AN ex-Royal Navy officer’s converted warship has been seized by Spain amid fears he is a mercenary planning to fight pirates in Somalia.
Former lieutenant Chris Enmarsh’s decommissioned gunboat Defender has been stopped from sailing since being forced to stop off in Tenerife for repairs.
The Spanish authorities are understood to be concerned that Mr Enmarsh and his five-man crew intend to operate as so-called guns-for-hire protecting oil platforms off the coastline of East Africa.
The heavily armoured former military vessel has two cannons as well as two unused machine gun emplacements, but the 53-year-old claims they do not work.
He has flatly denied that the crew are mercenaries heading for Somalia, saying the claims are ‘nonsense’. Instead, he said, they were sailing to Senegal in West Africa to discuss the vessel being used to deter illegal fishing.
The 127ft boat, which weighs 135 tons, was built in Lowestoft, Suffolk, in the mid-Seventies as a fast attack craft for the Sultan of Oman’s navy in the Gulf.
Local maritime officials impounded the vessel last week after an inspection found ‘administrative irregularities’ and security issues relating to life-saving equipment.
The drama began on Tuesday when the Defender made an unplanned stopover in the resort of Los Cristianos after blowing a gasket.
It was boarded by Spanish Civil Guard officers and refused permission to stay there. The vessel was then escorted to a berth 50 miles away at Santa Cruz port by a Spanish navy warship.
Officials are understood to have been suspicious that the formidable looking vessel, which flies the British flag, was registered as a pleasure boat.
The boat has been inspected five times but officials have refused the skipper permission to sail. Mr Enmarsh and his crew have not been held.
While running background checks on the former gunship and its owner the authorities are also believed to have come across comments made by Mr Enmarsh to a local newspaper in Essex in 2011 that he intended to arm it for shipping and oil rig protection.
He told the Maldon Chronicle in November 2011: ‘Defender’s task will be to deter any pirates intent on boarding the many ships that pass the East African coastline. One look at her should be enough to send them looking for easier targets.
‘She will be manned by handpicked ex-Royal Marine Commandos and run as a professional naval ship, obeying the rules of engagement.
‘‘Our primary task will be to protect oil platforms which are towed close to the coast of East Africa, and a number of oil companies want to hire Defender to look after their interests.
‘We are not mercenaries; this is strictly a business venture similar to other British private protection firms which operate in Iraq and Afghanistan.’ But Mr Enmarsh said yesterday that only he and one other crewman had served in the Armed Forces.
He said: ‘The reports of us heading to Somalia are nonsense. We would not have come down this way if our destination was the Horn of Africa. There are quicker routes to get there.
‘We are on our way from England to Senegal to discuss with the authorities there the possible use of the Defender as a deterrent against illegal fishing boats. The idea is that one look at us and anyone who should not be fishing there will think twice about staying.’ He said the cannons were ‘for show only and totally unusable’. But he believed the presence of a formidable looking vessel would be enough to deter illegal fishing.
He said: ‘We have been searched from top to bottom and nothing improper has been found. The only reason we have to stay is because the inspectors say our on-board safety equipment is not up to standard.
‘We need to get new fire extinguishers and some other items before we are cleared to depart. The crew have not been detained in any way.’
The Spanish ministry of defence said an inspection had revealed ‘irregularities in the paperwork of the boat and its crew, as well as deficiencies in safety equipment’.