The unexpected nature of boarding party operations

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Crowsnest - Spring 2014 / April 23, 2014

By Darlene Blakeley

Intense heat. Huge rats. Cockroaches. Spiders. Toxic fumes. Overpowering smells. And always the adrenaline rush of anticipating the unexpected.

There’s a lot to get used to when you’re a member of a naval boarding party (NBP) working in difficult conditions in far flung and dangerous parts of the world. Some of it you can train for, but some of it just can’t be predicted.

The Royal Canadian Navy (RCN) uses NBPs  to conduct boardings of vessels which intelligence teams have identified as being of interest. While deployed on Operation Artemis in the Arabian Sea region, NBPs are expected to carry out tasks such as establishing the identity of a suspicious vessel and/or the legality of its cargo or passengers, and gathering information to determine if the cargo or passengers are linked to terrorism.

There are numerous people aboard ship who have the NBP training necessary to assist with a boarding, but 20 personnel are selected to make up the team, according to Lieutenant (Navy) John Willigar, who served in HMCS Toronto during her recent deployment on Op Artemis. The personnel are broken into two waves, Alpha wave and Bravo wave, with 10 personnel each. “This configuration is used to board large ships such as cargo vessels,” he explains. “During Op Artemis, we primarily board small fishing dhows, so we augment the team to the mission, usually one wave of eight to 12 team members.”

Lt(N) Willigar, who was posted to Toronto from January to July 2013 as bridge watch keeper, now works as deck officer aboard HMCS St. John’s in Halifax. But he remembers well his time in Toronto as the officer in charge of one of the NBPs. He volunteered for the job, taking the NBP basic course for six weeks, then the supervisor course for two weeks.

The basic boarding course provides team members with the required weapons training, using the Sig Sauer hand gun, MP5 machine gun, Remington 870 shotgun, C8, pepper spray, ASP baton and mechanical restraints. Each member is then required to conduct refresher training at least once a year on each of the weapons, and the boarding team is required to conduct team training at the Boarding Party Training Centre once per year. There are also a number of combat readiness requirements that need to be completed throughout the year to keep the team current, and prime physical fitness is essential.

The process involved in a boarding is regimented and includes a set sequence of events to ensure RCN ships remain compliant with direction from Combined Maritime Forces (CMF) (a multinational naval partnership) and Combined Task Force 150 (CTF 150) working in the Arabian Sea region, as well as national doctrine and both domestic and international law.

It begins with a search for a vessel of interest (VOI). Upon localizing the target vessel, the ship requests authorization from CTF 150 to carry out a boarding. The ship is then brought to boarding stations while the NBP verifies its equipment. “Each member maintains their own equipment and is responsible for having enough provisions to sustain themselves for a 12-hour period,” says Petty Officer 1st Class Edward Burns, a marine engineer personnel analyst, NBP technical advisor and search team leader, who served in Toronto for over a year. “The team will also take extra water and rations to supplement this. When the decision is made to conduct a boarding the ship will pipe ‘port/starboard watch to boarding stations’. At this point the boarding team has 30 minutes to be armed, briefed and ready to depart the ship and commence the boarding. It requires a lot of team effort from the entire ship’s company as the evolution involves more than just the boarding team. An entire support network is closed-up on the ship outside of the normal combat spectrum and watch personnel.” 

After being fully equipped, inspected and briefed, the team will embark the ship’s rigid-hulled inflatable boat (RHIB), conduct one last kit inspection, prepare the boarding ladder and wait for permission to proceed to the contact. “The contact may be over the horizon, a few miles ahead or adjacent to the ship,” says PO1 Burns. “Each situation and scenario is different, and time of day/night and sea-state also play a factor. The more extreme the weather conditions, the closer we will be before launching.”

Once ordered the team advances at speed to the VOI, approaching from astern and inspecting both sides of the vessel for threats, obstructions and the best possible embarkation point. The crew of the VOI, if awake, are kept in sight and grouped together at the bow of the ship if possible. The team then quickly affixes a narrow cable ladder and begins boarding, covering all possible threat areas while pushing outward as more members embark.

