On board the Naval Service’s newest warship, Paul Williams joins the defence and security personnel who play a vital role in keeping drugs off Europe’s streets
The warship is pulled from alongside the naval dockyard at Haulbowline Island by a tugboat before gently gliding under its own steam through the shimmering waters of Cork harbour.
Under the gaze of St Colman’s Cathedral and the picturesque seaside town of Cobh, the LÉ George Bernard Shaw turns its bow towards the ocean for another patrol over the horizon in the area of the Atlantic known as the ‘cocaine highway’ into Europe.
The ship’s powerful engines pick up speed as it traverses the channel at the harbour entrance — overlooked from either side by the old forts of Camden and Davis — propelling it into the mercifully flat expanse of the ocean. The sky is azure; the sunshine glorious.
The first thing that our military mariners learn when they go to sea is not to take the Atlantic for granted; rather it is a mercurial beast, with mountainous waves and swells that can push a ship and its crew to the limits of their endurance.
The Irish Independent has been given exclusive access — and a bottle of sea sickness pills — to spend several days on the €67m patrol vessel to witness first-hand what the Naval Service calls a maritime defence and security operation.
“Whenever we have visitors, the weather is good and the ocean is calm, but this is the exception and it is deceptive,” the captain, Lieutenant Commander Phil Dicker, tells us as he supervises the bridge.
“Out here we have some of the roughest, stormiest seas in the world, with waves of over 24 metres in the north-west Atlantic regularly recorded in huge swells, which can make life pretty uncomfortable… boarding a yacht carrying a drug shipment in a force-seven gale is not for the faint-hearted.”
The veteran sailor, who has more than 20 years’ service, knows what he is talking about. On a winter’s night in 2008, he took part in a major operation resulting in the seizure of over €750m worth of cocaine when the Naval Service intercepted the yacht Dances with Waves in the midst of gale-force winds and seven-metre waves 240km off the south coast.
It was one of Europe’s biggest maritime seizures of a drug that has been the source of violence and devastation on the streets of Irish towns and cities.
The captain sets a course that will take the patrol 200 miles south-west of Fastnet Rock to the edge of the Irish Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), which has some of the world’s richest fishing grounds, and is the busiest shipping lane between the Americas and western Europe.
The 90-metre warship was commissioned last year and is the newest addition to the fleet, the fourth of its class, purpose-built for the Irish Naval Service. The ships are named after famous Irish literary figures: the others are the Samuel Beckett, the James Joyce and the William Butler Yeats.
The George Bernard Shaw carries enough fuel, safety equipment, support systems and essential supplies to ensure its 55 personnel are self-sufficient for up to four weeks at sea. It also bristles with enough firepower to start a small war.
About an hour off shore, Lt Cmdr Dicker issues the order to the gunnery crews to ‘prove’ the ship’s weapons which, in layman’s terms, involves test-firing them. After establishing a safe cordon around the ship and with no other vessels on the horizon, the ship erupts in gunfire. The primary weapon, the powerful Oto Melara 76mm cannon at the bow, fires a deafening fusillade that obliterates a target buoy several kilometres away. It can accurately fire up to 85 rounds a minute at a target 20km away.
For a while, the George Bernard Shaw feels like it is engaged in a full-scale battle as its two deadly 20mm Rheinmettall cannons join the barrage in chorus with two more 12.7mm heavy machine guns and four smaller general-purpose machine guns. There is no doubt that this is a ship not to be tangled with.
Its engines also make it one of the fastest ships operating in the Atlantic, delivering up to 23 knots with an operational range of 6,000 nautical miles. The on-board generators can supply enough electricity to power a small town.
The ship is also equipped with an array of information technology and state-of-the-art detection and tracking systems capable of monitoring the movements of all vessels within the EEZ. It also collates intelligence that is pooled and shared by various agencies including the Air Corps’ Maritime squadron, who support their Naval Service colleagues operating two versatile Casa 235 aircraft.
