Contrary to these exaggerated misconceptions, the Philippines and Indonesia, with their friendly people, easy trade-wind sailing, and thousands of closely spaced and seldom visited islands, are by far the most attractive cruising grounds I came across in two voyages around the world. Typhoons in the Philippines can be avoided by moving south during the height of typhoon season. True piracy is actually rare here, limited to a few well-known areas. It seems that the region's sinister reputation, coupled with its remote location in the far western Pacific, has kept these exotic islands unspoiled by oversized charter fleets and hordes of tourists for some time.
Although we did encounter some trouble when passing through a notorious pirate's den around southwestern Mindanao, the rewards of cruising these islands vastly outweighed the risks. We also learned some things that may be useful to those cruisers who follow us. For mutual security we sailed through this area together with our friend Theo, who was single-handing his 28-foot sloop Islander.
We began with a few short hops along the northern coast of Mindanao, followed by an overnight sail to Zamboanga City to take on provisions and clear out of the country with the authorities. Across the channel lay the forbidding outline of Basilan Island, a longtime stronghold for Muslim separatists. At that time, in their latest outrage, Islamic terrorists had not long before thrown a grenade into a crowded ferryboat in Zamboanga because it also carried a few Christian missionaries. We were aware of the dangers, but needed to pass through this area to reach the Moluccas on our way toward Bali Island.
Islander and Atom left Zamboanga City early one morning, sailing close together past an interesting village built on stilts over the waters of Rio Honda. Here the winds fell light and we got careless. Expecting better winds farther offshore, I tacked toward the center of the channel without noticing that Theo was still hugging the coast. Soon Islander was a spot on the horizon and we were struggling against a current that had set us within two miles of Basilan Island. I scanned the shoreline with binoculars and watched apprehensively as a group of men launched a motorized outrigger canoe, called a banca, and headed straight for us at high speed. Suspicious of their intentions, I asked my girlfriend to stay out of sight below while I locked the companionway hatch with our custom-made hatch bars. Then, I placed a loaded flare pistol in the cockpit clearly in view and hung a large diving knife on my belt.
"The man on the bow began climbing over our stern rail shouting "money, money!"
Although I would not suggest fighting over your possessions against armed attackers, you do need to have a plan and keep a cool head. Your best chance is to show them you are not a worthwhile or easy target and to stick close to your buddy boat. Obviously, if your buddy boat is more than a couple miles away you might as well be alone. Unfortunately, since Theo was single-handed and not able to keep a continuous watch, we were not always able to sail as close as we should have.
By day, a yacht is a highly visible target. In these waters I felt safest sailing at night and we were never approached or threatened during our many night passages. Pirates do not normally attack at night, especially if they cannot identify your boat as a yacht. That's why when underway we showed only a deck-level white anchor light such as the small fishing boats use themselves. Theo had a couple similar encounters and he believed taking photos of approaching boats, which could later be used to identify them, proved another deterrent to attack.
Aboard Atom I use solid hatch boards, which include one piece of clear acrylic for visibility, when needed at sea. To protect myself from intruders in port, I slip a stainless steel rod grating into the tracks in place of the hatch boards and secure it with a padlock or a barrel bolt that can only be reached from inside. The bars are made of 3/8-inch rod, bent and welded into shape by a stainless steel fabrication shop in Hong Kong. Any metal shop can easily make this if you provide them with the specific dimensions for your hatch.
The bars are constructed in two pieces connected by two small rings so they can fold to permit insertion or removal when the dodger is over the hatch. Folding also makes them easier to store when they’re not in use. A similar one-piece grating locks into the inside of the forward hatch frame. Because it’s mounted inside the frame, it can be used with the forward hatch fully open or cracked slightly open. Air can then move freely, while security is maintained. When it looks like rain, I rig a small awning over the front hatch.
The aforementioned system took care of human intruders, but to keep out insects, I epoxy-glued a strip of Velcro around the entire inside perimeter of the hatches, then cut out a nylon screen to match, and sewed the opposite strip of Velcro onto it. Besides keeping mosquitoes out while you sleep, the screens can keep bees or other nesting insects from building a nest inside your boat while its in storage.
Using hatch bars allows you to easily lock yourself in at night without suffocating from heat, secure in the knowledge that an intruder cannot come below as you sleep. Does this make me seem paranoid? Perhaps, but I suspect that most of us wouldn’t leave the front door to our home wide open all night—so why take a similar risk when you’re out cruising?
Cruising Dangers, Part One—Security on Board by Liza Copeland
The Perils of Piracy by Mark Matthews
Fears of Piracy by Tania Aebi
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