On a wooden dock near a flock of brown pelicans, members of the Texas Game Wardens’ Marine Tactical Operations Group went over the plans and details of a joint-mission to bring the decommissioned USS Independence safely to rest at the Port of Brownsville.
The mission took several hours as several federal, state and local law enforcement agencies worked together to keep curious boaters, tour vessels and potential threats away from the tugboat group as it worked to bring the massive Forrestal-class aircraft carrier through the ship channel.
With positions around the Independence assigned, the outboard engines on the Game Wardens’ SAFE boat clicked into gear outside the Coast Guard station.
“Coming up!” Captain Luis Sosa shouted as the bow of the boat raised and sped off toward the Gulf of Mexico for the four-mile trip to meet the Independence at sea, where the escort mission was to begin.
The purpose of the security and safety perimeter was to ensure the safety of spectators and, ultimately, the integrity of the ship channel. Sosa explained the “trickle down” effect a closed ship channel would have if it were closed.
Theoretically, had an attack on the Independence occurred, she could occlude the channel used by shrimpers, local fisherman and ultimately the Port of Brownsville. Such a closure could become an economic disaster for one of the busiest international trade ports in the United States. With large LNG vessels written into the port’s future, Sosa explained that escort missions could become more commonplace in the ship channel.
With swelling seas and a mere 2- to 3-knot travel speed, boaters and tour vessels were encroaching on the Independence as she made her final voyage into port. The large-twin outboard engines on the Game Wardens’ vessel quickly brought the boat over the swells as Sosa maneuvered his crew between the civilian boat the Independence.
Shortly after, a tour vessel came near the security perimeter. Again, Sosa performed an intercept maneuver to defend the decommissioned and powerless Independence.
With the security group making its way into the jetties, the number of targets of interest grew as numerous personal fishing boats, jet skis, pontoons and tour boats cluttered together to get as close as possible to the majestic ship. Each one was considered a safety and security concern during the multi-hour operation.
Game Warden Carmen Rickel took over at the helm, intercepting multiple civilian craft as crews from the U.S. Coast Guard pushed forward to block and redirect other vessels attempting to share the ship channel. Some shallow-draft bait-shrimp boats were forced to maneuver in as little as 8 feet of water to yield use of the entire channel.
A group of tug vessels, all with the name “Signet,” worked as one to move the Independence through the channel. At the lead was the Signet Thunder. A single line attached her to the anchor chain of the Independence, providing forward propulsion for the group.
On the sides of the bow were the Signet Challenger and the Signet Magic, applying their thrust in sync to steer the Independence between the narrowing channel markers. Attached to the stern was the Signet Arcturis, controlling the stern and fighting a cross-wind as the Independence acted as a massive sail for even the slightest breeze.