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Joining the Fleet Week Parade of Ships

Since Fleet Week returned to New York City after a sequestration-imposed hiatus in 2013, I have watched the annual parade of ships from underneath the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, which gives you a good vantage point on the Navy and Coast Guard vessels as they pass through the channel into the Upper Bay. This year, however, I got the opportunity to actually be in the parade thanks to the New York Council of the Navy League.

USCGC Lawrence Lawson comes into view at 3:45am.

Wednesday started at 2:15am, when I awoke to make my way to Coast Guard Sector New York on Staten Island, where we were scheduled for a 3:30am departure. Our small party boarded a 45-foot Coast Guard Response Boat for the short ride out to the waiting Fast Response Cutter, USCGC Lawrence Lawson (WPC-1120). This would be our home for the next seven hours as we cruised out to the Lower Bay to await the other ships participating in Fleet Week activities.

Sunrise over Lower New York Bay.

The 154-foot Lawson is one of the newest ships in the Coast Guard fleet. Commissioned in 2017 and based in Cape May, NJ, it is one of 32 Sentinel-class cutters currently in service, with 26 more planned to replace the aging Island class. With a crew of 24 and able to operate for three weeks at a time, these small ships perform search and rescue, fisheries enforcement, maritime resource protection, port security, and law enforcement missions.

The fleet arrives, as USS Jason Dunham comes into view.

With so much time on board, we had the opportunity to meet the crew, who were so welcoming and generous with their time. Coming from all corners of the country (though a large contingent hailed from New Jersey), and experience ranging from Coast Guard Academy cadets to 10-plus-year veterans, on such a small ship, everyone has to do multiple jobs and get along well in such close quarters. 

A couple of our hosts, Chris Nobile and Justin Finney of the Lawrence Lawson.

The rest of the fleet started to come into view around 5:30am, and we waited for our place in line, which would be fifth, just in front of the Canadian patrol boat HMCS Glace Bay and behind the big show of the parade, USS New York. While we waited, we picked up a few guests, including Capt. Jason Tama, Captain of the Port for Sector New York, and Rear Adm. Andrew Tiongson, commander of Coast Guard District 1, which covers New York Harbor, the Hudson River, and New England. 

While considered a military branch of service, the Coast Guard is relatively small – comparable in size to the NYPD, with roughly 38,000 active-duty members – and a little quirky. Over the years it has been shuffled between the federal departments of the Treasury and the Navy, and today it is part of Homeland Security, not Defense. Despite its small size, the service is asked to handle a vast array of missions, and it is often under-resourced. 

Saluting as we pass by Fort Hamilton.

As result, Coast Guard members are proud of their long history, and quick to point out the vital role their service plays in our day-to-day lives, especially in a maritime city like New York. Capt. Tama reminded me that the Coast Guard is by far the largest military contingent in New York Harbor, with over 1,000 members in the region. Once dwarfed by the Army and Navy, those branches have largely departed the city. Fort Hamilton and Fort Wadsworth (Army Reserve Center) remain, but their Army contingents are much smaller than Coast Guard Sector New York. While two of our flagship tour programs celebrate these other services – at the Brooklyn Navy Yard and Brooklyn Army Terminal – we also try to represent the history of the Coast Guard as well. Many Coast Guard ships were built and repaired at the Yard (and still are today), and at the Army Terminal, the Coast Guard played a big role during Prohibition seizing alcohol along the “Rum Line.”

USS New York pulls into its berth at Pier 88.

Once we fell in line, we headed into the Upper Bay, our trip punctuated by three salutes – first from Fort Hamilton, then at the Statue of Liberty, and finally as we passed Lower Manhattan and the World Trade Center site. We ended at Pier 86, home to the Intrepid Museum, where the Lawson is docked just behind the Concorde at the pierhead. I was preparing myself for a long trip from Hell’s Kitchen back to Staten Island by public transit (which would involve the subway, ferry, and bus), but luckily, I was offered the express option: a ride on another 45-foot patrol boat, which covered the 12 miles in about 20 minutes.

Taking the express boat home.

Thanks again to the officers and crew of the Lawrence Lawson, everyone at Sector New York, and to the New York Council of the Navy League for making this amazing experience possible. You can check out the Lawson yourself, as well as all of the other ships here for Fleet Week – check out our handy guide to the visiting ships. We will also be hosting a special guided harbor cruise on Memorial Day with Classic Harbor Line that will feature all of the ships and highlight to rich military (and Coast Guard!) history of the harbor.

We were also joined on board by a TV crew from Fox 5 New York, which did a great segment on the parade.