Former New Zealand Navy Patrol Vessel Seized in Cocaine Bust

Cocaine stacked in the Kahu's lounge (NCA)

Published Sep 16, 2021 12:21 AM by The Maritime Executive

Last week, the UK's National Crime Agency intercepted a converted New Zealand Navy patrol boat and arrested her six-member crew on suspicion of drug trafficking. After an extensive search, officers pulled two tonnes of cocaine from hiding places on board. 

The vessel - the yacht-conversion Kahu, formerly a patrol vessel belonging to the Royal New Zealand Navy - was intercepted by NCA agents Thursday evening at a position about 70 nm off the coast of Plymouth. Kahu was under way on a long voyage from the Caribbean, but she did not reach her planned destination; instead, the team escorted her back to shore for a "deep rummage search." 

Her six crewmembers - including one UK national and five Nicaraguan nationals - have been arrested and are in custody. 

"This is a massive haul of cocaine with an estimated street value of around [$220 million]," said NCA deputy director Matt Horne. "There’s no doubt these drugs would have been sold on into communities across the UK . . . fueling more crime and misery. Organized crime groups are motivated by money. The deprivation of these drugs will smash a hole in the [group’s] plans and ability to operate."

The 1979-built Kahu was converted at New Zealand yard Fitzroy Yachts in 2011, and her former owner - Fitzroy founder Peter White-Robinson - told Canada's National Post that the vessel would be a good candidate for smuggling because of her range. For a trans-Pacific cruise, White-Robinson added enough tank space to take her 8,000 nm between bunkering ports. He sold the vessel in 2013 along with Fitzroy Yachts, and it has changed hands several times since. 

The bust was facilitated by the Australian Federal Police, who gave the NCA information obtained through Australia's access to the AnOm encrypted communication platform. The AnOm "secure phone" was conceived and created by the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation for distribution to suspected criminals, and the FBI and its international partners used a back door in the app to covertly monitor organized crime syndicates for years. In all, the undercover effort snared 27 million messages from 12,000 devices around the world, leading to stunning drug busts and more than 800 arrests. 

“Operation Ironside [the AnOm operation] has opened the door to unprecedented collaboration across law enforcement agencies around the globe," said AFP Assistant Commissioner Lesa Gale. "This result highlights the importance of the AFP’s partnership with the NCA to combat offshore transnational organised crime that impacts both of our countries."