I have just returned from Trinidad where Billy Ruff'n is laid up for the summer hurricane season. A hot topic of conversation among cruisers from the southern Windwards to Trinidad is the threat of priacy in the waters north of Trinidad. A couple of attacks in the last six months have attracted a lot of attention and rightly so, as the last one resulted in the death of a skipper and his wife spending over a week in the life raft.
Last December a yacht was stopped, boarded and robbed by well armed men in a priogue. You can read about this attack at http://www.noonsite.com/Members/sue/R2010-01-08-6
In April a German couple cruising a mile off the Venezeulan coast was boarded and robbed and the husband (skipper) shot dead by the pirates. Although the exact location of the attack has not been specified, it's in the same general area (within a hundred miles or so). Info on this attack is found at Sail-World.com : Upgraded pirate warning for Paria Peninsula Venezuela
There have also been several attempted boardings in this area that were not successful because the boats refused to stop and / or help was quickly summoned.
Given the above, one can reasonably ask the question -- why do people go there? In the case of the German couple attacked a mile off the Venezeulan coast its a very legitimate question, but with respect to the boarding/attempted boardings of yachts transiting from Grenada - Trinidad it's a question of how individual skippers assess the risks, their risk tolerance and their ability to mitigate the risks involved.
Having just made this run through "pirate alley" I though it might be helpful to those considering sailing in this area to share some news, local gossip/rumour and personal observations.
Situation Assessment: All the recent attacks / attempted boardings have occured during daylight hours. The coast guards of Trinidad and Genada warn boaters that this is an area frequented by drug runners operating out of the Paria Penensula running drugs originating in Columbia, but routed through Venezeula, to Grenada and Trinidad where they are transhipped to the US and Europe. My guess is that some of these attacks are made by drug runners against "targets of opportunity" then encounter on their homeward run. They leave Venezeula at sunset in their pirogues (open boats powered by multiple outboards often totalling more than 500 HP), make their runs with drugs aboard in the dead of night and return the next day during daylight hours attempting to look like "innocent fishermen". My supposition is that if they encounter a yacht, there's no one esle around and it looks like an easy target they attempt a boarding. No doubt some of the attacks are not done by drug runners, but seagoing thugs that find they can make more money stealing from yachts than from fishing. I have no evidence to support my hypothesis that the attacks are mounted by off-duty drug runners, but one has to wonder how a fisherman from Venezeula can afford 750 HP hanging from his transom and why he goes fishing with an crew of five or six guys armed with pistols and AK 47s?
Risk Assessment: The risks are real, but the odds of being attacked are low. Every spring hundreds of yachts make the passage from Grenada to Trinidad and back again to the Windward Islands the next winter. A handful of these encounter bad guys and a fraction of those (two in the last few months) have been boarded, robbed or otherwise harmed.
Everyone makes their own judgements about the level of risk they can tolerate and quite a few people we met are not going as far south as Trinidad to avoid hurricanes because of the security situation. While business is off throughout the Caribbean due to the global economic situation, my guess is that boat yards in Grenada are benefiting from the actions of Venezeulan pirates.
Risk Mitigation: Two aspects to this -- one, governmental and the other personal.
Governements of Trinidad and Grenada appear to be taking the situation seriously. No doubt they are more concerned about the drug running than the attacks of a few yachts, but the contribution to the economies of these islands from the cruising community is significant and prevention of piracy does seem to be high on the agendas of their respective coast guards. In fact, the Trinidad coast guard has recently acquired a new fleet of high speed small craft and two larger patrol vessels with helo cababilities. I was told after our arrival in Trinidad in early May that approximately 80% of the manpower of the Trini CG was abroad for training in the operation and deployment of these new vessels. No doubt, pirates will have a tougher time of things next year when the new fleet is operational.
Communications have also improved in this area. The Grenada and Trini CGs have opened direct comm links between the two that are used to pass yacht float plans filed with either of them to the others. North Coast Radio in Trinidad has VHF coverage that reaches to the waters just south of Grenada and they monitor VHF frequencies 24/7 and will pass messages to the Trinidad or Grenada CG.
Everyone we talked to mentioned the importance of using DSC calling in a distress situation. The fact that it literally sets off alarm bells in every radio room within VHF / SSB range hleps a lot. I have never make a DSC all on either radio, but I read up on it before the passage and instructed the crew in how to "push and hold" the DISTRESS button on the Icom 502 and 802.
