Australia Arrests Bulker’s Master and Engineer for Smuggling Cocaine

Australia arrest master and chief engineer
Master and Chief Engineer were both arrested on allegations of participation in the smuggling scheme (Australian Federal Police)

Published Jun 16, 2023 2:50 PM by The Maritime Executive

Australian Federal Police reported that they have arrested and charged the master and chief engineer of the Marshall Islands-flagged bulker St. Pinot for their alleged roles in a large attempted cocaine smuggling operation and an attempted cover-up when discovered by the police. Two weeks after reporting the seizure of what has turned out to be 849.5 kg of cocaine in Western Australia, the police provided additional details on their extensive investigation.

The captain, age 43, and the chief engineer, age 39, are both from Montenegro and were due to go before the Perth Magistrates Court today each charged with one count of importing a commercial quantity of cocaine. They face a maximum penalty of life imprisonment if convicted. Three other individuals who the police believe were to receive the cocaine were previously arrested and also face a maximum penalty of life imprisonment if convicted.

The joint investigation which involved the Australian Federal Police, Australian Border Force, Western Australia Police Force, Australian Criminal Intelligence Commission, and Department of Home Affairs, began in mid-May with information about an unidentified bulker attempting to smuggle a large quantity of cocaine. While they were investigating that information, the authorities reported on May 24 the Western Australia Police Forces and Volunteer Marine Research WA assisted a 33-foot cabin cruiser in distress near Rottnest Island, about 14 miles off the coast of Fremantle.

Law enforcement became suspicious because the three men aboard seemed to have limited boating experience. The police said they reported engine trouble but their accounts of the trip seemed suspicious. They determined the boat had been purchased the day before using cash. The three individuals were arrested on May 31 with the police charging that they were using the cabin cruiser to receive the cocaine from the bulk carrier.

After the incident with the cabin cruiser, the police began investigating bulkers that had been in the area and identified the St. Pinot as a suspect that matched the details they had of a possible smuggling operation. The 58,000 dwt bulker had departed Argentina in late April arriving in Fremantle on May 25.  The Australian Border Force boarded the vessel while it was still at sea to begin its investigation. 

The police are now reporting that their investigation showed the captain order the vessel to divert to what they believe was a pre-set rendezvous point. When they did not find the cabin cruiser, they allege the crew was ordered to flood the ballast tanks and instructed to backdate the logs. The vessel also provided false information to its shipping agent. They allege the captain and chief engineer knew about the cocaine and were attempting to hide it from the authorities.

Clearance divers from the Royal Australian Navy were brought in and they initially searched the tanks finding 28 large packages each containing one-kilo blocks that were later confirmed as cocaine. The tanks were drained and one additional package was found. The police are setting the estimated street value at A$320 million (US172 million).

“These individuals allegedly went to great lengths to hide their illegal activities from law enforcement,” said Pryce Scanlan, Assistant Commissioner of the Australian Federal Police commenting on the arrest of the master and chief engineer. They report that Australia has been seizing cocaine shipments at record levels.

A replacement master and chief engineer were brought in for the vessel. After additional searches, the St. Pinot was released and departed Fremantle today, June 16. Her AIS signal shows she is bound for Adelaide, Australia.