A three-masted sailing ship belonging to the Ecuadorian Navy last week captured a so-called narco sub, a homemade low-profile vessel (LPV) designed to transport illegal narcotics, in the Pacific Ocean off Colombia, according to a statement from Ecuador’s military.
It said the barque Guayas, used to train naval cadets in seamanship, interdicted the narco sub, in international waters between the exclusive economic zones of Colombia and the Ecuadorian islands in the Pacific.
Three Ecuadorian nationals and one Colombian were taken into custody, the statement said, though it did not give any details on what narcotics might have been aboard the narco sub, which was powered by three outboard engines.
The 257-foot-long (78 meter) sailing ship, powered by more than 15,000 square feet (1,393 square meter) of sails hung from three towering masks, was on a training cruise when it spotted the drug-running vessel and made the stop, the Ecuadorian military said.
The Guayas is designed to carry 80 cadets as well as a permanent crew of 36.
Most narco subs are actually LPVs, essentially boats with most of their bulk below the waterline, although more advanced versions are what as known as semi-submersibles, vessels with just a hatch and air intakes above the surface.
The LPVs first emerged in the late 1990s as Colombian drug cartels looked for ways to evade United States law enforcement patrols in the Caribbean Sea and get their illicit cargo into the US
Sailing ships had their heyday in the 18th and early 19th century as European powers like Great Britain, France and Spain built naval fleets to protect their commercial shipping interests.
But the advent of steam power in the mid-1800s quickly relegated sail-powered military vessels to the scrapyard.
But several nations still use sailing ships to train recruits in basic seamanship. Sister ships of the Guayas are in use with the Colombian, Venezuelan and Mexican militaries, according to the Tall Ships Network, a British website that calls itself “a global platform for all things tall ships.”
The US Coast Guard barque Eagle is used to train the service’s cadets and is the only active sailing ship in the US military.
“The ways of old still have much to teach,” the US Coast Guard Academy’s website says of Eagle. “The conditions and situations that you face under sail can’t be replicated either in a classroom or aboard today’s modern ships.”
“Totally dependent on wind, waves and currents, (Coast Guard cadets) quickly learn how these forces of nature affect a vessel. They become skilled in ship-handling, decision-making and meeting unexpected challenges,” the academy’s website says.
It’s that kind of training that could lead to a sailing ship to running down a mechanically powered vessel, said Alessio Patalano, professor of war and strategy at King’s College in London.
“Sailors train regularly to man this ship to the utmost of its capabilities, which means that on favorable weather conditions its sails could propel it well past 10 knots,” Patalano said.
“Whilst this is not a speed comparable to modern ships, when combined with a proficient crew, it would certainly give the ship an edge over four narcos on a home made drug-carrying raft, fast as it could have been,” he said.
CNN’s Begona Blanco Munoz contributed to this report.