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Tuesday 23 October 2018

Storm forced swoop on €675m drug boat

Customs and Navy officers load cocaine bales into a van yesterday after they were removed from the yacht 'Dances with Waves' in Castletownbere, Co Cork
Customs and Navy officers load cocaine bales into a van yesterday after they were removed from the yacht 'Dances with Waves' in Castletownbere, Co Cork

Ralph Riegel and Shane Phelan in Castletownbere

THE yacht carrying a €675m cocaine shipment was badly damaged and within minutes of capsizing when armed naval officers stormed the decks to make the largest drugs seizure in Irish history.

Authorities were forced to swoop in gale-force conditions when it became clear the sloop 'Dances With Waves' could topple over in seven-metre swells.

The huge cocaine haul is thought to be 80pc pure, giving it a potential value of €675m.

The 60ft fibreglass vessel was brought safely to shore by naval personnel yesterday more than 30 hours after it was boarded by officers from the LE 'Niamh' some 170 miles off the Co Cork coast.

Three men arrested on board are expected to appear in court this evening to have their periods of detention extended.

Gardai are continuing to hunt for accomplices who may have been waiting to meet the yacht in west Cork.

Detectives believe the boat was destined to land in Ireland, with the bulk of the 1.9 tonne cocaine consignment due to be transported on to European markets.

Initial tests indicate the cocaine seized is 80pc pure, some 5pc more potent than the €440m haul at Dunlough Bay last year. The average purity of cocaine sold on Irish streets is just 10pc.

Gardai believe the drugs gang made a critical error in using the sloop, which is easily damaged in rough seas.

Although it is able to sail extremely fast and can reach almost 26 knots, it is not designed for the type of extreme sea and weather conditions encountered in the north Atlantic. The sting operation -- Operation Seabight -- swung into operation late on Wednesday night and was led by a team of naval, customs and garda officers.

The operation used intelligence from Britain's serious organised crime agency and involved the yacht being tracked by satellites all the way across the Atlantic from the Caribbean.

Naval Service fleet operations director Lieut Commander Eugene Ryan described the seizure as the most remarkable navy operation of modern times, given the terrible sea conditions, when officers intercepted the yacht in the early hours of Thursday morning.

"The yacht was damaged before we boarded. She had almost capsized before we boarded," he said.

"The storm had damaged the hull, it had damaged the sails and the yacht was nearly crippled except for the engine. But we finally got it in under engine power -- and full credit to the Naval Service."

Armed

A dozen armed naval officers in two Searider speedboats boarded the 'Dancing With Waves' after the yacht was intercepted by the LE 'Niamh', and encountered no resistance from the occupants.

"This is undoubtedly the biggest and greatest boarding success we have ever had," said Lieut Commander Ryan.

"The boarding team were launched in force seven, possibly force eight conditions, in six to seven metre seas, at night with no visibility."

The boarding party was armed with Steyr assault rifles and 9mm Heckler and Koch USP semi-automatic pistols.

The speed of the operation was crucial to its success -- amid fears that any delay could allow time for the cocaine bales to be dumped overboard.

The navy personnel used high-powered Rigid Inflatable Boats (RIBs) to race from the LE 'Niamh' to the 60ft yacht.

The intervention prevented a repeat of the scenes at Dunlough Bay last year when 1.5 tonnes of cocaine spilled into the sea.

Like Dunlough Bay, the 75 bales of cocaine aboard the 'Dances With Waves' were specially wrapped so they would remain buoyant if they ended up in the water. Each bale weighed 25 kilos.

Gardai yesterday unloaded the massive shipment at Castletownbere Harbour and have transported it to Bantry garda station for storage. It will be sent to garda headquarters in Dublin for full analysis.

Three British men, aged between 44 and 52, were arrested on board the vessel and were still being questioned last night.

Two of the men were being held at Bantry garda station under drug-trafficking legislation, while the third was being questioned in Bandon.

Gardai will have to seek court approval this evening to continue holding them in custody. They can be held for a maximum of seven days before they must be either released or charged.

Concerns

Gardai said last night they had no specific concerns for the safety of those in custody. However, security at both garda stations was tighter than usual.

Det Supt Pat Byrne, of the Garda National Drug Unit said the cocaine was most likely destined for the Continent.

"This is clearly a significant seizure and has to be a serious blow to organised crime," he said. "The significant amount of cocaine would probably indicate that the wider European market would have been at least partly the market for this product rather than this amount coming to Ireland alone.

The yacht is expected to be brought to a secure location in the coming days where it will be stripped by investigators.

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