The Return of El Tiburon Blanco

By Petty Officer Shawn Eggert

SEATTLE –   There is a legend that tells of a great beast that plies the balmy waters of Central America.  When it is near, smugglers and their shipments of valuable narcotics vanish from the sea.  Some fear the creature and refuse to leave the shore while others are simply overtaken.  They call the beast “El Tiburon Blanco,” and a trail of seized vessels follows in its wake.

El Tiburon Blanco (or the Coast Guard Cutter Steadfast as it is known by the Coast Guard) recently returned to its homeport of Astoria, Ore., after a successful 54-day patrol off the west coast of Central America.  While there, the vessel and its crew worked with local authorities from four different countries to make 2007 a record-breaking year for Coast Guard counter-narcotics operations.

“In the course of the patrol, we recovered around one hundred bales,” said Cmdr. Matthew Gimple, Commanding Officer of the Steadfast.  “That’s approximately five thousand pounds of cocaine.  Additionally, we probably disrupted the flow of another six thousand pounds of narcotics.”

The Yorlenny II

The Steadfast had been on patrol for only two weeks when it encountered a suspicious 85-foot fishing vessel.  A boarding team from the Steadfast, along with a Costa Rican shiprider, investigated the boat, the Yorlenny II.

“They were definitely fishermen,” said Yeoman First Class Tim Coffey, boarding team member.  “Their fish holds were filled with sharks and marlin, but it was obvious they hadn’t been fishing for at least two weeks.  The fish they had were frozen solid with inches of ice on them.”

The shiprider ordered the boat back to shore after the crew was found to have no fishing liscense, but it wasn’t long until the Steadfast would meet up with the Yorlenny II again.  An HH-65 helicopter crew from Group Humboldt Bay, Calif., had been deployed with the Steadfast and kept an eye on the fishermen who seemed determined to stay on the water.

“When the helo got overhead and saw the Yorlenny II wrapped in with another vessel, it was apparent they were in the middle of a drug transfer,” said Boatswain’s Mate First Class Mark Higgs, primary boarding team officer.

Commander Gimple gave order to chase down the Yorlenny II and a boarding team was sent over to the vessel.  Once aboard, the team safely took control of the boat and detained its seven crewmembers.

“There were no drugs on board, but there was plenty of evidence the boat was used to store them.” Higgs said.

“On first glance you wouldn’t think these guys had anything to do with the drug trade,” said Electrician’s Mate Second Class Archibald Newland, boarding team member.   “They did a pretty good job of disguising their purpose out there.”

A hidden compartment was found beneath a fish hold and the shiprider was anxious to have the team wait until morning when the light would make it easier to search for any bales that had been dumped into the water.  Not long after sunrise, the crew of the Steadfast spotted and collected 81 bales and 49 bricks of cocaine from the water.  The seized narcotics were estimated to have an import value of 61 million dollars.

“My very first boarding and we get a cocaine bust,” said Ensign Claire Mielke, a boarding team member who graduated from the Coast Guard Academy in May 2007.  “It was definitely a very cool experience.”

The Steadfast worked with shipriders and agents from four different Central American nations in the course of its mission.  These partnerships with Panama, Costa Rica, El Salvador and Nicaragua allowed the countries to train together and gave the Coast Guard an edge when dealing with local fishermen.

“The shipriders were very helpful during our boardings bringing in local knowledge we wouldn’t otherwise have access to,” said Cmdr. Gimple.

“We had a Nicaraguan shiprider aboard who was able to do some training with us to see how we do things,” said Higgs.  “He was interested in some of the technology we used including ion scans.”

The Go Fast

The date was Dec. 7 when a Canadian maritime patrol aircraft spotted a boat the Nicaraguan Navy suspected of use in drug trafficking.  The vessel dumped its contraband and attempted to evade notice while a call was made to the Steadfast to attempt an intercept.  It would take 12 hours of pushing the Steadfast at high speed to catch the quick-moving vessel and the cutter’s engineers worked hard to keep up the pace.

“We were delayed getting underway for the fifty-four day patrol by several days due to a shaft seal problem,” said Cmdr. Gimple.  “After that was fixed, the engineering plant was able to keep us running near flawlessly through the rest of the trip.”

The HH-65 crew from the Steadfast was put into the air to relieve the Canadian aircraft and pursue the suspect vessel while the Steadfast raced to the scene.

“Once the boat spotted the Steadfast, they tried to run and the helo caught up with them,” said Higgs.  “Believe it or not, they thought the helo was going to fire on them so they stopped.”

A boarding team was already on its way to take control of the vessel.

“There were no drugs, but there was evidence including material commonly used to wrap bails,” Higgs said.  “We handed the vessel over to the Nicaraguans and took its crew onto the Steadfast.”

With the Go Fast taken care of, the Steadfast turned south in search of the jettisoned narcotics.

“It was one of our helmsmen who spotted the first bail,” said Higgs.  “We pulled it aboard and realized we were on the edge of a debris field.  After that, we pulled up one bail after another for a few hours.”

The crew of the Steadfast recovered a total of 18 bails of cocaine weighing about 980 pounds and handed the four crewmembers over for prosecution.

“When was the last time one of the two-tens caught a Go Fast?” mused Coffey.  “Considering the age of this boat and the size of the crew, that’s pretty exciting.”

The Steadfast returned to Astoria Dec. 29, El Tiburon Blanco’s hunger for counter narcotics sated.  Though the “White Shark” of the Coast Guard will return to menace the Central American drug traffickers in another year, its commanding officer may not.

“Unfortunately, this may have been one of my last deployments with this cutter,” said Cmdr. Gimple.  “It’s kind of bittersweet.  With the hard work and what we’ve done to prepare the crew, we’ve trained the next generation of counter-drug personnel to be ready to go down there.  When I depart the cutter this summer, I hope the incoming command will be able to continue with the success we’ve had.”

Editors Note: El Tiburon Blanco is Spanish for “The White Shark”

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