It was around midnight that the ratings manning the radar screens on board HMS Cumberland made the first sighting. A Belize-registered tug, the Himna, was trying to slip out of the Shatt al Arab waterway under cover of darkness. United States Navy special forces - the Seals - on board inflatable boats have already let the tug know the game is up. Now it is the Royal Navy's turn.
By the time the helicopter returns, the Cumberland's boarding party are already checking their rifles. There are no marines or special forces here; the team is made up of ordinary sailors - a stoker, a radio operator, even a member of the catering team.
As the helicopter hovers above the battered little ocean-going tug, a rope is thrown out. The boarding party abseil down on to the gently rocking deck and take control.
The mainly Filipino crew are held in startled silence while the ship's master tells a classic tale of oil smuggling. They had sailed into Iraqi waters a few days ago, and loaded up with oil from an offshore barge. The plan had been to sneak out along the Iraqi and Iranian coasts, to a rendezvous point off Iran for further instructions - probably involving a dash across the Gulf to Bahrain.
Did the master not know there was a flotilla of ships offshore waiting to intercept just such a cargo?
"This boarding must have come as a surprise then?"
"Affirmative," he replies drily.
THEY HAVE squeezed on board just about as much oil as possible. It is in the ballast tanks, in the fresh-water tanks, even in an extra tank bolted to the stern. The tug is so overladen, the sea washes across the decks, threatening to overwhelm it.
The boarding party search the vessel from stem to stern. It is reckoned that this illegal trade is tightly controlled by Saddam Hussein's family; it would be a bonus to find documents to prove it. Samples of oil taken from the holds should reveal exactly which Iraqi oil-field they come from. The ship's master tells the navy team: "You understand I do this because it's a job. War is big business."
One of the navy team says later: "The crew get good money for running the risk. They know what they are doing."
THERE ARE no oil smugglers to apprehend the next day. There are no sightings most days, just the routine sweep back and forth across a nondescript box of sea just outside Iraqi territorial waters.
The Royal Navy has had ships on the Armilla Patrol in the Gulf for two decades. Their first mission was to protect the vital oil trade during the Iran-Iraq war in the Eighties. Then, after Iraq's invasion of Kuwait, they were ordered to enforceUnited Nations sanctions.
Now, as tension rises in the Gulf once again, HMS Cumberland has been taking part in a series of what they call "surges". With an American destroyer on one side, and a Kuwaiti patrol boat on the other, they have been pushing ever closer up to Iraq.
"The aim is to wrong-foot them," explains the frigate's commander, Captain Alan Richards. They are trying to close what for President Saddam is a vital artery - the main route by which he can smuggle out oil in return for hard foreign currency.
ON WEDNESDAY, the Cumberland's helicopter is back on routine patrol. As the sun pokes its way up through the Middle Eastern murk, there is clear evidence of the success in enforcing sanctions. The only Iraqi boats visible are a handful of little fishing vessels.
Along the mouth of the Shatt-al-Arab waterway a group of cargo vessels is at anchor. Nothing to trade and nobody to trade with.
On a good day there might be a couple of routine operations to break the boredom. This time it is a container ship on its way back from Iraq after delivering a cargo of rice under the UN's oil-for-food programme, which allows Iraq to import humanitarian supplies in return for limited oil exports.
The well-pressed uniforms of the container ship's officers soon show the boarding party they are dealing with something very different from the Himna. The ship's papers are neatly laid out and photocopied ready for inspection. But the navy team still has to clamber through hundreds of empty containers, sure that they will find nothing.
BY THE end of the week, the tug captured on Monday should be safely shepherded towards whichever Gulf state has agreed to prosecute the case. In theory, the ship and its cargo will be confiscated and sold. But the documents list the owner as being from Dubai, and if he has the right connnections the ship may yet survive to make another run down the Gulf.
The last the Royal Navy saw of the Himna was when it was handed over to the Americans for guarding while the formalities were completed. As the tug bobbed gently up and down in the water, HMS Cumberland resumed its wait for the next chancer making a run for it.
Jon LeyneReuse content