Life in Newcastle on patrol in Middle East

This article has photo gallery Published on CPL Max Bree (author), LSIS Brenton Freind (photographer), CPL Max Bree (photographer)

Royal Australian Navy Able Seaman Peter Craig prepares to draw a 9mm pistol he will need as part of the boarding party aboard HMAS Newcastle. (photo: CPL Max Bree)
Royal Australian Navy Able Seaman Peter Craig prepares to draw a 9mm pistol he will need as part of the boarding party aboard HMAS Newcastle.

During May and June HMAS Newcastle was patrolling with the Combined Maritime Forces in the Middle East region.

During the patrols, the ship’s company discovered more than 1305kg of narcotics during two boardings.   

Now in to the second half of her deployment, Newcastle has now completed five successful seizures since starting patrols with Australia’s Operation MANITOU.

This is a snapshot of what life was like during Operation WEBB ELLIS.

Dirty water wasn’t the only thing in the bilge of a dhow boarded by the crew of HMAS Newcastle on 12 May.

About 200kg of heroin was stashed below decks and seized by Newcastle’s boarding party after the suspect vessel was spotted from bridge earlier in the day.

Lieutenant Gideon Watson was the boarding officer in charge of the team who went aboard the vessel and conducted a full search.

It was during a check of the dhow’s bilge, Newcastle’s boarding party found something unusual.

“The first thing we found was a bag that was not meant to be in the bilges at all,” Lieutenant Watson said.

“We pulled that bag out and behind it we found 16 others.

“With the first one out we found smaller bags inside it that contained a white substance that was found to be heroin.”

The crew took all 17 bags of heroin out of the bilge and started making plans to move it back to Newcastle.

“We informed the master we were seizing the illicit cargo that we found and we then transferred it back to Newcastle,” Lieutenant Watson said.

Able Seaman Combat Systems Operator Miranda Walker was part of the bridge sweep security that made sure the wheelhouse was secure for the boarding officer.

“Once all the sweeps were done we got clearance to conduct a search, checking the boat from top to bottom,” she said.

“When I heard we found something it made me feel pretty good - we came over here to do a job and we succeeded.”

At the time, Newcastle was operating as part of Operation WEBB ELLIS under command of Combined Task Force 150, an international maritime security and counter-terrorism effort in the Middle East under the Combined Maritime Forces.

“Having never done boardings before this deployment and on my second boarding, getting a haul of more than 200kg was an incredible feeling for myself and the team,” Lieutenant Watson said.

“We were all very happy to have a win.”

HMAS Newcastle's sea boat moves into position to embark the ship's Boarding Party Team, to conduct a boarding party exercise with the French Replenishment Ship, FNS Var, as both ship's sail in company after conducting a short port visit to the Seychelles, to begin their maritime security patrols in the Indian Ocean in support of Operation MANITOU.

HMAS Newcastle's sea boat moves into position to embark the ship's Boarding Party Team, to conduct a boarding party exercise with the French Replenishment Ship, FNS Var, as both ship's sail in company after conducting a short port visit to the Seychelles, to begin their maritime security patrols in the Indian Ocean in support of Operation MANITOU.

The haul was the second heroin stash handled by Newcastle, who were called on 11 May to remove drugs a French crew discovered on a dhow.

Lieutenant Watson said the team was also looking to improve their methods with each boarding,

“We’ve learned about extra areas of the dhow we want to check in future boardings,” he said.

“Plus different methods of talking to the master and crew to get extra information about what they might be carrying on board.”

While  the ship's boarding party move through a dhow checking for threats, Able Seaman Marine Technician Bryce Raymond clambers below deck checking the vessel’s engine.

“We’re there to assess the seaworthiness of the vessel and make sure it’s safe for the boarding team,” he said.

“We’re also there if the engine malfunctions or springs a leak we can do those repairs.

“If we board and find a problem with the engines we can also fix them.”

Marine technicians like Able Seaman Raymond are part of each boarding party, assessing the condition of each dhow they board.

“The engines are surprisingly pretty good,” he said.

“They might have a few small leaks here and there but they’re not too bad overall.

“They generally have to be in good condition because the dhows have got a long way to travel.

“There rest of the boats tend to be in good nick but they might smell a bit.”

Once he is happy with a dhow’s engine he’ll move on and help check other areas of the vessel.

“I would be a bit of a kick and some good job satisfaction if I was on a boarding party that found something.”

But before the boarding officer takes charge on a dhow, sailors on 'bridge sweep and security' make sure the boat is secure for the rest of the team.

Able Seaman Maritime Logistics - Supply Chain Peter Craig, is one who conducts bridge sweeps, and said personnel make initial checks of key areas for safety such as the bridge or wheelhouse.

“We make sure there are no sharps or weapons and once it’s secure we’ll hand it over to the boarding officer.

“We’ll also check the crew is secured into one area.”

Able Seaman Walker is also on the detail and said the boarding party would then move-on to checking credentials of the crew and vessel.

“Also if they need food or they’re unwell we’ll definitely help where we can,” she said.

“We haven’t had any requests for medical support at the moment but if we need to deal with that we can.”

Simply getting onto a dhow could be the trickiest part of a boarding, according to Able Seaman Craig.

“Trying to get on and off dhows in rough weather is extremely challenging especially when it’s getting dark and it’s hard to see the boarding ladder,” he said.

“Apart from that crews are pretty friendly, they’ll do what you ask them to and they’re pretty willing to answer questions.”

Able Seaman Walker said she was getting to do what she’d always dreamed of.

“I joined the Navy to get out and do boardings - now I’m doing it so I’m really happy,” she said.

“Being away from family is challenging but when you go on a boarding and the team finds something that makes it worthwhile.”

Newcastle departed Australia for Operation MANITOU in early April as part of the Australian Defence Force contribution to support international efforts to promote maritime security, stability and prosperity in the Middle East region.

The primary goal of Operation MANITOU is to contribute to the Combined Maritime Forces, which is a 30-nation partnership focused on defeating terrorism, preventing piracy, encouraging regional cooperation and promoting a safe maritime environment.

There are approximately 250 Australian Defence Force members deployed on the operation. Newcastle is on her fifth deployment to the region and is the 60th rotation of a Royal Australian Navy vessel since the first Gulf War in 1990.