USS O’KANE, At Sea (NNS) -- Visit, board, search and seizure (VBSS) teams aboard USS O'Kane (DDG 77) conducted their first boarding in the Combined Task Force (CTF) 152 area of operations (AOO) in the Southern Persian Gulf on June 28.
After making bridge-to-bridge communications requesting permission to come aboard, the master consented to the boarding. Lt. j.g. Thomas Scazzafavo, O'Kane's principal VBSS officer, led teams to board a North Korean flagged vessel with a mixed-nationality crew suspected of smuggling.
VBSS, along with interaction patrols (IPATS), are elements of maritime operations that help generate support and awareness among commercial vessels sailing in the region of the coalition's efforts to ensure a safe and secure maritime environment. These operations ensure that commercial shipping and fishing can operate safely in the region.
"When we came aboard the vessel, we started to verify that everybody was on the crew's list," said Scazzafavo. "We did that by looking at the crew's passports and manifest. It checked out okay. We then started a sweep of the ship to make sure there was no contraband or illegal items on board. We then inspected all of their cargo spaces to match the manifest up to the cargo they had onloaded. It all checked out."
Since entering the U.S. 5th Fleet AOO on Feb. 19, O'Kane's VBSS teams have conducted numerous IPATS. All of these patrols involve coming alongside the various ships and interacting with local sailors, none of which have involved actually boarding the boats in question.
"This was the real deal," said Engineman 2nd Class (SW) Terry Wilkison, the VBSS boat engineer. "It went exactly the way we were trained, and there were no surprises, no hitches or anything. It was exciting to do the job that you've been training for so long."
Wilkison, like the rest of his team, appreciated being able to interact with sailors of a different culture while conducting VBSS and IPATS operations.
"The local people are friendly and happy to see us," said Wilkison. "They didn't know what to think of us at first, but when they realize we're there to help them, that we're there for their protection, you can really see a change in their attitude towards us."
Scazzafavo said while there are suspected smugglers operating in the area, the vast majority of the people here are trying to make an honest living on the high seas.
"While we were boarding the vessel, we interacted with their crew," said Scazzafavo. "Some of the crew members of the ship talked about their families."
Scazzafavo said that operations like these help build a good relationship with the local maritime community.
"Things are starting to change in the day-to-day interactions with local mariners," said Scazzafavo. "We are here to enforce international law so the maritime environment is safe for everyone and so the sea lanes of communication remain open."
O'Kane, as part of the USS John C. Stennis Carrier Strike Group, is on deployment in the U.S. 5th Fleet AOO to conduct maritime operations in regional waters and provide support for ground forces operating in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Maritime operations help set the conditions for security and stability in the maritime environment and complement the counter-terrorism and security efforts in regional nations' littoral waters.
For more news from Commander, U.S. Naval Forces Central Command/Commander, U.S. 5th Fleet, visit www.news.navy.mil/local/cusnc/.