This is a short tale of how war games were once played in the Oakland Estuary.
By Shawn Vredenburg
MARDEZ stands for Maritime defense zone. These zones are set up for the protection of the country from a maritime threat (terrorists, foreign invasion, etc). Due to the Coast Guard’s intimate knowledge of coastal operations, a Coast Guard Admiral is often in command of the MARDEZ and is responsible for the readiness of all forces, from all of the Armed Forces, in the zone.
At the deckplate level, MARDEZ means instead of maintaining our vessels or training for Search and Rescue, we have to play war games, and you never know what kind of games the senior leadership is going to think up.
In the early 90’s there was a major MARDEZ exercise conducted in the San Francisco Bay Area that was to include all military commands around the Bay. It was explained to us at the Station that we were to respond to anything that happened as if it were real. If we were to be dispatched to anything MARDEZ related, we would be told before we got underway. Additionally, we would have to go through an exact “ritual” of clearing our weapons and showing the coxswain who would “verify” that our weapons were clear. Then we were to continue to respond to the MARDEZ event as if it were real, up to and including the “simulated” use of deadly force with our “cleared” weapons.
I had the duty coxswain over one busy weekend during this MARDEZ exercise. We were dispatched to a boat causing a large wake in the very congested Oakland Estuary (a deep but narrow channel between Oakland and Alameda, CA). I asked if this was MARDEZ related and was told yes, so I ensured that my boarding team had cleared their weapons, and we got underway to play the war games.
We arrived where the boat was reported to be causing the damaging wake and found nothing out of the ordinary. My crew and I were tired because we had been underway all day doing SAR, and we were expecting Navy Seals to pop out of the water and “shoot” us up. We were hoping it would happen soon so we could go home. We waited a while and nothing happened, so we started heading back to the station. We were about halfway back to the station when we were again dispatched, to the same position, for the same thing. Again, I asked if this was MARDEZ related and was told yes. Once again we went through the safety ritual of ensuring the boarding team’s weapons were clear. Once again, we got on scene and found nothing out of ordinary -- Just a long row of marinas with thousands of boats.
After waiting while, we were fed up and were again on our way back to the station. As we came out of the mouth of the Oakland estuary, we saw three gray rubber zodiacs heading towards the entrance of the estuary. I turned our 41 ft UTB around and started following these zodiacs. As we closed in on them we noticed that each zodiac had six men on board, and everyone was wearing dry-suits. Additionally, none of the zodiacs had any registration numbers on them. We had stumbled across some Navy seals heading somewhere to “simulate” an attack. We followed them a short way right to the mouth of the estuary where it appeared that one of the zodiacs began to have engine problems, and the other two zodiacs had come alongside the one having engine problems. But we were waaayyy to smart to fall for that old ploy, it was obvious they were playing possum so we would either go away, or come in closer so they could “open fire” on us. So we began to circle the three zodiacs at my top wake speed of 1800 RPM, sending three to four foot waves in to make life a little uncomfortable on them.
We did this for about 10 minutes before we decided to change tactics. The UTB has a fire monitor on the bow that can throw a jet of water 133 feet. The Navy seals saw that we were rigging our fire monitor and knew they were in trouble, so they started heading into the estuary at a very high speed. We stowed our fire monitor and followed them, thinking we would find what they were doing to report it to the MARDEZ commander. They saw that we were still following so they pulled into the first restaurant dock and tied up, I was sure that they were going to try to wait there until we left so they could continue with their mission.
We went ahead and tied up our boat at the docks and went to go talk to the Navy seals. As we approached their docks, I was shocked to see them taking off their dry-suits and have civilian clothes underneath.
Turns out they weren’t Navy seals, they were Army reservists who decided to borrow some morale boats and head to this restaurant for dinner.
And they had absolutely no clue what MARDEZ stood for.
And the vessel throwing the damaging wake in the Oakland Estuary? We found out later that it was not MARDEZ related either.