Deep Sea Drug War: Hometown crew

PANAMA CITY — Two years ago, Sam Berns was in high school in Winchester, Massachusetts.

Now, on the Pacific Ocean, he’s a world away.

In narcotics operations, there is little to no communication with family and friends back home.

No phones. No social media.

Just two computers on board each vessel to allow the crew to email home.

The focus is all on seizing huge amounts of drugs.

“I’ve decided to take a different approach to my life and here I am in the Coast Guard,” Berns tells us.

He’s one of the biggest personalities on the ship and one of the lowest ranks in the Coast Guard. He does everything from the dishes on the ship to loading supplies to helping with drug enforcement.

“It’s incredible to see so much money in front of you,” he says as he helps in hauling the confiscated drugs aboard. “It’s incredible if you think about it. Each bale is worth every however millions of dollars. It’s just crazy to think this could’ve gone into the states and how much and where this could’ve spread.”

A big part of the drug enforcement, of course, is searching for smugglers on the run -- many of them risking it all on a small speed boat trying to make the trek undetected from Central or South America to Mexico where the drugs then slip into the United States.

As the crews describe it, it’s like looking for a needle in a haystack.

“It’s hard to catch a tiny little boat out in the ocean with binoculars,” notes Sean Ryan.

The seaman from Hampton, New Hampshire joined the Coast Guard to eventually be a national intelligence officer. %



But on the ocean, he sits at the highest point of the ship with just a pair of binoculars, searching for trouble on the horizon.

“I’d say if we came all the way out here and didn’t find anything, that would be a huge disappointment,” he admits.

More than 3,000 miles from Boston, New England ships are routinely involved in the drug patrols on the Pacific Ocean and in the Caribbean.

The drug problem is that serious and the success by the local ships is almost hard to believe.

The Tahoma, based in Maine, is nicknamed the ‘Never Home-a,’ because it's rarely in port and often sent back out to look for drugs. The ship's crew recently hauled in 60 bales of cocaine, 4,000 pounds of it. That’s worth an estimated $50 million.

Jordan Wickens, who grew up in Tilton, New Hampshire, helped bring in a massive haul they found on a tanker.

“When they found it, they new it was big,” said Wickens.

Lt. John Kearney led the operation and says increased activity forced the Coast Guard to step up its drug enforcement.

That means Boston-based ships heading south more often.

“The demand is so high and the amount of resources we have is limited,” Lt. Kearney explained. “Just because of the number of ships we have available, we need to draw from every potential resource and every avenue to make this successful.”

And the payoff is huge.


Boston 25's Blair Miller spent 10 days aboard a U.S. Coast Guard ship in the Pacific Ocean to report this story on how New England crews are being used to combat drug smuggling. This four part series will air as a news special on Boston 25 at 11 p.m. Friday, November 15, 2017.