Dec. 27--OAKLAND -- Even the U.S. Coast Guard boat throttles down and moves aside when the Susan M., Alameda County's new 85-foot homeland security patrol boat, blasts its way past Jack London Square toward San Francisco Bay.
The moment of deference is revealing. The Coast Guard boat, agile as a cat with three armed officers on board, is a key component of the East Bay's defense against a waterside terrorist attack.
But the county's twin-engine cutter -- a sleek fiberglass vessel with a menacing pair of .50-caliber machine guns adorning its bow -- provides proof that there's a new player in town when it comes to guarding the Bay Area from offshore intruders.
Alameda County, led by its sheriff, Charles Plummer, has launched its own Marine Patrol Unit to bolster offshore security in an era when experts have pointed to cargo ports and other maritime operations as weak points in America's anti-terrorism armor.
Plummer's initiative was at first greeted warily by county budget-keepers, who said three consecutive years of gaping fiscal shortfalls hardly created the environment in which to launch a new program heavy on equipment and personnel hours.
But with some shrewd budget-keeping of his own, Plummer created the unit in 2003 by tapping nearly $400,000 in savings left over when his department purchased a 31-foot gunboat. On the heels of that breakthrough, Plummer's office in October pulled off a maritime coup -- acquiring the technology-laden cutter ship from the Coast Guard for free.
"A $4 million boat for nothing," Plummer said, "Now that's a deal nobody can refuse."
It was an acquisition hailed by officials at the Port of Oakland, which has struggled to obtain federal support for security measures it deems necessary to guard an operation that is ranked No. 2 on the state's list of likely targets for terrorism.
"The sheriff does a lot for us by providing a visible security presence," said Harold Jones, a port spokesman. The gunboat "was a good first step. But the cutter is really impressive. It sends a message that we're watching things very closely around here."
The Susan M. was part of a small fleet of vessels tested by the Coast Guard two years ago to see if they were preferable to the 87-foot and 110-foot coastal patrol boats that are the mainstays of the agency's homeland security mission.
The smaller ships offered one primary advantage: They're faster, cruising at speeds up to 40 knots, as opposed to the 25-knot speed of the larger boats.
Eventually, though, the Coast Guard decided to stay with the larger boats, whose steel hulls are more durable and tend to perform better in the open sea. This was an important consideration, given that the Coast Guard's homeland security mandate includes patrolling waters as far as 200 nautical miles offshore.
"The smaller boat may have less capability offshore, but it's great in the Bay," said Lt. Leanne Bacon, patrol boat coordinator for the Coast Guard's San Francisco office, which covers shoreline from Monterey to the Oregon border.
"With the 85-foot-boat in the sheriff's hands, we feel we've got another asset we can call on to provide security in and around the Bay."
The Coast Guard's decision to stick with the steel-hulled boats meant that it had a handful of the smaller vessels sitting idly at the dock.
"When I heard the boat might be available, I went to the sheriff and asked how hard we should push," said Sgt. Jim Lambert, who captains the Susan M. as it makes its rounds through the Oakland estuary and the Bay. "He said to jump on it."
Plummer said the idea of launching the marine unit occurred to him in the days after Sept. 11, 2001, when he awoke one night nagged by worries about a potential terrorist attack at or near the Port of Oakland, where some of the world's largest cranes line the shoreline.
"I started worrying about the port because I've always thought it was the crown jewel of Alameda County," he said. "You know, taking out that port would destroy the local economy."