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Saturday 15 June 2019

Yacht was doomed to capture from moment it left Caribbean

Ralph Riegel and Don Lavery

OPERATION Seabight will go down in history as a landmark Irish anti-drug smuggling operation.

The critical element of the operation is not that it delivered Ireland's largest cocaine seizure with the recovery of an estimated €675m worth of high-grade Colombian cocaine. In fact, the major element of Operation Seabight is that, for the first time, it illustrated the potential of police forces in numerous countries liaising and exploiting military-style technology in the war against drugs.

The startling reality is that the 60-foot sloop 'Dances With Waves' was doomed to arrest from almost the minute it left the Caribbean.

As the old sloop battled gales and mountainous seas to cross the Atlantic with her cargo of 1,875kg of cocaine, her every movement was watched.


It is a certainty the yacht was tracked on radar in the Caribbean by a long range P-3 Orion surveillance aircraft which is at the forefront of the US war on drugs, probably in collaboration with the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA).

The Orion, used by both the US Customs Service and the US Navy along with other forces, can patrol for up to 17 hours at a stretch operating from a base in Florida to cover the Caribbean. It uses sophisticated inverse synthetic aperture radar (ISAR) to produce a two-dimensional high-resolution image of a ship.

Suspicions over 'Dances With Waves' mounted when she was detected in waters off Trinidad & Tobago. Just 17 months ago, the catamaran 'Lucky Day', whose 1,554kg cocaine shipment was seized in Dunlough Bay in west Cork, began her transatlantic journey from precisely these same waters.

US satellites -- several with military-style surveillance capabilities -- tracked the sloop as it continued its slow journey.

'Over the horizon' or 'black' radar -- almost impossible to detect -- was used to monitor every movement of the sloop. The radar is used to detect targets at very long ranges, up to thousands of kilometres.

Such radars are used by the US Navy, which can track ships up to 3,000 kilometres away, and operate in an anti-drug role from bases in Virginia to cover the Caribbean and Central America, and from Texas to cover the Atlantic and Pacific.

So precise was the monitoring operation that European and US police forces knew the sloop was in trouble in the stormy seas in the hours before she was boarded.

It is also likely that hundreds of miles off Ireland the ship was tracked by an Air Corps Casa maritime surveillance aircraft which used its sophisticated radar and sensors to fix its position precisely for the interception by the Naval Service.

The two Air Corps Casas, which have recently had sensor and radar updates, are used daily to direct Irish Naval ships onto fishing targets off our coasts using similar methods.


The astonishing level of surveillance was the result of co-operation between some of the world's leading police and anti-drug agencies.

Four agencies in particular delivered the 'Dances With Waves' seizure -- the Portugal-based Maritime Analysis and Operations Centre (MAOC); the elite Serious Organised Crime Agency (SOCA) in the UK; Ireland's Joint Drugs Taskforce; and the DEA, so beloved of Hollywood crime writers.

Between them, the four agencies can access virtually unlimited resources -- and can bridge the sophistication gap that, for so long, favoured the drug smugglers.

Yesterday, gardai and Naval Service personnel refused to comment on the precise intelligence and assets used to track 'Dances With Waves'.

But one navy officer put it succinctly when he acknowledged: "This is undoubtedly the most successful anti-drug operation we have ever mounted."

Gardai were last night praying that it will be the first of many.

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