Keeping Coast Guard Cutter Blackfin at the top of her game

CGC Blackfin Starboard Engine

U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Blackfin’s new starboard engine gets lowered into the engine room. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer Third Class Dustin Gurrola

Written by Lt. j.g. David Zwirblis and Chief Petty Officer James McDermott

The Coast Guard Cutter Blackfin, located in Santa Barbara, California, performs a wide array of missions working for Sector Los Angeles/Long Beach. The ship’s primary focuses have been on Drug and Migrant Interdiction, Recreational Boating Safety, and Search and Rescue. The cutter also works closely with the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), and California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) to enforce fisheries and environmental regulations along the southern California coastline.

However, during the month of April, the Blackfin’s crew of 13 shifted gears from its normal operations to conduct some much needed maintenance on the ship’s engineering systems.

The largest project the crew worked on during this period was the replacement of both of the cutter’s Main Diesel Engines. With nearly 14,000 hours of operation, the current engines were at the end of their expected lifespan. These were the original engines, first installed when the cutter was commissioned in 2000; if the ship continued to operate on these engines, it’s possible she could experience a mechanical failure while completing a critical assignment. It was therefore essential that these engines get replaced to ensure Blackfin could continue safely operating on the water and performing all her missions.

The Coast Guard turned to Pacific Power Marine Turbine Unit, who provided the Blackfin with two brand new engines. The cost of each individual engine was nearly $500,000. With parts and labor, the entire project came to a $1.1 million endeavor.

Blackfin engineers

CGC Blackfin engineers show signs of relief as final connections are being made to the new engines. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Lt. j.g. Dave Zwirblis

Weighing over 10,000 pounds, each engine needed to be carefully lifted out of the engine room and the new ones lowered in using a crane. This requires a great deal of precision by both the crane operator and the people guiding the engine, as one false move could seriously damage the ship’s hull or injure personnel. However, this was the easy part of the job. Once the new engines were in place, the Blackfin crew and Sector LA-LB engineering staff had to align the engine with the propeller shaft. This needed to be done to ensure the engines could run smoothly and without vibrations. It is similar to balancing the tires on your car, but on a much larger scale. This job is normally performed by a contractor due to the high degree of technical difficulty. By completing the alignment themselves, the crew saved the Coast Guard nearly $5,000.

Chief Petty Officer Glen Browning, the Black’s Engineer Petty Officer, took the lead role in managing the project and recalls the level of difficulty in performing his first ever such engine alignment.

“The shaft alignment was extremely difficult, because the unit doesn’t possess the latest technology in alignment tools,” said Browning. Instead we reverted to using standard hand tools and legacy techniques. Basically you had to get a 10,000 pound engine to match up with the [propeller] shaft precisely to within five thousandths of an inch!”

Blackfin’s engineering department logged over 150 hours of intense labor in less than a two-week time frame, often working into the wee hours of the morning. The ship’s most junior member, Fireman Jose Hernandez recalls working the long hours.

“The shaft alignment was tough because moving and adjusting the bolts took us a very long time and sometimes seemed very tedious,” said Hernandez. “But it was also well worth the long hours and hard work, because I really got to have some good bonding time and lots of joking around with my shipmates.”

Fireman Hernandez, who joined the Coast Guard only one year ago, is training to be an Electrician’s Mate. He and the other junior personnel aboard gained valuable engineering insight by working on the project, an experience that will aid them in their future Coast Guard assignments.

The crew’s continuous positive attitude and work ethic helped get the job completed on schedule. This allowed the Blackfin to get back out to sea and keep completing the missions she was designed for. With new engines, the Blackfin will be able to continue working on the water for 12 to 15 more years of dedicated service.

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