How one ship keeps operations going at a secretive US Navy base in the middle of the Indian Ocean

Diego Garcia

Reuters

Diego Garcia, the largest island in the Chagos archipelago and site of a major US military base in the Indian Ocean leased from Britain in 1966.

  • The remote Navy base at Diego Garcia provides logistical support to forward-deployed forces in the Indian Ocean and Middle East.
  • But personnel based at Diego Garcia also need to be supported - that's where the once-a-month visits by the merchant ship SLNC Corsica come in.
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DIEGO GARCIA - The hot, humid air gusts over the pier and through the red, rusty cranes sitting atop a blue cargo ship, which casts long shadows on the workers down below. Crusty leather gloves pull on ropes attached to heavy metal cargo containers.

The blue-shirted contractors use the ropes to guide their heavy burden from the pier to the ship. Then, a crane operator carefully lifts the container up in the air. When the contractors get the container above the Merchant Vessel (M/V) SLNC Corsica, the merchant mariners assigned to the ship help guide the containers into place.Advertisement

With all of the vessels that come and go from Diego Garcia, Corsica is the most important because she provides the primary logistical support to the people and commands working on the island.

Corsica's job is similar to US Navy Support Facility (NSF) Diego Garcia's, which is to provide logistical support to forward deployed forces. The US armed forces work alongside the UK British forces on the island to continue the Navy's mission of supporting maritime trade around the world.

Navy merchant Diego Garcia

US Navy/Seaman Apprentice Michael Porterfield

Merchant Vessel (M/V) SLNC Corsica, a cargo container ship, in the lagoon at US Navy Support Facility Diego Garcia, January 29, 2020.

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NSF Diego Garcia sits on an atoll in the British Indian Ocean Territory. The island contains 12 square miles of land in a footprint shape. It's also a part of one of the largest marine environmental reserves in the world known as the Chagos Marine Reserve in the middle of the Indian Ocean.

The remote location makes supplying the island a logistical challenge. Fortunately, the Corsica, owned by Schuyler Line Navigation Company (SLNC) LLC, supplies the island with the materials the service members and contractors need to complete their mission.Merchant vessels bring everything from spare tires, and fresh produce, to full aircraft. Once a year, the ship also removes all hazardous materials from the island.Advertisement

"Our main job is to supply the base of just about every need," said Capt. Hedi B. Marzougui, Corsica's ship master.

Marzougui has been the commanding officer of Corsica for about two years. He's made the trip from Diego Garcia to Singapore and back a dozen times.

He's in charge of a big ship. It was built in 2001 and has a gross weight of 5,548 tons. It arrives in Diego Garcia once a month, and brings the majority of supplies needed to run the island.Advertisement

Navy cargo Diego Garcia

US Navy/Seaman Apprentice Michael Porterfield

KBR INC. contractors guide a cargo container clamp onto a cargo container at US Navy Support Facility Diego Garcia, January 29, 2020.

Once arriving on the island, the ship goes through processing. The British forces provide customs and sign in the sailors. Afterwards, US sailors provide security to unload cargo and bring it to its designated location. After initial processing is finished, Corsica's crew spends the next week making repairs, if needed, and preparing the ship for its journey back to Singapore.

"While on the ship, we work on general maintenance on equipment as well as other things that pop up," said Nick Turano, a boatswain's mate assigned to the Corsica. "While in port we do mooring operations, dropping anchor, and whatever is needed."Advertisement

Turano has been a member of the crew for two years, but other members have been working for the company for almost 40 years.

"The whole reason I went deck department is because I like working outside," said Turano. "I like this style of ship because we have cranes on board. There's always something going on whether we are doing cargo operations or maintenance. We always have something to do."

Diego Garcia

REUTERS/U.S. Department of Defense/Senior Airman Rebeca M. Luquin/Handout JD

A US B-2 Spirit stealth bomber stops for refueling at the US military base on Diego Garcia after an airstrike in Afghanistan, October 8, 2001.

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The ship's crew stays on the ship for up to six months at a time before switching with another crew. Each sailor usually has six months off of work before returning to the Corsica.

Without the dedication of the sailors aboard Corsica, Diego Garcia would not have the supplies to run a forward operating logistics base.With the sun beginning to dip, the blue-shirted contractors finish guiding the cargo containers onto the ship. The ship sways in the clear blue water as fish and other animals dart in its wake. The next morning, the ship pulls anchor and sails away to Singapore, planning on returning the next month with the supplies US and British forces need to run the island.Advertisement

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