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Coast Guard Cutters - Backbone of the Fleet

Long-serving ships serve many roles in the U.S. Coast Guard.


Coast Guard Cutters - Backbone of the Fleet
Updated May 16, 2011

The United States Coast Guard relies on Cutters as the backbone of its fleet of ships.


The term Cutter is applied to the commissioned vessels of the U.S. Coast Guard. All Cutters operated by the Coast Guard carry the prefix "USCGC." Specifically, a Cutter is any ship that is 65 feet or longer in length, has a permanently assigned crew, and has accommodations that allow the crew to live onboard the ship.

The name "Cutter" is English and has been used to describe ocean-going ships since the 18th Century. The British Navy used to refer to its smaller naval ships that had only one sail mast as Cutters. The term is still loosely applied to smaller naval ships in England today.

Enforcing Customs Law

Cutters began to be used in the U.S. in 1790 when Congressed authorized then U.S. Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton to create a service to enforce customs law along the U.S. coasts. By 1863, the service that had been created was known as the "Revenue Cutter Service," and it was overseen directly by the U.S. Treasury Department. Some of the early U.S. Cutters went by the names "Virginia," "Massachusetts," and "South Carolina."

Today, Cutters comprise a range of ships operated by the U.S. Coast Guard – from harbour tugboats to icebreakers. 

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