Garrison of the Patrol boat Mondego: image Marinha Portuguesa / Saj Dias
Garrison of the Patrol boat Mondego: image Marinha Portuguesa / Saj Dias

Sailors “refuse to monitor Russian vessel”

“Revolt on the Mondego” scream tabloid headlines

Correio da Manhã (CM) today leads its printed edition with the fact that “sailors refuse to monitor Russian ship … half the naval garrison could be charged with insubordination… four sergeants and nine privates disobeyed orders”.

But the reality boils down to a poorly-maintained Portuguese naval vessel, and perfectly legitimate fears that with one of the two engines ‘caput’ and one of three generators equally inoperable, something could have gone wrong while navigating the high seas ‘accompanying a ship of the Russian armada’.

These missions of accompaniment are invariably forms of ‘silent escort’. The Mondego would not have been required to do anything more than ‘follow’ the Russian ship through Portuguese waters.

According to reports, 13 members of the 54-metre patrol boat considered the mission a risk.

Explains CM, the Mondego has performed consecutive missions between Madeira and Frontex, and been on a two-hour standby for search and rescue missions for the last 500 days (16 and a half months, in other words). This has meant that routine maintenance checks have not been able to go ahead – thus the issues with engines/ generators.

The 13 sailors who now reportedly risk ‘disciplinary actions’ for erring on the side of caution have also highlighted “serious technical limitations that compromise the safety of personnel and material”. These include flooding issues, oil leaks and fire risks.

Imagine for a minute a situation in which the Mondego had set out, and something went horribly wrong – on a mission where all that was required was ‘following a vessel out of Portuguese waters’. In other words, if this was a mutiny it may well have been one of ‘good sense’ that, in a worst case scenario, could have saved the Navy from considerable expense.

CM’s story refers to military associations who say the 13 were simply complying with a duty to protect the Mondego, as well as their own lives.

They are appealing for the top brass not to respond with reprisals.

Lima Coelho of the Association of Sergeants explains: “There are forever more missions, with less means and less personnel.

“The boat needs various repairs, as well as maintenance”, Paulo Amaral of the Association of Privates echoes.

But the official response from the Navy appears to have been that the refusal is being seen as a garrison “overstepping its paygrade, competences and responsibilities”.

Even with one engine down, “the commander of the boat, Naval Command and the Superintendency of Material did not consider the boat unseaworthy”.

A source for the Navy has told CM that even with redundant systems, military boats “can operate in reduced capacities without an impact on safety”.

According to the source, garrisons are trained for these circumstances, and “inherent risks” are “part of the military condition”.

Thus a great deal will be going on ‘behind the naval doors’ this week.

Sources who have asked not to be identified have stressed that there are “continuous reductions in maintenance budgets” which has lead to a “scarcity of operational boats” and “unnecessary risks” in those on the water.

In this instance, following Mondego’s refusal to monitor ice-breaker Akademik Tryoshnikov as it sailed past Madeira travelling south on Saturday night “at a time when weather forecasts pointed to a swell of 2.5 to 3 metres”, the frigate Corte-Real was scrambled after its own mission of accompanying another Russian vessel, the Admiral Kasatonov followed by its tanker, as they headed towards the north sea.

In a similar story, Lusa news agency refers to a document drawn up by the 13 servicemen in question which points to the commander of the NRP Mondego himself “admitting, before the crew, that he did not feel comfortable to leave (on the mission) with the technical limitations” of the ship.

Lusa provides further details on those limitations which  does not have an adequate sewage system to store oily waste on board, which accumulates in the holds, significantly increasing the risk of fire”.

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