16th March 2017
The men were on the UK fishing boat Bianca, which was boarded by National Crime Agency and Border Force officers off the Cornish coast in August 2016.
David Pleasants, 57, from Grimsby and Dutchman Gerald Van de Kooij, 27, pleaded guilty to importing class A drugs at the start of their trial.
A jury at Bristol Crown Court has now also found the boat’s skipper, Michael McDermott, guilty of drug smuggling.
The 68-year-old man claimed although he knew the cocaine was on board, he had been acting under duress and forced into shipping the cocaine by his two co-accused.
The drugs haul was one of the biggest ever recovered at sea around the UK. Authorities have told Sky News that attempts to smuggle bigger amounts of drugs into British waters are becoming more frequent.
Raymond, a covert officer for the National Crime Agency, was in charge of the joint Border Force-NCA operation to board the Bianca.
He said that operation, on August 18, 2016, was a high-risk manoeuvre.
He said: “We had to make sure all our operational parameters were covered in terms of safety. We had a back-up search and rescue helicopter if necessary.
“When we put in the strike on the vessel, we go from a position of stealth from far afield and get on board the vessel as quickly as possible.
“We used two boarding boats on this occasion and got as many boarding officers on board the target vessel as quickly as possible.
“At the time of boarding, we didn’t know who was on board, we didn’t know who they were, how many people were on the vessel.
“So the whole operational tactic is to try and overwhelm as quickly as possible in order to preserve evidence and to make sure they don’t get ideas about running away or approaching us with violence.”
The UK Border Force is tasked with guarding the thousands of miles of Britain’s coastline, along with the Royal Navy and fisheries protection squadrons.
Sky News was given access rare access to one of those vessels, Her Majesty’s Cutter Vigilant, as it patrolled off Southampton.
There are just four Border Force cutters at present, but a fleet of smaller, rapid reaction boats are now being phased in to help supplement the cutter fleet.
Commander Nicholas Bonner, in charge of one of the Cutters involved in intercepting the Bianca, said that although the Border Force vessels are few in number, they are working effectively because of their partnership with other agencies.
“We plan and drill with the National Crime Agency regularly. The officers are extremely well-trained, both in their maritime and legal skills,” he said.
“We have a really well advanced intelligence system now to put us in the right place at the right time. It was a textbook operation.”
Mark Harding, from the National Crime Agency, said the key to effectively tackling the drug smugglers and other illegal activity at sea is good intelligence.
“I think we work well together – Border Force, NCA, Maritime Coastguard Agency, other agencies and the Navy – we work well together, we make the best of the intelligence we’ve got,” he said.
“We are intelligence led, our deployments are focused in that way and the fact that Border Force have vessels crewed 24 hours a day at 30 minutes notice to move shows our effectiveness.”
The three-man crew of the Bianca are now facing lengthy jail terms. Authorities hope the case will help act as a deterrent, but say they have noticed an increase in attempts to smuggle larger quantities of drugs into British waters over the last few years.
There is a huge market for illicit drugs in the UK, and the Border Force’s small fleet of vessels has never been busier.