“This is our day-to-day business in the navy where we patrol the Irish EEZ and beyond when we are required to. Our role is to protect the vast natural resources within that 200-mile radius which belong to the Irish State, including fossil fuels, fisheries, renewable energy. Fish conservatively worth up to €2bn a year are extracted within our waters every year, so our job is to ensure that this resource is adequately policed and protected,” says Lt Cmdr Dicker as the firing ends and the voyage resumes.
“The Irish Navy is the State’s only law enforcement agency out here and we are its sentinel on the high seas; the ship is the equivalent of the garda patrol monitoring the road and who is using it. This is our beat and we are the roadblock, using a ship that is an agile and resilient resource with a crew that possesses all the expertise and the firepower, if necessary, to carry out whatever mission we are assigned.”
The ship has a responsibility to uphold Irish and EU sovereignty, but today the emphasis is on drug trafficking, which is one of the Naval Service’s top operational priorities. Over the past 12 years, its men and women have been directly involved in the interception of more than €2bn worth of cocaine.
“A big part of what we do involves drug interdiction operations and we are on constant alert for suspicious vessels. The crew members on watch are encouraged to be curious just like the dedicated garda and investigate any ship on our screens that is acting out of the ordinary,” says Lt Cmdr Dicker.
“If we spot something suspicious, as we regularly do out here, the information is relayed back to Naval Ops in Haulbowline for a full background check on the vessel to see if it is on any international suspect lists. Unless I am specifically told not to intercept the vessel, I will go and find out who it is and what they are up to as a matter of course.
“Today we are headed into the southerly most part of our area of operations, which is the main route for cargo ships between Western Europe and North and Central America. Consequently, it is also the main cocaine smuggling route into Europe. It is the international drug dealer’s Route 66 or ‘cocaine highway’ and they tend to hide in plain view.”
The Naval Service is a member of a Joint Drugs Task Force with the gardaí and customs, which in turn plays a key role in the EU-funded Maritime Analysis Operations Centre (Narcotics) — Maoc (N) — which is based in Lisbon and headed by former garda assistant commissioner Michael O’Sullivan.
Maoc is responsible for co-ordinating the collective police, naval, air force and customs resources of seven nations to combat the trafficking of cocaine along Europe’s western coastline, which is also the main source of supply for Irish gangs such as the Kinahan cartel.
In a recent interview with the Irish Independent, O’Sullivan described the Irish Naval Service as the “unsung heroes” in the fight against international drug trafficking
“The Irish Navy go out there on the high seas in all weathers at short notice to track suspect vessels we are monitoring — we would be blindsided without them,” the former drug squad detective said.
As it continues its journey, the George Bernard Shaw receives an urgent message from Naval HQ ordering them to locate and track a suspicious ship that is crossing the Atlantic from the US and headed for Western Europe. While it later turns out to be an exercise, the ‘vessel of interest’ suddenly elevates the patrol to mission status.
The suspect ship is outside the EEZ, in the southwest approaches to the zone. “The requirement for the operation is for us to maintain a covert presence and we are now working up to the highest state of readiness that the ship comes to,” says the captain. “We have proven our weapons, we’ve proven all our systems on board and made sure our boats and machinery are working correctly so that the platform, as we term it, is fit to fight.”
The first phase of the operation is for the George Bernard Shaw to locate the vessel and covertly monitor its progress over the horizon using high-tech radar systems.
As this is an intelligence-led operation, sent down from Maoc and the Joint Task Force, the Naval Service must be prepared to board the vessel and arrest the crew if ordered to do so. Alternatively, they will hand it over the covert surveillance to one of their other navy partners. The service conducts operations like this on a regular basis but for security reasons they are rarely made public.
Over the next 24 hours, the crew prepares for every eventuality. Every member can multitask. Cooks double as machine gunners, while electricians are also members of armed boarding crews.
“The second phase of an operation like this is the boarding phase, which will involve an armed team in high-speed rhibs [rigid-hulled inflatable boats] and they will go covertly to maintain the element of surprise, get on board very quickly, secure the crew and the ship,” says Lt Cmdr Dicker.
