While focusing on the dream of sailing away to exotic ports and having the most fun imaginable, many mariners overlook the concerns of crime at sea. Here we explore several security strategies and tactics that prudent sailors would do best to consider.
Before casting off, mariners need to be aware of hot spot areas and anchorages in the world in order to avoid them. For occurrences related to sailing yachts, a great place to start is Noonsite. This website offers detailed reports of worldwide maritime security concerns. If cruising the Caribbean, a colorful database of maps, statistics and detailed criminal acts is available at safetyandsecuritynet.org. The majority of reports from these sites involve non-confrontational robberies from the deck, theft of the dinghy or theft of cabin items while the yacht’s owners have gone ashore, but some of them detail more disturbing events.
Prevention and deterrents
Don’t look like a target. Some mariners intentionally keep hulls filthy enough to make them appear less flashy — or at least that’s an interesting excuse for not cleaning. Always hoist the dinghy out of the water on davits, up alongside or onto the deck, or lock it astern every night with a cable lock through the outboard transom fasteners. Keep a light or two on down below with shades closed when going ashore in the evening. Never reveal to water taxi drivers or strangers that the vessel is unoccupied. In fact, it’s good to somehow suggest somebody is still aboard. While anchored overnight, think about leaving a deck light shining down from the mast. Try to anchor where other cruisers are also anchored and set up a rotating anchor watch with them if necessary. If alone aboard a vessel and concerned you are being watched, you can make it appear more people are aboard by popping partially out of the companionway at random intervals after changing hats and jackets.
When criminals get too close, one noteworthy approach to prevent them from boarding your vessel is to electrify your lifelines, stanchions and pulpit structures. When set up properly, any unsuspecting soul who tries to board your vessel is blasted with enough voltage to stop a bull. These systems don’t use that much battery power when not shocking somebody either, which is a plus for you energy conservationists out there. Depending where you are, however, electrified perimeters might be illegal.
Radar is a highly effective component of vessel electronics, as it may alert mariners early on to vessels attempting to intercept them. You’ll need to know how to use the electronic bearing line (EBL) and variable range marker (VRM) features of the radar. These two simple features work in tandem to pinpoint the relative position of another vessel by establishing a line marking its bearing and a circle marking its range. This is how it works: So long as the vessel you are aboard maintains the same course and speed, whenever the echo of the suspect vessel moves down that line toward the center of the circle, they are on an intercepting course with you.
When attempting to track other vessels, many use other radar components, such as MARPA radar tracking and AIS, but MARPA radar tracking is largely inaccurate (just try targeting an oil platform or fixed object for a few moments to see how quickly MARPA thinks it is moving) and AIS tracking (although amazing) is limited, as it only tracks larger ships and those who subscribe — and pirates usually do not subscribe. Nevertheless, identifying the names of nearby vessels that can be hailed makes AIS invaluable in emergency situations.
A sub-caliber insert enables a flare pistol to fire pistol rounds.
If worried that you are being followed, binoculars or night vision might help to determine the intent of another vessel. They might be engaged in commercial fishing, for instance, and only trying to “herd” you away from their valuable fishing gear. They could be a country’s military or border protection services. Maybe they are changing course erratically because they don’t fully understand the rules for avoiding a collision. On the other hand, maybe they really do have sinister intentions. It might make sense to try summoning other vessels over the radio whenever questionable.
Some mariners keep stashes of emergency cash aboard, totaling around $1000 or so, as a kind of life insurance policy. The concept is to let the criminals have the money. Let them have the laptop. Let them have the cameras, the watches and the cellphones. Nothing aboard is more valuable than your life or that of your passengers and your crew.
Radios, radio beacons, cellular phones and satellite phones provide crucial means of raising the attention of fellow mariners or those who might help from ashore. If concerned you are being followed, it might be a good idea to limit communication to the SSB radio because pirates can scan VHF frequencies, follow any conversations and can use a radio direction finder to hone in on your location. Carefully consider sharing route or location information over the VHF. The U.S. Coast Guard usually monitors a number of SSB radio channels and may be able to provide assistance if contacted. In addition, various SSB radio channels provide safety and security broadcasts and updates at standard times throughout the day and night depending on the area, with broadcast times published online.
If you think you are about to be boarded, setting off a GPIRB will provide live updates on your position and send out a global distress call. If seagoing law enforcement is close enough, they will likely arrive with guns drawn at everybody, so put your hands up and don’t startle them. Whenever a GPIRB is set off, authorities are expected to establish contact with the registered owner. This makes it vital to ensure your registration is up to date.
Carrying a gun aboard a vessel is problematic for many reasons. Outside of the United States, most countries require checking firearms at each port of entry. Aside from the extra hassle, this means you would not have your weapon when you would most likely need it. Getting caught attempting to hide the gun aboard where guns are illegal would result in enormous fines, government seizure of the vessel and possible imprisonment. Some crew and family members are not comfortable around guns and perceive them as statistically hazardous, particularly around children. Among other concerns, drawing a firearm might escalate a situation rather than mitigate the perceived threat.
Using your radar’s variable range marker and electronic bearing line will allow you to determine if a vessel is on a course to intercept your boat.
Military-grade metal flare guns can be purchased online that fire a greater variety of longer-burning and brighter flares than the common orange plastic guns. Sub-caliber insert sleeves can also be purchased that slide into the barrel of a metal flare gun and make it capable of firing various live ammunition round sizes. But be careful here: A flare gun equipped with a sub-caliber device legally becomes a firearm and carries all the same legal repercussions as one. Instead of shooting somebody with a firearm or modified flare gun, launching a super bright flare into the dark night may work as a good enough deterrent.
Installation of infrared alarms or motion detectors can help by automatically turning on lights, sirens or both if somebody actually starts to climb aboard your vessel. These devices will also alert the crew to jump into action with any additional tactics. Adding a small security camera with a monitor below deck complements these systems. Hand-held air horns and spotlights can also work wonders.
Fighting back without bullets
World-famous solo circumnavigator Josh Slocum once described scattering a handful of thumbtacks on the deck to effectively ward off shoeless “savages” who climbed aboard his vessel Spray in the night. On the more aggressive side, some mariners carry a Hawaiian sling pole spear (unlike spear guns, these are usually not required to be checked in) dive knives, bear defense or wasp sprays, and stun guns. Physically fighting back, however, might not prove the best tactic against heavily armed pirates who are most likely only after your belongings. It’s a judgment call, especially in waters where non-confrontational theft is common but violent crime is not. Maritime crime can and does occur anywhere at sea, however, and even in the most upscale home ports. A little preparation now may one day ensure your continued enjoyment of good times on the water.
Mike Kohl holds a 100-ton USCG license and is a four-time recipient of ASA’s Outstanding Instructor of the Year. He’s sailed the U.S. East and West Coasts, Central America, the Caribbean and trans-Atlantic. He teaches sailing at Newport Beach Sailing School and works as a charter captain at Newport Beach Sailing Charters.