GLOUCESTER, Mass. (AP) - Mack McCallon was a newly minted Coast Guard chief petty officer in the fall of 1990 when he was transferred to Gloucester from Seattle, just in time to join the first crew of the Grand Isle.
“Just after Thanksgiving, we went down to Louisiana to pick up the Grand Isle and start that process,” McCallon said while standing in the blustery sunshine that shimmered off the harbor waters surrounding the U.S. Coast Guard’s Station Gloucester. “And then we headed up here in the middle of March.”
That was the first significant voyage of the 110-foot Island-class cutter built at the Bollinger Shipyards in Lockport, La., for the tidy sum of about $5.83 million and launched on Feb. 5, 1991.
The last voyage of the ship that has called Gloucester its home port for the past 24 years remains just over the horizon.
In a ceremony steeped in its nautical traditions, the Coast Guard decommissioned the Grand Isle, effectively retiring the workhorse metal patrol boat and paving the way for the arrival of the station’s new cutter, the Key Largo.
“We wish the Grand Isle well on her next adventure as she has always taken care of us,” said Lt. Nolan Cuevas, the boat’s current and last skipper.
In the past 20 weeks, Cuevas said, the Grand Isle, which is berthed at the Jodrey State Fish Pier, hasn’t slowed down a whit. It logged 2,850 operational hours, performing 127 boardings and steaming more than 20,000 nautical miles.
But in about three weeks, that will come to a close when Cuevas and his crew of about 16 steam motor to Baltimore, where the boat will officially end its Coast Guard service and be stripped of all of the military amenities, insignia and equipment that helped it perform its duties throughout the past quarter century.
The Grand Isle wasted little time moving into the center of the fray. In July 1991, it was a central part of the Coast Guard operation that confiscated about $800 million worth of cocaine from a fishing boat off the coast of Long Island, N.Y.
“That was the Gambino (crime) family and (Panama dictator Manuel) Noriega,” McCallon said. “They had a mother ship that came up to New York to unload to a fishing boat. We caught the fishing boat and then the Reliant went out and caught the mothership. So, we got the whole mother lode, you might say.”
That operation was just one element of the vessel’s military resume. It participated in dozens of operations involving the interdiction of illegal drugs, search and rescue missions (including the crash of TWA Flight 800 off the coast of Long Island in the summer of 1996), the patrolling of New York Harbor after the 9-11 terrorist attacks and even international postings during the subsequent Iraq War.
Cuevas has skippered the Grand Isle for the past 20 months and will assume command of the Key Largo when it makes its way to Gloucester from its current port in San Juan, Puerto Rico.
“We’re looking forward to bringing her up here and showing her what the Northeast is all about,” Cuevas said. “The boat is exactly the same size, with the same capabilities, so the area is not losing anything. She’s in great shape and we look forward to going down there and picking her up.”
Cuevas’s anticipation for his new command was tempered somewhat by his affection for the Grand Isle, which underwent $2.7 million in hull repairs during a 30-week stay in Baltimore at the end of 2011 and the beginning of 2012.
In some ways, he said, boats are like children: You find a way to love them for different reasons.
“A lot of it has to do with the crew,” he said. “The personnel that you’re on board with make or break the ship. This has been one of the best, if the not the best, crew I’ve ever had the pleasure to sail with.”
McCallon, by dint of his status as an original crew member when the Grand Isle was commissioned, is considered a “plank holder” and remains in touch with many of his former shipmates.
“I went over to see her today at the fish pier and, you know what, for almost 24 years old, she still looks pretty good,” McCallon said. “A lot of memories cane rushing back. She was a real fine boat that served her country well.”
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