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New Threat

On the High Seas – As if the oceans weren't challenging enough to the voyaging sailor, with pirates, floating containers and unlit fishing boats to dodge, the US Coast Guard recently published an internal “All-Hands” advisory describing the emergence of a new class of high-speed, hard-to-detect bad-guy vessels. 

Known as Self-Propelled Semi-Submersibles (SPSS), these craft are born in the rebel-controlled jungles of Colombia, stuffed full of cocaine (up to 10 metric tons) and sent north, their deck and superstructure barely rising above the sea surface.  Skimming along at a top speed of 13 knots, these up-to-100-foot steel monsters can travel 2500 nautical miles without refuelling, carrying a five-man crew.


The challenge for the authorities is first to find, then to apprehend these vessels, which carry no markings and are essentially stateless.  Ship-borne radar is of little value in this pursuit; the best results are said to come from airborne surveillance.  Designed to be easily scuttled upon detection, these SPSS vessels can sink within minutes, taking their contraband to the bottom of the sea and away from prying eyes of law enforcement, leaving their hapless crew bobbing in the waves, demanding rescue.

The US Coast Guard projects more than 80 SPSS “events” for 2009, with two to four departures each week.  Sailors transiting the Panama Canal are especially at risk of collision with these relatively high-speed and hard-to-detect semi-submarines.  While most interceptions have been made on the Pacific side of the Americas and up to 400 NM from the coast, there is no reason to think that such craft are not operating or will not soon operate on the Caribbean side. 

The US Coast Guard advisory can be found here: http://tinyurl.com/SPSS08

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