The Royal Navy destroyer, HMS Manchester has been involved in counter-drug operations - liaising with America to try to combat the multi-billion dollar cocaine industry.
Deployment in the Caribbean is a plum tour. No doubt about that. But it seems to consist of long periods of boredom, interspersed with short ones of excitement. And, of course, plenty of fine shore leave, in for example, Key West, Anguilla and the British Virgin Islands
Most of the work is humdrum – training, diplomacy, charity and relief work, pressing flesh in British Dependencies. But what they really want to do on HMS Manchester is catch drug-runners. And when that happens the ship comes alive.
“I’m an excitable person,” admits Liz Trotter, “but it’s great. Wow, wow, wow!”
Not everyone is this excitable, but a buzz goes through the ship when the chase is on. The “ollies” kick in – two twenty-five thousand horsepower turbo engines that get the ship moving at 30 knots. The ship rattles, the panels shake, but it’s still not fast enough to catch the prey – a so-called “go-fast” which knows it’s been spotted.
A “go-fast” is purpose-built for smuggling. Made of fibreglass, a hold which may contain a ton of cocaine and enough fuel to get from Colombia to Jamaica or the Dominican Republic and back. It’s powered by between two and four 200 horsepower outboard motors and can travel at more than 40 knots. It has a crew of three or four people and it runs at night, lying low by day under a blue tarpaulin.
HMS Manchester will not catch one - even with the “ollies”. So it unleashes the helicopter.
“Action Lynx. Action Lynx, ” comes the pipe. And when the chopper goes up in anger, the crew know something’s up. The helicopter will hover low, just in front of the “go-fast”, driving spray into the faces of the crew, disorientating, harassing, forcing the boat to change course. It’s trying to make life miserable for the crew.
Twice, a “go-fast” dumped drugs into the sea and made it back to Colombian territorial waters. The drugs were never recovered. Once, only, in four and a half months were drugs seized. 1050 kilograms of pure cocaine. Forty-two bales the size of airline flight bags, wrapped in Hessian and marked “Produce of Colombia.” You couldn’t make it up.
“Even the Captain smiled,” says chef Dave Trotter. “Morale was low before that. We were on a downer. But when this happened the whole mood changed.”
It’s not real war, but it’s not a bad trip if you’ve GOT to be away from home for four and a half months.
All photographs - © Crown Copyright, image from www.photos.mod.uk
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