Touchdown in the Pacific

EASTERN PACIFIC OCEAN – The San Diego-based Coast Guard Cutter Chase interdicted a self-propelled semi-submersible vessel loaded with 15,000 pounds of cocaine Jan. 15 here.

Semi-submersible vessels are extremely hard to detect because of its submarine-based design, low radar profile, and camouflaged paint scheme. They are often referred to by some as “Sasquatch of the Pacfic.” They are rarely seen and almost never apprehended, and had emerged as the prevailing smuggling threat in the vast ocean waters of the Eastern Pacific.

To make apprehension even more difficult, the crews piloting the SPSS have consistently scuttled or intentionally flooded their vessel, sending the submarine and its multi-ton load of cocaine to the bottom of the ocean. Through the activation of one or more scuttling valves, the SPSS operators can sink their vessel in minutes. Upon being detected and after seeing Coast Guard or Navy ships move in for the intercept, the SPSS crews would often climb on top of the SPSS, don lifejackets, and literally let the vessel sink beneath them. The smugglers’ intentional sinking turns into a fabricated search and rescue case as the smugglers are in the water, now victims of the sea.

But not this time.

Through the well-timed and perfect placement of all available assets, the Chase and it embarked helicopter from Port Angeles, Wash., executed a picture perfect interdiction of the SPSS, catching the crew completely by surprise.

Three crewmembers wearing lifejackets were observed climbing out on deck of the semi-submersible. A fourth came out on deck a minute later. The smugglers voluntarily climbed into the cutter’s small boat. Meanwhile everyone waited and watched the SPSS. As the minutes passed, the SPSS did not change its presentation to the water or appear to be sinking. The smug SPSS crew looked more nervous by the minute even as the Coast Guard crew grew more excited as it became more apparent the semi-submersible was not flooded and would be safe to board.

After what seemed like hours of watching and witnessing no change in the vessel’s stability, the Chase’s boarding team embarked the stateless vessel.

The vessel had three compartments: engine room, control room, and forward cargo area. The vessel was 50 feet long, and the cargo area comprised the first 30 feet. It was sealed shut with 28 19 millimeter bolts.

“TOUCH-DOWN”

As one of the boarding team members, the oldest and saltiest of the group, took his time with each bolt, everyone on the Chase’s small boat and on the cutter waited patiently. Finally after what seemed like another hour, the members of the boarding team shouted, “Touchdown!” over the radio. The forward compartment was stacked full of bales of cocaine. The smugglers had made efficient use of all available space. In between the bulk of the bales, kilo-sized bricks had been stuffed throughout as if they were packing peanuts in a care package. The package in the belly of the SPSS consisted of 199 50-pound bales and 2,293 kilogram-sized bricks of cocaine.

This was the Chase’s first SPSS seizure and only the third “Sasquatch” taken into captivity, as of the previous SPSS encounters resulted in a scuttling event and loss of all physical evidence.

Not this time. The Chase scored big – BIGFOOT – seizing more than 7.5 tons of cocaine and delivering four smugglers to the United States for prosecution.

“This was a textbook case conducted over great distances with units and agents from many military services and agencies,” the Chase’s skipper, said. “We now have the legal basis and the technical procedures we need to give us a chance at being effective against this emerging threat. I’m very proud of my crew, and proud of all those who make this success possible.”

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