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'My team stormed the yacht': Irish naval officer tells of his role in €400 million Cork cocaine seizure

Lieutenant Commander Jamie Cotter said that he wasn’t expecting to find that much cocaine during the 2008 drugs haul.

Image: PA Images

TODAY, OFFICERS WERE awarded medals to commemorate their bravery and courage during one of the largest drug hauls in the history of the State.

On 6 November 2008, Irish authorities boarded the ship Dances with Waves 300km off Mizen Head, Co Cork after a tip-off from international drug enforcement agencies.

Commander Eugene Ryan and Lieutenant Commander Martin Brett will be awarded commendations for their actions during the operation. Lieutenant Commander Jamie Cotter will be awarded Distinguished Service Medal with Distinction for leading the team of ten men that boarded the ship and seized the cocaine haul.

The crew of the LÉ Niamh, who were patrolling the seas, were given notice of the vessel with just one or two days notice in what was called Operation Seabight.

It’s understood that the intelligence was obtained from the US Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA), who then passed it on to the Maritime Analysis and Operations Centre, an organisation set up by EU member states.

Commander Eugene Ryan, who’s now retired, was informed that the vessel was coming across the Atlantic and was given permission to intercept the ship.

“We were given a warning to be ready and conducted training ourselves,” Cotter told TheJournal.ie. “Just making sure that all of our team members were competent and confident that they could execute the boarding.”

original (12) Armed Gardai secure Castletown Bere Pier in Co. Cork as Dances with Waves was seized. Source: PA Images

“Under the cover of darkness”, Cotter and two other crew members went out on an inflatable boat with night vision equipment and spent around two hours in a rib trying to identify the yacht they had found on radar.

Once that was done, they returned to the ship to debrief the captain of the findings, and within 90 minutes the team was formed and ready for boarding.

“One of the findings from the reconnaissance patrol was that the weather conditions were very bad and were actually getting worse. The forecast had it to worsen overnight even further. There was gale force conditions and very challenging seas for boarding.

When I went back to the captain I told him we either had to do this quickly or we would lose the window of opportunity and it would probably be a day later before the weather subsided.

Because of the challenging weather conditions, the chances of launching a boat were “marginal at best”, Cotter said. He decided they would do it.

While Cotter’s team approached the vessel, the main ship contacted Dances with Waves on radio.

“And while it was conducting a radio inspection and questioning, my team stormed yacht and got on board and gained control of the yacht.”

The Caribbean yacht, which is thought to have come from Venezuela, was damaged in the severe weather conditions, which it wasn’t built to withstand.

Cotter says the team boarded the boat “very quickly and very smartly” and approached the three people on board the yacht.

“I suppose the thing to remember is, if you’re not expecting ten professional-looking military authoritative people to come on board, it can be quite intimidating and that’s what we hoped to achieve because that was going to de escalate and potential use of force requirements for ourselves.”

All ten officers were armed, but Cotter couldn’t comment on what weapons they had.

original (11) Source: PA Images

He said that there was nothing particularly tricky or surprising about the operation other than the severe weather conditions, and commended the RIB coxswains who steered the boat close to Dances with Waves and kept it steady during the operation.

During the search, the soldiers came across 1,800 kilos of 80%-pure cocaine, which was later valued at €400 million. It’s believed that it would be cut down into less pure quantities to be sold in the UK.

“To be honest, I wasn’t expecting that quantity,” Cotter said. “You’re talking about over a tonne and a half of cocaine. It’s a huge quantity.”

Sometimes you go through training exercises here and you’d use a kilo bag for the purposes of the training, and that’s the type of thing you’re sometimes looking for. But when you step on board, and you see the quantity that we discovered and detained it was a shock I wasn’t expecting that much.

He said that these types of operations were why he first joined the Defence Forces, and that he’s proud of how his team handled the operation.

“The tagline that was being rolled out by the Defence Forces press office when I joined was ‘A life less ordinary’. I remember it quite clearly. That certainly proved to me that it’s the career for me.”

The overall feeling was pride in my team… and pride that we were able to play some small part in stopping that quantity of drugs from reaching the streets of Cork or Dublin or Limerick or Galway or any of our towns and villages around the island.

When asked about criticisms that Ireland is under-resourced for customs checks on Irish seas, and allocate too much time to checking that fishery regulations are being complied with, Cotter said that up to a point, they both go hand-in-hand.

“Ireland has the largest sea-to-land ratio of any country in Europe and the seas around us and our exclusive economic zone is rich with fisheries.

The daily job we do in terms of fishery protection allows us to hone our skills for the more military operations like the drug intervention operation.

“It’s also the first step on the way to Europe for anyone looking to traffic across the Atlantic. It’s the choke-point for the delivery of potentially narcotics across the Atlantic into Europe, so we need to be sure we’re well-resourced to do the job that we’ve done on numerous occasions.”

Read: Drug smuggler involved in €400m cocaine haul off Cork coast appeals conviction

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