Stephen Castle, New York Times
11 May 2015
ARDGLASS, Northern Ireland – After a day of fishing in the Irish Sea, Paul Murphy was about to head for home when his trawler, the Karen, suddenly shuddered to a halt.
A loud bang gave way to the sound of cables tensing. But when the Karen started moving again, it was being dragged backward, fast and at an angle.
“It was like the scene out of ‘Jaws’ when the boat took off – do you remember, the shark took the boat away?” said Mr. Murphy, the skipper, pointing to an electronic trace of the Karen’s unnatural, disjointed path that afternoon last month.
“But multiply it by 100,” he said. “It was just a bigger event.”
An 80-ton trawler that normally catches prawn in its nets, the Karen this time seemed to have ensnared a submarine. And, with the British Navy and NATO both denying involvement, suspicion has fallen on Russia, which since the conflict in Ukraine has been testing the response times of the alliance in the air and at sea.
The episode, which nearly capsized the Karen, was the second of its kind in a month off the coast of Britain, and comes at a tense time in relations between London and Moscow.
In recent months, Britain has scrambled fighter jets several times to escort Russian bombers around its airspace. After one incident in February, Prime Minister David Cameron said he suspected “that the Russians are trying to make some sort of a point.”
The Karen’s close call coincided with a NATO exercise off the British coast called Joint Warrior. By coincidence or design, it also happened while the British Navy was distracted by the appearance of a Russian destroyer and two support ships in the English Channel.
The growing catalog of similar incidents – off Sweden, Finland, Norway and the Baltic States – has raised questions about Moscow’s more assertive stance, and about the ability of Britain and other NATO countries to defend their skies and waters.
That uncertainty recalls an earlier age of Cold War intrigue, one that set Swedes on edge last year when a vessel suspected to be a Russian submarine was spotted off the Swedish coast. In an apparent echo, Finland’s Navy dropped depth charges last month in waters near Helsinki as a warning to a suspected submarine.
In December, the Norwegian military said one of its warplanes had a near miss with a Russian fighter, and in November the European Leadership Network, a research institute that specializes in security issues, detailed almost 40 incidents in the preceding eight months involving Russian and Western militaries, many of which were in Europe.
Dick James, chief executive of the Northern Ireland Fish Producers Organization, said that the deep stretch of the Irish Sea where the Karen nearly capsized was so popular with submariners during the Cold War that it was nicknamed “submarine alley.”
“It’s worrying that we are harking back to the old times,” he said. “I hope we are not going back to the 1980s.”
Malcolm Chalmers, research director at the Royal United Services Institute, which specializes in defense, said the chances of such incidents were growing because more Russian submarines were now deployed out of Russian territorial waters than five years ago.
“Russia has increased its defense spending and is able to fund training and deployment activities at a level which it was not able to do in the past,” Mr. Chalmers said. “The increased money is clearly a reflection of a broader strategic judgment of the Russian government and the military to turn to a more assertive foreign policy.”
At the time of the accident, the Karen was in international waters, halfway between the coast of Northern Ireland and the Isle of Man.
“One of the purposes of Russian training activities will be to assess the response of potential opponents and their own capability for gaming potential opponents,” Mr. Chalmers said. “The Russians will send aircraft and ships into our area and see what we do. That cat and mouse game is something potential adversaries do all the time.”
Britain’s Marine Accident Investigation Branch has issued only a brief statement about the incident with the Karen, saying that “a decision about whether or not to investigate will be taken in due course.”
The minister overseeing Northern Ireland’s fisheries, Michelle O’Neil, said, “I remain firmly of the belief that we need an investigation and a full report as to the circumstances
that led to the lives of local fishermen being put severely at risk.”
Dave Benham, chief of public affairs for NATO Maritime Command, said that no submarine under its purview had been in the area. The alliance does not comment on deployments made by its member states when under their own command, he said.
Mr. James of the fish producers association said that under maritime rules, any submarine from a NATO nation should have surfaced to ensure the safety of the crew of the trawler.
His concerns are shared further north, in Scotland, by Angus MacLeod, skipper of another trawler, the Aquarius, who believes that his nets were caught by a submarine in March.
“When one net starts moving ahead of the boat, it is just not natural,” said Mr. MacLeod, 46. “It was certainly a mechanical force; it was nothing natural. There were five crew, with 110 years of fishing experience between us, and none have experienced anything like this.”
That incident took place about 11 miles north of the Isle of Lewis, and Mr. MacLeod said that he did not know or “particularly care” whose submarine was involved, but that it needed investigation.
“A fisherman’s job is risky as it is without another hazard darting about the sea and putting fishermen’s lives at risk,” he said.
The Karen came closer to capsizing because when Mr. Murphy’s crew tried to release wires connecting the ensnared nets to the trawler, one cable jammed.
Being dragged by one wire, the Karen was just seconds from sinking, he said, and his crew would not have had time to grab life jackets.
“I thought the game was up,” said Mr. Murphy, 46, who noted he has been at sea for 25 years and a skipper for 20. “I’ve been on a sinking ship, but you always have time to react to something like that.”
On this occasion, it was only luck that saved him, Mr. Murphy said, as the jammed cable finally broke under the strain.
“Whatever happened – whoever was looking after me above – the wire broke just like that,” he said. In a sudden, surreal moment, everything went quiet, he added, and the Karen was left “like a twig, floating in the ocean.”