When the government shutdown suspended Coast Guard paychecks and the Halibut disappeared, a Marina del Rey boater rose to the occasion

By Paul M. J. Suchecki

Marina del Rey-based Coast Guard cutter the Halibut was in dry dock during the government shutdown, complicating life for crew members missing their paychecks
Photo by Eric J. Hebert USCGAUX

Nearly 42,000 U.S. Coast Guard members dedicated to protecting mariners, the maritime environment and our nation’s nautical borders served without pay during the longest government shutdown in history, ironically due to a political impasse over border security. Because it falls under the Department of Homeland Security rather than the Department of Defense, the Coast Guard was the only branch of the military that wasn’t being paid during the shutdown.

During those 35 days, local boaters noticed that our Marina del Rey-based Coast Guard cutter the Halibut was nowhere to be seen. The familiar vessel’s absence during a time of national political turmoil naturally led to question about how its patrol area from Dana Point to Morrow Bay was being protected.

But have no fear: “Readiness never suffered,” said Brian Smith of the U.S. Coast Guard Chief Petty Officers Association in San Pedro. “No programs were shut down. We just worked longer hours. One thing that was affected was that non-essential civilians were furloughed.”

Or, as Petty Officer Devonte Marrow stressed: “Even though we weren’t getting paid, we came to work every day to do our jobs,” including search-and-rescue operations and law enforcement duties.

OK, but where was the Halibut? Frankly, it was hard to dig up the truth. Despite a visit to the dock and calls to the crew, I could not land an interview with them.

“Any questions about how the government shutdown affected their operations, they can’t speak on that,” said Marrow, who was awaiting updated guidance from public affairs.

But Monte Montero, a local boater whose father served in the Coast Guard, was already on top of the situation.

“The Halibut is down in San Diego in dry dock for repairs and upgrades,” said Montero, a member of California Yacht Club in Marina del Rey. “That was something that was planned way before this. There are other boats from the Long Beach and San Pedro stations which are patrolling the area.”

Per Marrow, that wasn’t public information yet. But it was to be included in a flyer that Montero planned to circulate, after running it past Chief Smith, in order to raise money in support of the Halibut’s crew during the shutdown.

As it turns out, the temporary relocation to San Diego presented a hardship for the crew. Per diem payments and accommodations had been arranged ahead of time, but without paychecks some of the crew found it impossible to spend their days off with their wives and children who lived in Los Angeles. Others were finding it difficult to pay for life’s necessities.

Montero said he knew of two crew members who were flat broke.

“It’s ridiculous, in my opinion, that these guys are not being paid,” he said.

First, Montero collected cash and retail gift card donations for the cash-strapped crew last week. Then he assembled 10 collection boxes intended to be placed around the marina for the contribution of gift cards, toiletries and other items. Finally, he worked with the Chief Petty Officers Association to accept direct donations in cash and to set up the Go Fund me campaign, “For The Halibut – Unpaid Federal Coast Guard Crew,” suspended upon the reopening of the federal government last Friday.

But the current government funding bargain is only temporary, with President Donald Trump threatening another shutdown come Feb. 15 if he doesn’t get his funding for a border wall. If another shutdown happens, Montero will be ready to relaunch his fundraising effort.

Meanwhile, Smith says the Petty Officers Association is still accepting checks mailed to USCG, Attn: CPOA BMC Brian Smith, 1001 S. Seaside Ave., San Pedro CA 90731. These funds don’t necessarily benefit the crew of the Halibut, however, but those the association deems most in need.

What else is the public to do? About a third of the nation remains ardent Trump supporters who don’t seem to care about the shutdown’s risks to public safety, the 800,000 Americans who went without pay, or the billions of dollars in economic loss — all in service of the president’s edifice complex.

Those of us fed up with government shutdowns and opposed to spending nearly $6 billion in taxpayer funds on a wall of dubious effectiveness should consider urging our congressional representatives to pass a bill introduced by Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.) on Jan. 22. The “Stop STUPIDITY Act” would prevent shutdowns during a future budget standoff by keeping the entire federal government funded — with the exception of Congress and the Executive Office of the President.

Suchecki is a member of Single Mariners and Fairwind Yacht Club.