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Trawler that ran aground off Wexford coast in suspected drug smuggling operation had been bought days earlier in west Cork

The trawler at the centre of a major security operation involving gardaí, Naval Service and customs after it ran aground off Co Wexford with a suspected large consignment of cocaine left Castletownbere in west Cork on Friday night just hours after it was purchased by an unknown buyer.

The twin rigger had been bought by a local fisherman in Castletownbere some years ago and used to fish for prawn and white fish off the south-west coast but the owner had been trying to sell the boat since 2017 and on Friday, the boat was purchased by an unknown buyer.

The boat left Castletownbere late on Friday night or early Saturday morning and was reported to be headed for Brixham in Devon but local sources in Castletownbere suspect that the vessel headed off to rendezvous with another vessel which had crossed the Atlantic with a consignment of cocaine.

The cocaine was then transferred from the boat that had crossed the Atlantic to the trawler in what is known as “coopering” so that when the other boat entered port and was checked by customs officials, they would find nothing while the drugs would be brought ashore by the trawler.

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The vessel bought in Cork “has a top speed of eight or nine knots so she should have been able to make Blackwater in Co Wexford from Castletown in about 20 hours but it seems she only arrived there on Sunday night so she obviously went somewhere else in the meanwhile,” said a marine source.

“One local lad was watching the two fellows on board the boat on Friday night, and he said they looked as if they didn’t know one end of a rope from the other. If she was heading for Brixham as they claimed, she would have gone south-east from here but she ended up going north to Wexford.”

According to the source, the size of the trawler was significant in that at just 14.9 metres long, it is not legally required to carry a tracking device which is obligatory for all vessels over 15 metres long so they can be tracked by the Naval Service at its base in Haulbowline in Cork Harbour.

“All boats over 15 metres have to carry a tracking device which shows up on a radar screen at Haulbowline every two minutes, so the Navy knows exactly where such vessels are at any one time” but the trawler did not to carry a tracker because it was less than 15 metres, he said.

The vessel, which was sold without a licence to its new owner and was thus not registered when she left Castletownbere on Friday night, also does not have to carry an Automated Identity System (AIS) which automatically broadcasts its position to other ships to avoid collisions.

Without the AIS, it could “link up with another vessel off the south coast without it showing up as two boat rendezvousing – where that happened is anyone’s guess,” the local source said, but the trawler “could have gone up to 100 miles off the coast, no bother”.

According to a fishing source, the purchase of the trawler suggests criminal gangs are exploiting the crisis in the fishing industry where boats are tied up because of reduced quotas as it is the second boat purchased in recent months by gangs seeking to smuggle drugs into Ireland and the UK.

“These gangs know that with boats being tied up because of reduced EU quotas, fellows are trying to offload them.”

It was “a case of criminals exploiting the crisis in the fishing industry,” he said.

Meanwhile two men, believed to be an Englishman and an Eastern European rescued from the trawler when it ran aground on a sand bank near Blackwater in poor weather, remain in custody at Wexford Garda Station after being arrested by gardaí on suspicion of drug smuggling.

While gardaí suspect the trawler was carrying a large consignment of cocaine, checks to determine the exact cargo on the boat were frustrated by bad weather though Air Corps fixed wing aircraft did search waters around Blackwater for any cargo that may have come off the vessel.

It is understood that the LE William Butler Yeats had been tracking the suspect trawler as part of a Garda-led operation and members of the Garda National Drugs Unit were also on the Naval vessel at the time. The Army Ranger Wing special forces were deployed to help secure the evidence and the vessel.

The trawler ran aground on sandbank at Blackwater, some 12km north of Rosslare, at around 11.30pm on Sunday in poor weather, prompting a major rescue operation involving Rosslare RNLI and the Irish Coast Guard Rescue 117 helicopter based in Waterford.

The operation lasted more than six hours, with the Rosslare RNLI lifeboat making several attempts to attach a tow-line to the trawler in a huge swell and winds and the RNLI crew were warned by the Naval Service during the operation not to board the trawler or take anyone off.

As Rescue 117 approached the stricken vessel, they were informed that the boat was being tracked by the LE William Butler Yeats and when Rescue 117 eventually winched the two men from the trawler, they landed them on the deck of the naval ship where gardaí were waiting for them.