Personal risk mitigation is also important. Grenada to Trinidad is an 85-90 mile passage, a good distance for an overnight passage. Therefore, most (smart) sailors make the passage at night. Some run with lights, some don't -- a personal choice, but I should note that I had a 3/4 mile CPA with a super tanker on our passage and I was happy that my lights were burning brightly for him to see me. Lots of boats are making the run to Trinidad in company with others. We transited with another boat -- we tried to stay within 1/2 mile of each other through the night, we kept an hourly radio schedule communicating initially on VHF and then switching to pre-arranged ham or SSB frequencies for our chat. We also used three pre-arranged waypoints to report our position to each other vs lat and long. Our presumption was that pirates have VHF capability, but they probably don't have HF radios.
As mentioned above, some boats now file float plans with the CG in the country they're leaving which are relayed to the other country. I heard that one yacht that filed a float plan in Grenada had a VHF call from the Trini CG in the middle of the night who where just wondering if everything was OK.
Probably the most important part of personal risk management is to think through what you're going to do if you do encounter a pirate. Are you going to stop or keep going? What if shots are fired? Do you stop with a shot across your bow or into your sails or do you wait until rounds hit the hull? Do you fight back -- if so, how. (One attack was prevented recently when the yacht crew started firing flares at the pirogue. Flare guns vs AK 47s is not an even fight, but it seems that it takes a lot of gas to power 750 HP in outboards and most of the pirogues carry lots of jerry cans full of gasoline, and therefore don't think much of the prospect of a flare landing inside their hull.)
Our strategy was that we weren't going to stop until rounds started penetrating the hull. I had set up the steering system so I could quickly remove the wheel from the cockpit and take it below. We were going to then "go turtle" locking ourselves below decks while driving the boat with the autopilot from below. I have devised ways of securing the hatch from below that make it very diffucult to open from the cockpit. Our strategy presumed that the pirates don't want to hang around longer than necessary, especially if they think you've radioed for help. Our plan was keep sailing the boat as fast as we could, seek safety below decks and get the word out of the attack. We'd then try to keep the clock ticking as long as possible hoping that the pirates will begin worring that help is on the way. Having another boat in company aids in this process in that one pirogue can't attack two boats at once.
One final note: some boats don't fly their ensigns when making the passage. We did -- on the presumption that the reputation America has for being a nation of gun owners helps in this situation. The odds that an American flagged vessel is armed are a lot higher than if the yacht carries a European flag. A small advantage, perhaps -- but it might make a bad guy think twice, especially if you don't roll over and stop at the first sign of trouble.
Our passage was almost without incident, but we did have one scare. About 1/2 way between Grenada and Trinidad at about 0100 hrs, our companion boat had an unlit priogue pass within a hundred yards at high speed on a recriprocal course. Innocent fisherman on his way to the morning market in Grenada? Drug runner? Priate? We'll never know -- he didn't stop and neither did we.
The other highlight of the passage was being boarded by the Trinidad CG when we entered Chagauramas harbor. They pulled us over, got the two boats rafted together and they boarded both. A big guy in tactical gear with a mean looking automatic weapon slung across his chest wanted to know if I had any weapons. I said, like what? He said, "knives". I said, "sure, I've got quite a few aboard in the galley". He didn't think that was funny. After a cursory search of the boats they were on their way. Courteous and professional they were, but I'd much rather have seen them several hours earlier and a few dozen miles further to the north.
I'll close with a bit of gossip. I was talking to one of the local business guys about how the piracy thing was hurting the country's image with the yachting community, was causing people to stay away, costing jobs, etc, and that the government should really take it seriously. He told me they were and about the GC's newly acquired assets. I said that unfortunately what would probably do the most good would be for the Trini CG to blow one of these overpowered pirogues out of the water, then the pirates would really get the message. He smiled and said a rumour was circulating that that's exactly what had happened several months ago. The way he had heard it, the Trini CG stopped a pirogue with 7 Venezeulans aboard, 750 HP hanging on the transom, lots of gas cans around, a few weapons aboard and no fishing gear. Asked what they were doing, they apparently didn't have a good answer. Apparently, the CG vessel returned to port. The Venezeulan vessel was never seen again. I'd say it's not a bad way to deal with a bad problem.