Inside the chase: Her Majesty’s Canadian Ship Saskatoon in the eastern Pacific

Bales of cocaine onboard a ship are prepared for transfer.
Pacific Ocean. March 13, 2017 – Bales of cocaine onboard Her Majesty’s Canadian Ship Saskatoon are prepared for transfer in the United States Coast Guard custody after a successful interdiction during Operation CARIBBE. (Photo: Royal Canadian Navy Public Affairs)


By: Sub-Lieutenant Susannah Anderson, Public Affairs Officer, Operation CARIBBE

The Naval Combat Information Operators sit in a dimly lit operations room, hunched over radars. They are the first to know, but for most of the ship’s crew the engines are the giveaway; a suspicious vessel has been spotted and the hunt has begun. The quiet rumble of engines changes to a more insistent thrum and Her Majesty’s Canadian Ship (HMCS) Saskatoon increases its speed for a precisely-timed intercept.

During a routine patrol in the eastern Pacific on March 11, 2017, a maritime patrol aircraft with the United States Joint Inter-Agency Task Force South (JIATF-S) spotted a suspicious panga-style vessel heading North. A few hours later, HMCS Saskatoon closed the distance and positioned itself ahead of the vessel.

After nightfall, HMCS Saskatoon stealthily launched a rigid hulled inflatable boat (RHIB) driven by one of HMCS Saskatoon’s boat coxswains. Three members of a United States Coast Guard (USCG) Law Enforcement Detachment (LEDET) were also on board. At the order of Lieutenant-Commander Todd Bacon, Commanding Officer of HMCS Saskatoon, the RHIB broke away from the ship. The spotlights on Saskatoon’s upper decks illuminated the water as the JIATF-S maritime patrol aircraft flew low over the panga.

HMCS Saskatoon’s boat coxswain, who cannot be named for operational security reasons, had his boat-handling skills tested as the panga circled and corkscrewed. The small boat tried to evade the interception and threw bales into the dark water.

“We trained using night vision goggles to make sure we were ready to pursue in darkness,” said the coxswain. “Initially we couldn’t see anything except dark water. Suddenly I saw the white splashes of the panga’s wake as it tried to escape. I followed its wake at top speed until we caught the panga.”

The successful interception was the result of weeks of interoperability training between HMCS Saskatoon and her embarked LEDET.

“The three persons in the panga complied with our request to halt and we took control of the vessel without needing to board it,” said a member of the LEDET boarding team. “The contraband was readily apparent on the deck of the panga.” Eventually, 33 bales were recovered both from the panga and the ocean, weighing approximately 660 kilograms in total.

After the successful seizure, the engines of HMCS Saskatoon return to their quiet rumble as it resumed its usual sailing speed.

“The interoperability training leading up to this interdiction was key,” reflected the Officer in Charge of the LEDET team. “The combination of the ship, the training with the RHIB, and the maritime patrol aircraft overhead ensured we had the skills and resources to do the job.”

HMCS Saskatoon later came alongside USCG Cutter Mohawk for the LEDET to hand over the bales of cocaine and the three suspected smugglers.

“HMCS Saskatoon has been preparing for months in order to affect the end game in this manner,” said Lieutenant-Commander Bacon. “The hard work and effort of the crew is a direct contributor to today’s results. The Royal Canadian Navy and our service providers, both military and civilian, that support this ship behind the scenes, also made this seizure possible.”

HMCS Saskatoon, with her embarked USCG LEDET, and USCG Cutter Mohawk returned to their patrols in the eastern Pacific. Operation CARIBBE, now in its 11th year, continues its unique multinational approach to enhancing security in the eastern Pacific and Caribbean. The seizure is another reminder that the interoperability between air and sea, between Royal Canadian Navy and United States Coast Guard, continues to be successful in slowing the flow of drugs into North America.

Image gallery

  • A rigid hulled inflatable vessel approaches a panga-style vessel.
  • Bales of cocaine onboard a ship are prepared for transfer.
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