Port Canaveral’s U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Vigilant Has Rich Tradition, Long Legacy
By William H. Thiesen, Ph.D., Atlantic Area Historian // March 1, 2021
10th vessel in service history to bear the name
EDITOR’S NOTE: USCGC Vigilant (WMEC-617) is homeported at Port Canaveral, Florida and is the 12th cutter to bear the name Vigilant, dating back to 1790 when the original Vigilant was built for the Revenue Cutter Service. In 1990, Vigilant moved her homeport to Port Canaveral. Vigilant has just completed another yard period, updating her with the most modern electronic and engineering equipment available.
BREVARD COUNTY • PORT CANAVERAL, FLORIDA – Coast Guard Cutter Vigilant (WMEC-617) was commissioned in 1964, which means it has served this nation well over 50 years. During those many years, the cutter and its crews have performed the missions of maritime law enforcement, search and rescue, homeland security, national defense and international engagement.
Vigilant is named for an inspirational trait meaning to keep careful watch, especially for possible danger or difficulties.
Its motto is Semper Vigilans meaning “Always Vigilant” and its nicknames have included “RONC Captain Bob’s Econo-Fill,” “None Here in Charge” (a play on the cutter’s radio call sign NHIC), “We Must Eat Chicken (a play on the cutter’s designation WMEC),” “Baby Dallas,” “Warship U-617,” “The Zone of Insanity,” and “Home of the Broken Orange Flying Chicken.”
Vigilant has been involved in many unique and historic operations.
In 1965, it was part of the Project Gemini recovery team assisting in the recovery of the Gemini space capsule and crew. Vigilant secured its place in history in 1970 as a result of the infamous “Vigilant Incident” off of Massachusetts in which Lithuanian seaman Simas Kudirka attempted to defect to the United States by leaping from his Soviet ship to the deck of the Vigilant.
Kudirka was repatriated to his Soviet ship but later emigrated to the U.S. In 1976, Vigilant also served as on-scene commander when the oil tanker Argo Merchant grounded near Cape Cod spilling cargo into the sea.
This case is considered one of the worst spills in U.S. history prior to the Exxon Valdez and Vigilant earned the Coast Guard Meritorious Unit Commendation for its role in the spill clean-up.
Vigilant has the unique distinction of being the 10th vessel in service history to bear the name.
This record of predecessor vessels with the same name is greater than other cutters, including “Alert” and “Active” with eight cutters and “Eagle” and “Crawford” with seven. The first cutter named “Vigilant” was one of the service’s original 10 revenue cutters.
Vigilant I saw service out of New York from 1791 to 1798 and may have been the first of the original cutters to be completed. Its patrol area included the Hudson River, New York Harbor and the coastlines of Northern New Jersey and Long Island.
The rest of the 19th century and early 20th century saw five more vessels named “Vigilant” serving in the Coast Guard or its ancestor agencies. These included a cutter that entered service in 1843 only to wreck off Key West, Florida, in a hurricane a year later. In 1856, the Lighthouse Service bought a schooner to tend lighthouses and re-named it Vigilant.
In 1866, the ship also wrecked near Key West. Vigilant VII entered service in 1867 and sailed out of Boston and Portland, Maine. The cutter and its sister-cutter Reliance were the last sail-powered cutters in the history of the service. In 1910, the 45-foot harbor launch Vigilant entered service at the Sault Ste. Marie locks in Michigan.
The 125-foot “buck-and-a-quarter” cutter Vigilant entered service during Prohibition.
The ship was built to battle Rum Runners and served from 1927 through World War II, when it was credited with rescuing the survivors of two tankers torpedoed off the East Coast.
The cutter remained in the service into the mid-1950s. During the early 1800s, three more cutters named “Vigilant” served the nation.
The second Vigilant entered service in 1802 and also served out of New York until it was sold in 1807. The third cutter Vigilant entered service in 1812 and saw extensive action during the War of 1812. On Oct. 4, 1813, under the command of John Cahoone, Vigilant III sailed out of Newport, Rhode Island, and pursued the armed privateer Dart.
Vigilant fired its guns at Dart and then closed with the privateer. Cahoone sent a boarding party aboard Dart, chasing the privateer’s crew below deck and capturing the ship.
This was the last successful use of boarding by a revenue cutter in the Age of Sail. Records indicate that another cutter named Vigilant served concurrently with the 1812 cutter between 1824 and 1830 with Vigilant IV sailing in the Chesapeake Bay and later out of New Bern, North Carolina.
Today’s Vigilant remains Semper Vigilans, performing with unparalleled success in a wide range of Coast Guard missions. The cutter played a key role in Operation “Able Manner” containing the 1981 Cuban exodus.
In 1993, Vigilant participated in Operation “Tradewinds” training the nations of Nassau, St. Vincent, Trinidad, Jamaica, Barbados, Dominica, Grenada, and Antigua in law enforcement, search and rescue, leadership and teamwork techniques.
Beginning in 1994, the ship participated in Operation “Uphold Democracy” enforcing the United Nations embargo on the island nation of Haiti. In two patrols conducted in 1994 and 1995, the cutter and its crew made seven migrant repatriations, returning over 1,400 migrants to Haiti.
Following the September 11 terrorist attacks, Vigilant also demonstrated its multi-mission capability by taking on the mission of homeland security. Vigilant also participated in Operation “Noble Eagle” in the fall of 2002, boarding merchant vessels entering the mouth of the Mississippi and ensuring they posed no threat to the port of New Orleans.
Vigilant has continued its history of distinguished service in the Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico. In its first three decades of counter-drug operations, the cutter seized numerous vessels smuggling hundreds of thousands of pounds of marijuana and cocaine.
In recent years, Vigilant has made several high-profile cocaine seizures. In June 2012 the crew of Vigilant interdicted a cocaine shipment with a street value of over $26 million and made two October 2012 seizures totaling $64 million. In May 2015, working with cutter Bear, Vigilant intercepted a shipment of cocaine and marijuana valued at $14 million.
In its over 50 years of service to the nation, Vigilant has received countless honors. These awards include numerous Coast Guard Unit Commendations, Coast Guard Meritorious Unit Commendations, Navy Meritorious Unit Commendations, Humanitarian Service Medals, Coast Guard Special Operations Ribbons and Coast Guard “E” Ribbons.
Firmly rooted in its long list of accomplishments and the history of its distinguished predecessor vessels, Vigilant will continue to live up to its motto and remain “Always Vigilant.”
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