An armed naval boarding party successfully descended by helicopter yesterday onto the decks of the GTS Katie, as the captain of the giant transport tried to make a getaway with the ship's military cargo.
The 14-sailor boarding team executed the risky mission without firing a shot and quickly seized control of the ship's bridge to end an 18-day standoff on the Atlantic. The Canadian sailors ordered the captain to take the Canadian military munitions and equipment without delay to the port of Bécancour, Que., on the south shore of the St. Lawrence River, Defence Department officials said.
One by one, the sailors, carrying sidearms and other weapons, were hoisted down by cable more than 15 metres from a hovering Sea King helicopter to the deck as the Katie's skipper increased its speed and tried to violently weave to thwart the boarding, but to no avail, officials said.
"No responsible government can allow interference with its important military capability. . . . We had to take action," Defence Minister Art Eggleton said.
He was referring to the fact that the U.S. owners of the Katie threatened to keep the ship at sea indefinitely because of a financial dispute with a freight contractor.
"Having our equipment held hostage was not something acceptable to us," Mr. Eggleton said, noting that some of the cargo was highly sensitive military equipment.
The navy had two of its aging Sea King maritime helicopters on hand for this mission, dubbed Operation Megaphone. But one Sea King remained out of service on the flight deck of a Canadian warship because of a malfunctioning rotor head.
The federal government cancelled a contract for expensive new maritime helicopters seven years ago, but promises to come up with a plan to buy cheaper helicopters before the end of the summer.
Confronted by the boarding party, the Katie's Ukrainian captain, Vitaly Khlebnikov, put up a "rather theatrical" protest for the record, said Captain Drew Robertson, the Canadian officer who commanded the mission.
But most of the Katie's 23-member crew and the three Canadian soldiers accompanying the military cargo since it left port in Greece on June 28 seemed pleased that their strange, slow voyage was coming to an end, Capt. Robertson said in a satellite telephone call with journalists from his ship, the destroyer HMCS Athabaskan.
The Athabaskan had been on a routine East Coast fisheries patrol until it was ordered to shadow the Katie last weekend. The frigate HMCS Montreal also circled the transport as it skirted Canadian waters off the Newfoundland coast.
The boarding party is experienced in this kind of operation from its work on fisheries patrols, defence officials said. Canadian sailors and helicopter pilots have honed their skills boarding ships in the Persian Gulf for inspections and enforcement of an embargo against Iraq.
In yesterday's operation, the 14 sailors were transferred by helicopter from one of the Canadian warships in two groups, boarded the Katie and secured the bridge and all decks inside of 50 minutes, Capt. Robertson said.
The Katie was due in Bécancour on July 16 with military cargo worth more than $220-million and representing roughly 10 per cent of the Canadian army's equipment. Under Canadian Forces control, Katie is now expected in Bécancour on Sunday to unload the explosives. The 580 tanks, trucks, armoured personnel carriers and other army vehicles will be unloaded later next week in Montreal.
Mr. Eggleton told a news conference that the Canadian government's actions were entirely within international law, despite Capt. Khlebnikov's maritime radio broadcast of a mayday signal and claims that the boarding was like a pirate attack.
The Katie flies the flag of convenience of St. Vincent and the Grenadines. That tiny Caribbean state gave Canada permission to board the Katie in an exchange of diplomatic notes several days ago.
Mr. Eggleton predicted that the legal wrangling between the ship's owners, Third Ocean Marine Navigation Co. of Annapolis, Md., and the freight-handling contractor, Andromeda Navigation Inc. of Montreal, will be tied up in court for a long time.
The fear that the Katie would be seized for unpaid bills once it reached port was the reason Third Ocean officials ordered the ship to remain outside Canadian territorial waters.
Katie was hired to haul the Canadian military shipment back from the Kosovo peacekeeping mission because the navy has no heavy cargo ships of its own. Mr. Eggleton said he hopes to get the navy new transports of its own, but he said the government will continue to hire private cargo ships and specialized vessels from time to time.
Displacement: 35,985 tonnes Length: 227.4 metres Beam: 30.0 metres Speed: 25 knots Built: 1980
Displacement: 5,100 tonnes Length: 127.8 metres Beam: 15.0 metres Speed: 29 knots Built: 1972
Displacement: 4,750 tonnes Length: 134.1 metres Beam: 16.4 metres Speed: 30 knots Built: 1994