“The next is the search phase, where we conduct an initial search to determine if there is an illegal cargo on board, and then we are into the diversion phase, which is to put a crew on board to bring the vessel back to port. At the same time, a second navy ship would be dispatched to the area with members of the gardaí and customs to make formal arrests.”
As the shadowing operation takes the warship deeper into the Atlantic, the specialist armed teams practise their shooting skills and boarding drills.
As the operation enters its third day, the ship receives new orders: find out what flag the vessel is flying. This will require sending a surveillance team under the cover of darkness. The George Bernard Shaw is now more than 300 miles from Cork. At 10.30pm, after the sun has dropped down below the horizon, the boarding crews depart the mother ship in two high-powered rhibs and disappear into the eerie darkness.
The boats will travel up to 16 miles over the horizon and creep up on the target ship, obtain images and return without the suspects ever knowing they were there. It is a nervous time as the George Bernard Shaw remains in total darkness and in radio silence, waiting for the teams to make it back safely.
“We are in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean… if something goes wrong here, there is very few people I can call. It is a time when we need absolute focus,” says the captain.
Then, about 90 minutes later, two tiny dots of light can be seen in the dark distance signifying that the surveillance teams are on the way home with information to send back to base and to their partners in Maoc.
The exercise that has just taken place is similar to an operation co-ordinated by Maoc two years ago that led to the seizure of over two tonnes of cocaine by the UK’s National Crime Agency off the coast of Cornwall.
A Naval Service vessel and an Air Corps maritime patrol aircraft shadowed a catamaran carrying the cocaine from South America for a British crime syndicate as it sailed close to Irish waters.
When today’s mission is over, the captain radios the skipper of the ‘suspect’ ship to inform him that he had been used in a surveillance exercise. He asks if they had detected either the George Bernard Shaw or the rhibs; they had seen nothing out of the usual.
Lt Cmdr Dicker is happy with the outcome. “That for us is mission accomplished. It means that our level of readiness and training are up to standard for the real thing.”
Petty Officer Aileen Hanna, the head chef on the LÉ George Bernard Shaw, has laid down the gauntlet to fiery celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay: could he could cook for the ship's crew in the middle of an Atlantic storm?
The senior non-commissioned officer (NCO) has the distinction of becoming the Naval Service's first female chef after joining up 18 years ago, following in the footsteps of her grandfather and father, who were also in the navy.
But PO Hanna is also a trained machine-gunner, which makes her more than a match for Ramsay, who is famed for his temper tantrums in the kitchen.
Every day on patrol, seven days a week, Aileen and her able cooks Alex Pluchart and David Onderko - both of whom are originally from Poland - prepare an average of 120 meals for a hungry and very appreciative crew of officers, NCOs and sailors.
Having spent four days at sea, we can understand why the cook is the most important person on the ship, even in the eyes of the captain. The grub is as good as anything served in a top-notch civilian eatery.
"It doesn't matter what sort of weather we are in, we still have to be in here working every single day. After 18 years of experience, I know how to make an omelette in a force-10 gale, but it's not nice," PO Hanna says.
"The food is what keeps people going when things are tough. It is not an easy life at sea. There are fabulous moments and I have great memories, but it is hard work and it is our job to keep morale up.
"We cater for different tastes and needs; we are the hub of the ship and we take pride in that. People can't go out and order a chipper or luxuries like that, so we try to make things as nice as we can here."
But like everyone else on board, PO Hanna and her staff are also trained to do other important jobs on board.
"We need to be able to do almost everyone else's job on board. I fire machine guns, I handle the ammo, I do firefighting, I do damage control; you need to be able to multitask on board an Irish Navy ship. It keeps the job interesting. I love it.
"I would love to see Gordon Ramsay cooking in a force-10 gale down in the galley, frying an egg and then make his way to the deck and fire off shots like Alex does," she smiles confidently, standing next to Alex, who has just fired 100 rounds from her general purpose machine gun.
Now there's a challenge for you, Gordon.