Hunting the hunters: HMCS Winnipeg continues to disrupt piracy
The approaching monsoon season, with its promise of high winds and rolling seas, has yet to discourage pirates from attacking merchant ships, or HMCS Winnipeg from pursuing the pirates.
Last month was busy for the Canadian frigate as it continues its NATO-led counter-piracy mission, Operation Allied Protector, in the Gulf of Aden.
While in transit for Salalah, Oman, Winnipeg responded to distress calls from the Maltese-registered cargo ship MV Sea Pride. "The helicopter was doing a regular patrol mission when one of three merchant ships we had just identified abruptly turned out of the transit corridor," said Major James Hawthorne, pilot of Palomino16, the ship's CH-124 Sea King helicopter. "As we closed to investigate, the distress calls started coming across the radio." The helicopter's arrival prompted the two suspicious skiffs to flee towards Somalia.
"We could see a boarding ladder in the smaller skiff, which is one of the prime indicators for pirates," said Maj Hawthorne. "We fired warning shots ahead of each skiff, but they refused to stop."
Winnipeg joined the chase and halted both skiffs but when the boarding party arrived to search them, the ladders photographed by the helicopter crew were no longer aboard, most likely jettisoned during the pursuit. No firearms could be found, either. The larger skiff carried 52 containers of fuel, suggesting that it was supporting the smaller skiff.
Three days in Salalah, Oman, gave Winnipeg's crew time to rest, and an opportunity for the Honourable Peter Gordon MacKay, Minister of National Defence and Minister for the Atlantic Gateway, to visit the ship, address the crew, and observe a demonstration of counter-piracy capabilities. "I have come to this ship to express the appreciation and gratitude of your country," said Minister MacKay. "In collaboration with our NATO allies, you are doing an incredibly important service on behalf of Canada and the world."
Winnipeg had barely resumed patrolling when the air detachment's aggressive flying program again yielded results. Early on May 24, 2009, Sea King pilot Captain Avert Pyne spotted two skiffs - small boats - out of place near the shipping lanes. "These two skiffs were obviously working together. There is an instant of recognition - in this case it was spotting their boarding ladder - when their identity becomes clear. We were doing a surface surveillance mission. Then, like someone threw a switch, we were into counter-piracy once more. They tried to flee, but we maintained contact and vectored the ship to intercept them."
Winnipeg caught up to each skiff and boarded them. Leading Seaman (LS) Scott Darbison was one of the first to discover arms during the initial boarding. "I was starting to wonder if we would ever find weapons as it seemed at that point they were quick to dump them once they realized they would be stopped. LS [Gerardo] Cayabyab was in the skiff ahead of me and took a 9-mm pistol from one of the Somalis. The pirates seemed relaxed but, as we could see other weapons forward, the seriousness of the situation struck me and I became very focussed on the job at hand. Confiscating their RPGs [rocket propelled grenade] and assault rifles was very satisfying," said LS Darbison.
Nearby, ship's diver LS Terry Clairmont was investigating a marker buoy jettisoned from the skiff during the chase. "The helicopter crew saw them throw something, so we went in the Zodiac [inflatable boat] to take a look. I felt a moment of suspense as I grabbed the float and hauled on the short line. It was a bit heavy as it came up and I almost laughed out loud when I saw this 16-foot aluminum ladder break the water's surface; it had hooks and other modifications used to board merchant vessels."
After recovering the boarding party, Winnipeg tracked the second, larger skiff and again sent the boarding party to investigate.
"They kept insisting that they were fishermen and that they were unarmed. We believed strongly that we would find weapons but the initial search of the main compartments yielded little," said boarding party member Sub-Lieutenant Jason Gallant. "As time passed I began to entertain the possibility that they were telling the truth, though we were determined to thoroughly explore every possible hiding place. When we finally spotted a loaded magazine in the tight enclosure of the engine compartment, I knew more would follow.
"It was a thrill to reach into their hiding place and retrieve those firearms knowing they would no longer pose a threat to innocent people." The boarding party found a rocket-propelled grenade launcher and automatic assault rifles.
In total, the cache of arms included one semi-automatic pistol, two rocket-propelled grenade launchers with warheads, one M-16 assault rifle, seven AK-47 assault rifles, and a stock of small-arms ammunition.
"Whether they are forced to jettison their weapons during a pursuit, or try to hide them for us to seize during a boarding, from an operational perspective the outcome is the same: their ability to threaten legitimate shipping is neutralized," said Combat Officer Lieutenant (Navy) Allan Compton.
HMCS Winnipeg continues her counter-piracy mission until the beginning of June.
By Sub-Lieutenant Michael McWhinnie - Canadian Armed Forces
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