Once the team embarks, three things happen simultaneously: the crew is placed under authority, the bridge is seized, and the lower decks are searched until the team is confident it has complete control of the vessel. At this point a safe location is made to place the crew members, each of whom is subjected to a physical search, documented, photographed and moved to the new area.

Any language issues are normally resolved by using a translator. One member of Toronto’s boarding team spoke several local languages, which was enormously helpful. During instances when translation is not possible, the team uses hand signals and body language to impart instructions.

Once the VOI has been searched initially, the crew secured and it is determined that the vessel is seaworthy, a report is sent back to the ship that control has been gained and the team is ready to conduct a detailed inspection.

From here the process to search starts with documentation – it has to be proved that the VOI is “stateless”, meaning that it is not legally registered to a state or protected under the laws of that state. “Very few of the VOIs we boarded were carrying the necessary documentation and protected,” says PO1 Burns. “When we did find a VOI that was properly documented, we immediately ended our boarding operations, thanked the crew for their cooperation and departed. This was usually established within the first 30 minutes of boarding.”

He explains that the vast majority of the VOIs his team boarded were deemed stateless, as most of them were targeted due to intelligence reports that considered the vessel suspicious. “We did not randomly board many vessels; most were deliberate interceptions, often taking us hundreds of miles outside of our current course.”

Searches of the VOI normally lasts up to 10 hours, and can run longer depending on the nature of the vessel and any cargo that it has on board. During her time in the Arabian Sea region, Toronto was highly successful in discovering narcotics, intercepting and destroying nine shipments totalling approximately 8.5 metric tonnes.

Although most of the boardings are routine, conditions encountered on some of the VOIs are not. “The conditions onboard definitely took some getting used to,” says Lt(N) Willigar. “The extreme heat and the effect of the sea-state on a small boat takes its toll on you physically and mentally. This increases exponentially when you are on the VOI for an extended period of time and below decks. I have encountered rats, insects and feces, amongst other undesirables, which lead to foul odors and unhygienic conditions. Some vessels are worse than others, but you can always count on cockroaches, they are everywhere. After one or two boardings you will adapt and become comfortable having them around and on you. The hard part is ensuring you don’t bring any hitchhikers back to the ship.”

PO1 Burns remembers one boarding during the rainy season. “The rain fell so hard it almost blinded you like a thick fog, but I didn't care; it was so nice to not have the sun burning me. But it also made everything slippery and all the grime and filth from the vessel was being washed and sloshing everywhere so the excitement was short lived once I had to crawl in it.”

He also remembers the rats. “More than half had rats – you could see them crawling all over the vessels at night using thermal imaging. First we thought they might be pet cats, until we got over to the ship and didn’t find any cats, just really big rats.” 

Another concern during the searches were the smells and, more importantly, the safety of the team members as they made their way around the VOI. “The smells were very unpleasant,” says PO1 Burns. “These vessels were often used as fishing vessels and so the holds, which have no ventilation system, could really hum to the point it made you sick, but you couldn’t get away from the smell. The engine rooms were absolutely stifling, the engine was loud, exhaust leaks were all too plentiful, and fuel vapours were unavoidable. The worst part was that they didn’t have any safety guards on anything – all equipment was pulley-driven off the main engine and sea water sprayed all over the place. You had to be very careful when moving around and limit your time in the engine rooms. It could take hours to search them due to the amount of breaks that were needed so that you didn’t become overwhelmed with heat exhaustion, dehydration or the various fumes and vapours.”

As a result of the conditions they faced, the NBPs became tight units in the way that only those facing danger together on a regular basis can form. “We had good team cohesion and trusted each other, which added comfort to uncomfortable situations,” says Lt(N) Willigar.

Despite the knowledge that when they board a vessel the NBP never knows what they might encounter or what type of reception they might receive, Lt(N) Willigar knows that boarding party operations are essential to the mission. “Boarding operations allow us to monitor the activity of people posing potential threats to coalition forces, local fisherman and merchant ships,” he says. “Our presence directly leads to increased security and stability in the operating area. The legitimate businessmen working in the region show appreciation and gratitude for our efforts and the positive impact associated with our presence.”

Toronto was replaced earlier this year in the Arabian Sea region by HMCS Regina, which continues to carry out boarding party operations in support of Op Artemis.

With files from Captain Annie Morin