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Anatomy of a Naval Ship Boarding

SOUDA BAY, Greece (April 30, 2017) A NATO Operation, OPERATION SEA GUARDIAN (OSG), focused on maritime security ended this week with a demonstration and training exercise by Greek special forces, using techniques to conduct an opposed boarding at sea.

In this live exercise at the NATO Maritime Interdiction Operational Training Centre (NMIOTC) in Souda Bay, Greece on the island of Crete, Hellenic Navy forces and Greek Special Operations Forces simulate the boarding of a vessel with suspected arms traffickers aboard with links to terrorism. Since the team is simulating the cargo they are carrying is likely illegal and the ship’s crew is refusing inspection, the boarding team will conduct the operation and classify it as an "opposed” boarding. 

The live exercise is the culmination of a command and control exercise conducted at Allied Maritime Command (MARCOM) Headquarters in Northwood, United Kingdom. MARCOM leads Operation Sea Guardian and is responsible for the operational level conduct of OSG. The MARCOM staff will examine the simulated intelligence information and coordinate with the Task Group, Hellenic Navy and other agencies to determine if the ship needs to be boarded. As the decision is made, the staff works through the planning of operational and tactical requirements; legal aspects and rules of engagement, communications and administrative requirements to support the team on the ship.

The paragraphs below describe what happens on a typical boarding, but as with any operation, circumstances on the ship will determine the best course of action.


One of the main activities of Operation Sea Guardian is developing Maritime Situational Awareness (MSA). As part of this process, merchant ships may be hailed while transiting the Mediterranean and asked to identify themselves and what they are doing. This information is reported back to Allied Maritime Command which is the information coordination centre for Operation Sea Guardian. If the ship’s response is suspicious or unusual, the ship may be identified as a potential security concern. In some cases the ship may be visited by boarding teams under NATO operational control.

In a cooperative boarding, the ship allows the team aboard and assists with the inspection. An OSG boarding was recently conducted in the Aegean Sea, no issues were found aboard the ship and it proceeded to its destination.
A cooperative boarding includes five main steps:

1. Small boat operations. he boarding team will embark on a small boat for transit to the vessel being boarded. The team size varies, but will usually include at least 5-8 people to do various jobs, everything from driving the boat to checking the paperwork on the ship.
 2. Boarding the vessel. This step can be a bit tricky and is often the most dangerous part of the process. The small boat pulls alongside the vessel to be boarded and the team will climb a pilot’s ladder, rope ladder or some other form of entrance to the ship. Sometimes teams may need to climb 10-20 meters up the side of ship. Once the team is aboard, the team leader will ensure security is maintained before moving on.
3. Document examination. Now comes the fun part, the document checks. The boarding team will check the ship’s documents are in order. Commercial ships are required to carry multiple documents when plying the world’s oceans. Some of the documents include the Certificate of Registry (shows the nationality of the vessel and its authorized uses), the crew and passenger list, the ship’s log, the cargo manifest (an itemized list of the cargo onboard), dangerous cargo manifest (kept separate from the main manifest and lists the International Maritime Organization classification of the cargo), and the bill of health clearance among other documents.
4. Search phase. During the search phase, the security team will sweep the cargo holds and check that what is indicated on the paperwork is what is actually aboard the ship. They may also talk with the ship’s master and crew to get an idea of what is aboard the ship and what they have seen since they left port.
5. Departure and report. Once the boarding is complete the team will climb back to their small boat and return to the ship to report what was found and send the appropriate information to MARCOM for distribution to other interested Allied organizations.


An opposed boarding is rare, but sometimes a necessity. The overall process is similar, with the addition of making the vessel safe for the boarding team by securing the ship and crew and any additional measures determined to be necessary during the inspection.

Often, special operations forces will conduct the boarding or board the vessel first if the expectation is that it will be an opposed boarding.

With the added requirements of an opposed boarding, the steps advance along the following lines.

1. Interception phase. When ready to intercept the vessel to be boarded, the supporting naval vessel will move at best speed to position itself as determined beforehand to best support the boarding team. 
2. Boarding phase. There are two main ways to get a boarding team on a ship, from the air via helicopter or from the water via small boat. Depending on the type of ship being boarded and the available support for the boarding team, the team will either lower a rope from a helicopter onto the ship or approach with a small boat and climb up the side of the vessel.
3. Securing the ship. After the team is aboard, they will sweep through the ship to find all crew members and passengers and take control of the ship. When the threat on the vessel has been contained, the boarding and inspection team can be brought aboard and the inspection can begin. 
4. Turnover to boarding and inspection party. The boarding party may conduct the search and inspection while the vessel is underway, at anchor or divert the ship to a port. The team must determine if the ship is seaworthy, if there are any medical considerations with the crew, if there are any potential safety hazards aboard and if the crew is able to assist in operating the vessel. The boarding party must be able to operate the ship safely until it is turned over to other authorities. Communications must also be established with the escort naval vessel. When the boarding team is ready, they accept responsibility for the ship from the SOF team.
5. Document examination and search. From this point, examining documents and searching the ship proceeds similar to the way it would in a cooperative boarding, but the boarding party must be aware of potential hazards and may need to call in specialised teams to assist with the search such as an Explosive Ordnance Disposal team.

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