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Last Updated: Monday, 22 May 2006, 16:08 GMT 17:08 UK
Ship in front line of war on drugs
By Jonathan Morris
BBC News South West

HMS Cumberland
HMS Cumberland's motto is "Tenacious for Justice"
In front of me, a bank of eight Sea Wolf sea-to-air missile launchers and behind me the Gatling gun which fires 3,500 rounds a minute.

Add 250 crew and a Lynx helicopter and you have one of the UK's most potent weapons in the war against drugs, the Royal Navy's HMS Cumberland.

It hit the headlines last year after a dramatic bust which led to the recovery of tonnes of cocaine in the Caribbean.

BBC News Interactive joined her in Weymouth where she was undergoing tests.

The 20-year-old Cumberland, based at Devonport in Plymouth, was an unheralded navy stalwart until the headline-grabbing events of last October.

It had had successes, enforcing Iraq oil-sales embargoes in the Gulf in 1999, as well as seizing 3.6 tonnes of cocaine in the Atlantic in 2003.

Ace up the sleeve

But just three months into taking over command of HMS Cumberland, 43-year-old Captain Simon Ancona found himself leading an attack on a 40ft high-speed boat carrying two tonnes of cocaine worth 200m.

The 4,500 tonne Cumberland, whose four jet turbines can push her through the water at a top speed of 30 knots, can outrun many waterborne vessels.

Simon Ancona
Joined Royal Navy 1980
Became commanding officer aged 35
Promoted to captain June 2003
Became captain of HMS Cumberland July 2005
Brother of comedian Ronnie Ancona
Interests: Squash, theatre, reading, playing harmonica in blues band
On Ipod: AC/DC, Blues Travellers, Arctic Monkeys, Morrissey

But the lightweight "go-fast", powered by four 200hp outboard engines, was topping 50 knots as it raced from Colombia to Honduras.

It was on a known drugs smugglers' route across the Caribbean - in February this year the navy destroyer HMS Southampton seized 3.5 tonnes of cocaine from a more stately coaster.

After a tip-off from the US Coastguards who spotted the go-fast from one of their planes, Capt Ancona knew his best option was to launch one of his task groups including a team of marines on the Lynx.

He said: "The drugs runners will try and dump drugs and have even sunk their boats before being captured, so the helicopter is the ace up the sleeve.

"The go-fast was beyond the top speed of this ship, but mercifully not beyond our helicopter."

Sniper rifle

First a team of marines on board the Lynx fired warnings shots, but the go-fast crew of four - two Colombians, a Honduran and a gang member from Belize, were undeterred.

Then a marine armed with a sniper rifle shot out the engines of the go-fast.

The speedboat crew surrender to the Royal Navy

Capt Ancona said: "Normally the presence of a helicopter is enough, but if not firing a machine gun is plenty and if not, as in this instance we have a maritime sniper team to carefully cause catastrophic damage to the engines."

The resulting stories and the pictures are still framed in the officers' quarters, a reminder said Capt Ancona of the team effort involved.

The Cumberland was supported by the RFA Wave Knight which has its own Lynx and was home to the marines and another US Coastguard boarding team.

Make a difference

Capt Ancona said: "The multi-agency trend is increasing with the global war on terrorism.

"You cannot cover the business alone because of insufficient assets.

I think the drug cartels suffer as a result of these operations, the chasing down of assets , the closing down of distribution on the mainland
Capt Simon Ancona

"We work closely with US coastguards, HM Customs and provincial law enforcement in the Caribbean.

"Only in that way can you hope to get involved and really make a difference."

HMS Cumberland was in the Caribbean as part of Atlantic Patrol Task North, fulfilling the government's remit for protection of overseas territories during the hurricane season, from July to November.

However, it also includes anti-drugs running operations.

Capt Ancona accepts that two tonnes of cocaine sounds like a significant amount, but is a drop in the ocean in the face of Columbia's total output.

He said: "I think the drug cartels suffer as a result of these operations, operations by the Columbians themselves, the chasing down of assets and the closing down of distribution on the mainland.

Manhattan coffee tables

"They are all facets of an over-arching effort against drugs."

Last year the Colombian authorities, supported by the US, seized cocaine valued at more than $300m (162m) in what they said was the single largest drugs haul ever.

Capt Ancona said: "Do I think it is possible to stop people getting hold of any drugs? Probably not, given the sheer volumes.

"Do I think we should make it easy for them? No I don't. We should make it as difficult as possible.

"The great misconception is 'hell, why don't we just let it happen, people are going to buy this stuff whatever'.

HMS Cumberland
Type 22 Frigate
Motto: Tenacious of Justice
260 crew
Max speed: 30 knots
Aircraft carried: 2 Lynx Mk 8 helicopters

"But what is in evidence, especially in the West Indies, drugs cause awful social problems such as gang warfare and organised crime which are as bad as the health affects of the drugs."

The Ministry of Defence is re-organising operations in the area so that a mixture of support ships and warships will be available outside the hurricane season.

Capt Ancona said: "The cloth has been recut. We will still cover the hurricane season. Ships like Wave Knight which have most of the capabilities we have including a Lynx and boarding facilities, will cover the gaps.

"You have to decide what effect you want to have and where you want to have it because there is a finite number of ships."

HMS Cumberland is now undergoing trials and hosting training for naval officers in the less exotic waters of Weymouth and is due for a total refit at the end of the year.

For the crew there is the lure of another tour of the Caribbean and more actions against drugs runners.

"Cumberland will be good for another 10 years when it comes out of refit and when it pops out it will be polished and gleaming and I think it very likely it will end up in the Caribbean again."

Drugs runners, you have been warned.

See the drugs bust at sea

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