The French Navy offshore patrol vessel Albatros (P681) arrived in Cape Town on Wednesday 3 June, having completed her final Indian Ocean patrol.
For 31 years, the 47 year-old Albatros, based in Port-des-Galets, Reunion Island, has been patrolling the French Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZ) in the southern Indian Ocean, north of the Antarctic.
Commander Riaz Akhoune, Officer Commanding Albatros, told defenceWeb that they has just endured some really rough seas and cold temperatures whilst performing a three-week surveillance patrol in the EEZ off the islands of Kerguelen, Crozet and Amsterdam, also known as the Desolation Islands.
“Now is the worst moment to be in our south EEZ because we have a lot of storms,” Akhoune said. “We encountered three storms in Kerguelen and Crozet with waves around 10 to 12 metres. However, Albatros is very well adapted for this kind of rough seas.”
Having endured those conditions, Albatros entered Table Bay Harbour during the Cape’s first cold front with driving rain. “When we arrived,” Akhoune joked, “we thought we were back in Kerguelen!”
Having completed her patrol mission, Albatros stopped in Cape Town for a short stay to refuel and allow the crew a few days R&R before continuing on her way to the port of Brest in Brittany, France.
The Albatros is regarded as a very unique ship in the French Navy as she originally started life as a trawler when she was launched in December 1967 as the Névé. After 39 fishing campaigns in the banks off Newfoundland and the rough Norwegian seas, she was purchased by the French Navy in April 1983. The fishing facilities were removed in Toulon and the boat was transformed into an offshore patrol vessel with the addition of weapons, electronic equipment and other military items for use in the French Southern and Antarctic Lands (TAAF) and taken into active service in 1984.
The importance of regular patrols to protect the country’s EEZ was emphasised by Akhoune. “Albatros was there (in the southern Indian Ocean) in January and February, the frigate Floreal was there in March and April.”
Akhoune explained that there are only a few instances of illegal fishing around the islands of Kerguelen, Crozet and Amsterdam in the past year, whist there were many fishing boats outside of the EEZ.
“During the Toothfish Wars at the beginning of this century, Albatros couldn’t arrive in Kerguelen without finding a ship fishing illegally,” he continued.
It was only through the good cooperation between the Navy and civilian maritime agencies and the justice department which imposed large fines that stopped the large scale illegal fishing.
Many of the fishing vessels caught fishing illegally would be taken back to Reunion. One such case was that of the trawler Apache, which was caught by Albatros in 2004. It was later taken into French Navy service as the patrol vessel Malin, still based at Reunion. In the words of Akhoune, “the hunted became the hunter.”
L’Albatros is named after a French vessel which sank two German submarines in 1914. Despite her civilian birth, the current Albatros lived up to her forbearers repute by sinking a trawler caught fishing illegally in 1986. After an 18 hour chase and only upon receiving authorisation from the French Prime Minister, Albatros opened fire with her 40 mm cannon, having already fired several warning shots. The vessel was sunk, but all crew members were saved. This was the last vessel sunk by the French Navy outside of traditional military operations.
Leaving Reunion Island on 17 May, Albatros spent three weeks patrolling off Kerguelen and Crozet before arriving in Cape Town. She departs again on Tuesday 9 June for Saint Helena, where she will commemorate 200 years since Napoleon Bonaparte’s exile to the island.
Thereafter, Albatros will head for Dakar in Sengal and transit the Gulf of Guinea where she will be available “for anti-piracy mission or for anti-drug warfare if our Operations Control needs us.” Then it is to the warmer Canary Islands before arriving in Brest in the middle of July, having spent a total of 47 years at sea.
The Albatros will be decommissioned in August 2015, to be replaced in October 2017 by an icebreaker funded by the French National Antarctic Program and TAAF, but manned by the French Navy.