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January 2009

Chilean navy embarks on MSC oiler
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By Meghan Patrick Henderson, MSC Public Affairs

Capt. Guillermo Gunckel and Capt. William Helton
Chilean navy Capt. Guillermo Gunckel, left, and Capt. William Helton, civil service master of fleet replenishment oiler USNS Yukon, take a break before conducting an underway replenishment with amphibious transport dock ship USS New Orleans (background).

The crew of Military Sealift Command fleet replenishment oiler USNS Yukon hosted four members of the Chilean navy Dec. 1-12 for a familiarization cruise. Chile is slated to receive the deactivated USNS Andrew J. Higgins, which sailed with MSC from 1987-1996 and is a sister ship to Yukon.

Since 1996, ex-Higgins has been part of the Maritime Administration's National Defense Reserve Fleet berthed at Suisun Bay, Calif. The ship is scheduled to transfer to Chile in late 2009 in a Foreign Assistance Act grant transfer. These transfers of excess defense equipment are approved by the Department of the Navy, Department of State and other agencies, and require legislative approval by Congress.

"Ship transfers like this directly support security cooperation objectives and the U.S. maritime strategy and help build partnership capacity to conduct peace and stability operations," said Navy Cmdr. Steve Poppe, branch head of ship transfers at the Navy International Programs Office. "It is a win-win for both navies."

The ex-Higgins will replace Chile's sole oiler, the 42-year-old Araucano, which was built in 1966 and has served the Chilean navy for its entire sea-going career.

Twenty years newer and a different class than the Araucano, the ex-Higgins contains several structural and operational differences that its new crew will need to understand before taking the vessel to sea next year.

During the Chileans' time aboard Yukon, they worked shoulder-to-shoulder with Yukon's crew, observing and participating in a wide range of operations, including 14 underway replenishments, a major vertical replenishment during which 169 pallets were transferred, deck loading qualifications for Navy and Coast Guard helicopters, a cargo fuel load out and two port arrivals and departures.

Chief Boatswain's Mate Jose Miguel Ferrada
Chilean navy Chief Boatswain's Mate Jose Miguel Ferrada gets some hands-on experience in Yukon's winch control box.

Yukon's civil service master Capt. William Helton matched each Chilean crew member with a Yukon crew member who had similar responsibilities, to teach the Chileans specifics of the day-to-day operations. The four Chileans aboard Yukon are slated to be part of the ex-Higgins' crew when the ship transfer is complete. This includes the prospective commanding officer, Chilean Capt. Guillermo Gunckel.

"The crews worked very well together, and there was considerable genuine bonding between Captain Gunckel and myself," said Helton.

Helton guided Gunckel in maneuvering the ship during multiple evolutions, including sailing in and out of port, completing a man overboard drill and changing course while conducting a dual underway replenishment.

"I encouraged him to get a feel of the ship," said Helton. "After seeing his expert handling of Yukon during these evolutions, I can see that Captain Gunckel is now definitely familiar with the class of ship."

Gunckel agrees.

"It was useful for me to feel the ship in my hands," said Gunckel. "We really appreciated this opportunity, and we are very grateful to all of the crew for their help."

While Gunckel worked with Helton, the other Chilean sailors learned from their U.S. counterparts, taking voluminous notes in their books as Yukon's crew members gave tours and answered questions. While the Chileans could speak English, three MSC Spanish-speaking representatives, two from the crew and one from MSC headquarters, were available to translate when necessary.

Chilean navy Lt. Cristobal Romero, the transfer project manager, spent time with Chief Engineer Dave Johnson in the engine room getting a feel for what happens in the engineering spaces during underway replenishments and when entering and leaving ports. Chilean Petty Officer Alejandro Alarcon was matched with Yukon Pumpman Art Spencer and surveyed the hoses and pumps during underway replenishment to ensure that the equipment functioned properly. Chief Petty Officer Jose Miguel Ferrada shadowed Rod Kiebeiak, Yukon's ship's boatswain, on deck during underway replenishment, operating winches, launching messenger lines for the fuel hoses and conducting other deck operations.

"It has been a very intense and satisfying experience for all of us," said Helton. "In addition to all the events and demonstrations, we had numerous discussions at the 'long table' [where Helton and the department heads sit] on a wide variety of topics."

"The positive Chilean and U.S. interactions aboard the Yukon exemplify how the ship transfers help to foster stronger bonds with American allies," said Poppe. "Connecting with other countries through these ship transfers invokes trust and cooperation. When crisis happens, these already established relationships help us execute as a team."