Gardaí believe a ship that Army Ranger Wing members were winched on to in stormy conditions on Tuesday is carrying cocaine worth at least tens of millions of euros.
A number of sources told The Irish Times it was possible the haul was worth well in excess of €100 million, though that would only become clear when the bulk carrier was properly searched in Cork Harbour on Wednesday.
The large vessel – the Panamanian-registered MV Matthew – was attempting to flee when the Naval Service’s LÉ William Butler Yeats and Air Corps helicopters closed in on it off the Co Cork coast on Tuesday. Weapons systems on the LÉ William Butler Yeats were fired twice as warning shots to deter the crew from persisting with their attempted escape.
After the rangers, the most elite unit in the Defence Forces, took control of the vessel, gardaí and Customs officers were able to also go on board.
The Garda and Defence Forces were tracking the vessel on suspicion it was carrying cocaine and making deliveries of the drug to much smaller vessels at sea. One of those smaller vessels was the Castlemore trawler, which ran aground on a sandbank about 12km off the coast of Blackwater, Co Wexford, late on Sunday night.
Two men – from the UK and eastern Europe – were eventually winched to safety from Coast Guard helicopter R117 in the early hours of Monday morning and on to the LÉ William Butler Yeats. They have since been arrested under anti-gangland legislation and were still in Garda custody in Co Wexford on Tuesday night.
Once those men had been taken into custody, the attentions of the Garda and Naval Service switched to the MV Matthew. That vessel had changed owners in the past six weeks or so before it set off from South America to Europe, carrying a very large haul of drugs, believed to be cocaine.
It’s understood that the ship sailed from the Dutch island of Aruba in the South Caribbean as the MV Honmon to Willemstad in the Dutch protectorate of Curaçao on August 18th from where it sailed to Georgetown in Guyana on the north Atlantic coast of South America to collect a cargo.
It was unclear exactly when the ship – a 189-metre bulk carrier valued at €9.5 million – crossed the Atlantic but by mid-September it was sailing around the Canaries Islands off the west coast of Africa before beginning a journey up the west coast of Portugal and Spain and through the Bay of Biscay up towards Brest in Brittany.
It appears that the ship was due to enter the separation zone for traffic sailing up and down the English channel but it instead carried on towards Ireland and entered the Irish Sea with the intention of docking in Belfast when it experienced engine trouble over the weekend.
The ship, which had sailed up as far as Arklow, notified the Irish Coast Guard about its engine problems as it proceeded to drift back down the Irish Sea before the crew were able to repair its engines, but another problem arose when the skipper had a blackout on board the ship and fell.
He suffered injuries to his head and back and neck and the MV Matthew requested a medical evacuation; the Irish Coast Guard tasked its Rescue 117 helicopter based at Waterford to remove the casualty from the ship at around 9.30pm on Monday.
The man was removed to Cork University Hospital where he was treated for his injuries before being discharged from hospital, but he was arrested by members of the Garda National Drugs and Organised Crime Bureau and taken to Wexford Garda station for questioning about drug trafficking.
Meanwhile, the crew of the MV Matthew decided to head to the Port of Cork to source turbochargers to repair its engines before realising it was being pursued. It was then boarded by members of the Army Rangers, who took control of the vessel off Ballycotton in east Cork.