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Navy trains its sights on the smugglers

Feb 10 2012
Wahoo crew members, posing as RCMP officers, line up against patrol craft training vessel Renard, which was posing as a smuggling ship during Thursday's drill.  

Wahoo crew members, posing as RCMP officers, line up against patrol craft training vessel Renard, which was posing as a smuggling ship during Thursday's drill.

Photograph by: Darren Stone, timescolonist.com

Crew aboard HMCS Saskatoon have spotted the evasive vessel they have been tracking all morning. They advise the suspicious parties, who are possibly armed and smuggling drugs across the U.S. border, that RCMP officers want to board the ship.

The operators of the target vessel are becoming increasingly unco-operative, saying they're a whale-watching vessel heading south in a hurry with no time to set down anchor for the Royal Canadian Navy.

"I'm going to fire warning shots 500 yards across your bow in five minutes from a medium-powered machine gun if you do not comply," one crew member says into the radio.

"We're not in the mood to have you guys come over here and get in our business, so if you want to start coming close and shooting at us, you might want to be ready to take some action from us," the vessel operator responds.

The situation goes from routine to high-risk. The crew goes into "action stations" mode, donning anti-flash gear, helmets and flak jackets, two sailors each manning the .50-calibre machine guns on the deck and preparing to fire.

It is a scenario the crew aboard HMCS Saskatoon is preparing for during the 12-day exercise, Pacific Guardian, five nautical miles off the Saanich Peninsula. The exercise, which started Monday and ends next Friday, includes two other Kingston class marine coastal defence vessels, Orca-class training vessels from CFB Esquimalt and 300 crew.

The headquarters for the biennial exercise is in Vancouver, at HMCS Discovery. The drill is not unlike Operation Podium, when the Royal Canadian Navy was preparing for possible security threats during the 2010 Olympics.

This time, they are practising with the U.S. Coast Guard, standing in the place of the RCMP who would typically board a suspicious vessel in domestic waters.

Mounties from the Federal Border Integrity Program in B.C experienced a high-risk takedown in these waters last March. RCMP spotted a rigid-hull inflatable off Sidney near the Canada-U.S. border, in an area known for smuggling. A man threw a suitcase overboard, which Mounties fished out of the water. The man was arrested and months later, RCMP officers armed with rifles showed off the cash — $2.6 million U.S. It was one of their largest cash seizures. Jeffrey Melchior, 44, of Lake Cowichan, is charged with possession of property obtained by crime and laundering the proceeds of crime.

While the navy would like to conduct such exercises with the RCMP, the Mounties can rarely free up the staff to participate in the drill, says the ship's captain, Lt.-Cmdr. Pat Montgomery.

The coast guard vessel approaches and boards the smugglers' ship, which is actually an Orca-class training vessel. The crew posing as the smugglers will act the part, Montgomery said, to test the response to the hostile threat. HMCS Saskatoon does not have to fire the warning shots.

Every order, action and reaction is convincingly real. The crew is focused and rarely do they break from the tense scenario.

After the coast guard takes control of the smugglers' ship, HMCS Saskatoon crew are focusing on a new drill task. A crew member slipped and fell several metres on the deck, severely injuring his back.

The captain calls in a helicopter. Within 10 minutes, an orange U.S. Coast Guard helicopter is lowering a small basket to simulate the larger rescue basket that could hoist the injured sailor up to safety.

Montgomery said the navy likes to work with the U.S. Coast Guard and navy as much as possible on operations, since the two nations are often responding to similar threats on the water.

For example, when the MV Sun Sea, carrying almost 500 Sri Lankan migrants, was in the international waters of the Pacific Ocean, approaching North America from Thailand, military from both sides of the border kept watch, Montgomery said.

"There has to be discussion back and forth as to what the response will be," he said.

kderosa@timescolonist.com

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