How Britain’s elite Special Boat Service seized stranded oil tanker in nine-minute operation
Special forces to the rescue after stowaways try to hijack vessel in English Channel
British special forces seized control of an oil tanker from stowaways in only nine minutes after fast-roping down from helicopters under the cover of darkness, it emerged on Monday.
A 16-strong team from the Special Boat Service overwhelmed a group of seven stowaways who threatened the crew of the Nave Andromeda during its approach to a refinery on the south coast of England.
The commandos descending from helicopters were supported by colleagues, who climbed the side of the tanker on ropes from small boats, experts said.
Police were alerted at about 10am on Sunday after the stowaways made threats to the crew. The seven are believed to have boarded at Lagos, Nigeria, amid speculation they planned to seek asylum in the UK.
The 228-metre tanker spent the day at the centre of a five-kilometre exclusion zone in the English Channel off the southern coast of the Isle of Wight.
Nave Andromeda crew members tried to lock the stowaways inside the ship’s cabin, and were reportedly met with threats to kill. The captain then issued a desperate Mayday call to the mainland appealing for assistance amid concerns he might lose control of the vessel.
He reportedly said he feared for his life, and told an operator: “I’m trying to keep them calm but please send help.”
Special forces moved in once darkness fell at 7pm and, after a day of preparation, carried out the mission successfully. “All 22 crew members are safe and well,” Hampshire police said.
The operator paid tribute to the unidentified master of the ship for his “exemplary response and calmness and to all the crew for their fortitude in a difficult situation”.
The swift operation was the latest successful mission for the SBS, a secretive unit that takes on terrorism and other dangerous missions at sea. Four helicopters, thought to include two Merlins and a Wildcat, were reportedly involved.
“The SBS commandos would be roped on board, covered by the Wildcats and personnel in the helicopters,” Christopher Parry, a maritime risk expert, told Sky News. “They would immediately make sure the crew is safe and then secure the stowaways wherever they are in the ship.”
The SBS was involved in a similar operation in 2018 when four stowaways from Nigeria and Liberia threatened the crew of a container ship before they were detained in an operation in the Thames Estuary.
The unit is based in Poole, Dorset, about 60 kilometres from Southampton where the tanker eventually berthed in the early hours of Monday, according to shipping website MarineTraffic.com.
“The stowaways chose completely the wrong place – or the right place for us – to take their action,” Rear Admiral Alex Burton, former commander of the UK Maritime Forces, told the BBC. “It was right by the Royal Navy’s primary naval base and within 50 miles of the Special Boat Services headquarters.
“It’s an area that both services know particularly well – it’s just what they train for. Thankfully, this appears to be no more serious than stowaways, but nobody was to know that.”
The unit was founded during the Second World War and has responsibility for protecting ports, cruise ships and oil platforms with a speciality of freeing hostages. In 1972, SBS members parachuted into the Atlantic Ocean to board the Queen Elizabeth II liner after a bomb scare, according to the National Army Museum.
The SBS was involved in operations in Afghanistan and Iraq, where it helped prepare for troops to land and to protect oilfields. It has also helped with anti-drug smuggling operations at sea.
The raid on Sunday was authorised by Defence Secretary Ben Wallace and Interior Minister Priti Patel.
The seven stowaways were handed over to Hampshire police after the operation.
“In response to a police request, the Defence Secretary and Home Secretary authorised Armed Forces personnel to board a ship in the English Channel to safeguard life and secure a ship that was subject to suspected hijacking,” the Ministry of Defence said.
“Armed forces have gained control of the ship and seven individuals have been detained. Police investigations will now continue.”
Mr Wallace said: “In dark skies and worsening weather, we should all be grateful for our brave personnel. People are safe tonight thanks to their efforts.”
Shipping and seafarers’ organisations welcomed the swift end to the stand-off in one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes.
The Greece-based operator, Navios Tanker Management, said it wanted to thank those involved “in this operation for their timely and professional response”.
Maritime strategist Eric Grove told Sky News said that seven stowaways had come from West Africa, which was seen as a new centre of piracy in the world.
Updated: October 26, 2020 07:28 PM