By Don Ford

ALAMEDA (KPIX 5) – The crew of a U.S. Coast Guard cutter returned to the Bay Area for the holidays Monday after offloading 18,000 pounds of seized cocaine in San Diego.

Nearly 120 Coast Guard families were happily reunited in time for Christmas as the Coast Guard Cutter Bertholf returning from a mission that was anything but routine.

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It is a dangerous operation most civilians never get to see. The fast-response interdiction teams from Coast Guard cutters like the Bertholf are tasked with capturing and boarding drug smuggling boats far out in the Pacific Ocean.

Over a mission that spanned nearly three months, the crew of the cutter Bertholf seized nearly 5,851 pounds of cocaine worth about $100 million while patrolling the waters off Mexico, Central America and South America.

On one boat alone, the crew of the Bertholf seized more than 3,100 pounds of cocaine.

“You’re out there in the Eastern Pacific, thousands of miles from land, often at night, often in rough seas,” explained Lt. Commander Stephen Brickey. “And of course you get on scene with no idea what’s waiting for you down below.”

During operations after dark, teams use night-vision goggles, infrared cameras and other means to move in. In another bust captured by U.S. Coast Guard cameras, crews captured nearly 1,000 pounds of cocaine.

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The Bertholf was among several Coast Guard vessels involved in the mission targeting smugglers, which seized more than 18,000 pounds of cocaine worth more than an estimated $312 million.

The seized drugs were brought to the Bertholf, which offloaded the entire amount in San Diego last week.

The crew of United States Coast Guard cutter Bertholf following a seizure of cocaine off the Eastern Pacific. (U.S. Coast Guard)

The crew of United States Coast Guard cutter Bertholf following a seizure of cocaine off the Eastern Pacific. (U.S. Coast Guard)

“This is hard dangerous work for these crews to actually gain access and control of those vessels,” said Vice Admiral Linda Fagan. “And then there’s just a lot of hard labor to get all of these narcotics off of these small boats that the narco traffickers are using.”

Now after months at sea, the Bertholf returns home to Alameda and the crew’s anxiously waiting families just two days before Christmas. Crew members were excitedly greeted by spouses and children who had not seen them in weeks.

“There’s signs, there’s dogs, there’s funny costumes, as you know,” said a smiling Lt. Commander Brickey. “It’s incredible! It’s a great feeling to know that our Coasties are supported here at home; that they can get back in time for the Holidays.”

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The Bertholf is returning to Alameda following an 82-day mission.