sun and upper 90s, while "hurricane-force winds and dense fog can happen within the same week," according to a Coast Guard briefing paper.

"The bays are shallow, the navigation channels are narrow, and underwater rocks are always close by," the paper says.

Even so, the Coast Guard here is relatively low profile.

Most residents hear about the service -- which is a branch of the military -- only when something goes wrong on the water, like a fishing boat capsizing or a spill from an oil tanker. If you end up in the bay or ocean and need help, "blue suiters" will come to your rescue. Like firefighters, Coast Guard crews stand by 24/7 at various small boat stations, ready to respond to calls. They're like beat cops for the water, boarding vessels to check that they have the right safety equipment, for instance.

The service has three focuses: maritime safety (protecting people on the water), maritime stewardship (protecting the water itself) and maritime security (protection from threats such as drug smuggling).

The Coast Guard has a few dozen boats stationed around the region, including self-righting, motor-operated life boats that can handle "really gnarly conditions" -- 20-foot swells and 30-foot seas. It has four 87-foot patrol boats.

Byrd assumed her position in March, "fleeting up" (in Coast Guard lingo) from her previous role as second in command. She oversees about 600 active-duty Coast Guardsmen, 163 reservists, 43 civilians and 1,568 civilian volunteers called auxiliarists.

"It takes a lot of people to run what happens here every day," she said at a Coast Guard briefing in December, motioning at the packed room.

"Marie Byrd is a rock star," said Lynn Korwatch, executive director of the Marine Exchange of the San Francisco Bay Region and chairwoman of the Harbor Safety Committee, who was the first female captain of a commercial deep-draft vessel. "She goes over and above in working with the community. She is so even-keeled and compassionate."

Byrd's headquarters are on Yerba Buena Island, a stone's throw from Vista Point with sweeping views of the bay, the Bay Bridge's eastern span and Oakland. Alameda's Coast Guard Island, the artificial island in the Oakland estuary, is overseen by Byrd's bosses, a rear admiral and vice admiral, and acts as the command center for operations from the Rocky Mountains to the Indian Ocean.

On Yerba Buena, the Coast Guard constantly monitors maritime activity from rooms filled with big-screen monitors showing colorful maps of the waterways with dozens of blips indicating ships, plus live camera feeds from bridges. The Vessel Traffic Service center, similar to an air traffic control tower, monitors traffic, advises vessels of one another's locations and helps boats pass each other on narrow waterways.

Mariners in distress use a designated radio channel to reach the communications room, which acts as a 911 call center for the water. Eleven radio towers throughout the Bay Area triangulate the location of distress calls.

And there are plenty. In 2018, the San Francisco sector embarked on 1,275 search-and-rescue missions, or about 100 a month. It said that resulted in 1,725 lives saved or assisted, and $21 million in property saved or assisted.

But not all are successful. The hardest part of Byrd's job is paying a personal visit to the families of people who died or disappeared on the water. She's had to do it 17 times. It's a task she never delegates.

She gives the family a detailed chronology of everything the service did in its search.

"I'll explain to them that further searching is not going to result in a different outcome or find their loved one alive," she said. "It is never an easy conversation to have."

Byrd grew up in Southern California, the daughter of an accountant dad and nurse mother, both of whom immigrated from the Philippines as adults. When it was time to go to college, her dad insisted she apply to one service academy. She picked the Coast Guard as the only one that didn't require a congressional nomination.

Once she visited the academy in New London, Conn., she was sold by its service-oriented nature and the small teacher-to-student ratio. Women at sea were still relatively new at the time. Only 10% of her classmates were women, but she deflects questions about how that felt.

After graduation, she was commissioned as an ensign on a 378-foot vessel out of Governors Island, N.Y., and lived aboard for 18 months. "Life at sea is unlike any other in camaraderie and (sense of) mission," she said.

She's served all over the country, including Charleston, S.C.; Galveston, Texas; Jacksonville, Fla., and Honolulu.

That trajectory can be hard on a family. She and her husband, Patrick Byrd, a former teacher who's now a full-time dad, have sons ages 14 and 11. "In many ways, the sacrifices they've made, constantly having to be the new kid at school, are far greater than mine," she said.

But they all appreciate their seaside Alameda home. Her husband and sons are kite surfers, and all four surf.

"We're completely a water family," she said, making fluttering motions with her hands. "Being by the water is akin to a fish -- you can't breathe if you're too far from the water."

* * * * *

Photo caption: An American flag is shown behind an Air Station San Francisco seal during an award ceremony at Coast Guard Air Station San Francisco. The Air Medal is awarded for single acts of heroism or meritorious achievement while participating in aerial flight. (Taylor Bacon/U.S. Coast Guard)


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