Leading Seaman Joel Roy stores the ammunition after upper deck sentry duty onboard HMCS Yellowknife during Operation Caribbe on April 28, 2019. Photo: Captain Annie Morin.

On the road to a high-seas cocaine seizure off Costa Rica

The HMCS Yellowknife, whose crew features a Cranbrook-raised sailor, was busy this spring

Editor’s note: Leading Seaman Joel Roy (pictured), who grew up in Cranbrook and joined the Canadian Forces in 2013, served on the HMCS Yellowknife during Operation Caribbe this past spring. All photos by Capt. Annie Morin.

By Captain Annie Morin

As Her Majesty’s Canadian Ship (HMCS) Yellowknife sails under the hot sun in the Eastern Pacific Ocean, the air is heavy with humidity, bringing the temperature to about 45C with the humidex.

It’s nearly impossible to stay dry, even when limiting your movements. Your clothes stick to you in all the wrong places; the nape of your neck perpetually clammy. Inevitably, sweat is just something you have to deal with.

The ship’s task at hand on Operation Caribbe is to find and board vessels of interest carrying illicit drugs, and on April 14, 2019, they made their first drug bust.

Start of the action

On the bridge of the ship, everything was dark apart from faint lights emanating from the equipment. From afar, Yellowknife was nearly invisible sailing in its search area when the radar picked up a signal from a nearby vessel.

The helmsman piped boarding stations signaling to those involved in the boarding to get ready. The ship’s rigid-hulled inflatable boats (RHIB) were lowered into the water with the United States Coast Guard (USCG) law enforcement detachment, who would perform the boarding.

The crew positioned the ship favourably, using the moonlight so it could remain unseen by the vessel for as long as possible. A Costa Rican flag was spotted on the vessel. Other than required communications with the Operations Room, the bridge was quiet in anticipation.

In complete darkness, the RHIBs pulled away.

As the RHIBs came to the side of the suspected smuggling vessel, its captain was hailed by USCG members. The suspects stood noticeably surprised by the sudden nocturnal apparition, but remained calm.

One by one, the USCG members climbed aboard the vessel, having received authorization to board by authorities. Upon receiving the go-ahead, the law enforcement professionals began the rigorous work of finding the drugs, using known information, their experience and wits.

They worked all night without rest, swaying back and forth with the movement of the waves, and relying on the water and limited food they brought with them for energy. A few more hours went by and the USCG members had done all they could to find the narcotics, but had come up empty. Despite this, they remained convinced the drugs were hidden, just out of reach.

The second search

The decision was made to bring the tired USCG members back to Yellowknife. However, the search for the narcotics was not yet over. The signs were all there that the vessel was carrying something. There was one more possibility to find the drugs though: a dockside search.

Arrangements were made with the Costa Rican Coast Guard to come and take responsibility of the vessel. Over the radio the chatter is unintelligible, except for those few crew members who could translate Spanish for the rest of the crew on the bridge.

It would take a few hours before the Costa Rican Coast Guard could reach the vessel. The waiting game began. Yellowknife remained close to deter the vessel from sailing away. If the proximity of the warship was not enough of a deterrent, the armed ship’s company members wearing helmets and bulletproof vests would surely do it.

The normally buzzing ship was eerily quiet; everyone was hopeful the Costa Rican Coast Guard would be able to find something when they performed a destructive search while in port. The search is meant to reach areas of the vessel that have been purposefully concealed by the smugglers and inaccessible otherwise.

In the late afternoon, the Costa Rican Coast Guard pulled in beside the vessel ready to take over from Yellowknife and escort the vessel into port. Members of the ship’s company watched from the bridge as the newcomers boarded the vessel and performed a security sweep.

Then, equipped with the information that the USCG law enforcement detachment collected on the vessel, the Costa Rican Coast Guard departed, eager to carry out their own search. At their request, Yellowknife followed the two vessels for some time and then broke away from the group to continue patrolling.

The second waiting game begins

As the crew of Yellowknife returned to a normal routine, the thought of the previous night’s boarding and the prospect of a drug discovery by the Costa Rican Coast Guard remained at the forefront of everyone’s thoughts.

Less than 24 hours after the Costa Rican Coast Guard met with the vessel, Yellowknife was rewarded in the form of a short and precise message: “1,040 kilos of cocaine and one semi-automatic rifle found on vessel.”

Crewed by 45 members, including members of the United States Coast Guard, HMCS Yellowknife was deployed along with HMCS Whitehorse, on Operation CARIBBE, Canada’s contribution to Operation Martillo — a U.S. Joint Interagency Task Force South operation responsible for conducting interagency and international detection and monitoring operations, and facilitating the interdiction of illicit trafficking.

 

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