Cruising Dangers, Part One - SailNet Community
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Cruising Dangers, Part One

Traveling in tandem with another vessel is one way to ensure better security regarding theft and piracy.
Two years later, I still often find myself thinking of the sad, tragic death of Sir Peter Blake at the mouth of the Amazon River by local pirates. He was indeed a champion among men, not only for his sailing achievements, but also as a leader and motivator. In 1995 he visited the Royal Vancouver Yacht Club where our son Jamie and the other juniors were thrilled and inspired by his talk, and awed that when they went for a sail aboard the 92-foot ENZA, the catamaran in which he won the Jules Verne Trophy for the fastest circumnavigation, they clocked 12 knots on the water with just five knots of breeze.

Unlike Blake, who was carrying out an environmental exploration in the Amazon snd therefore had to stick to a somewhat strict itinerary and schedule, we cruisers usually have endless flexibility in our schedules and therefore the ability to avoid dangerous areas most of the time.

One of the true joys of cruising is the endless choice of destinations that we have available to us. On our circumnavigation, aboard Bagheera, for example, we visited 82 countries and colonies. That might sound like a large number, but we seemed so often to be making decisions about which countries and localities we would have to skip. Although we took six years to sail around the world, time was still a major factor. But there were two other important variables that we always factored into our route-planning equations: weather patterns, which are always an issue, and security, which we only rarely had to consider.

Often, the worst crimes that cruisers endure involve the theft of dinghies, which is why the author chooses to identify her vessel's tender with prominent lettering.

Security, particularly the issue of whether to carry weapons on board, will always be a controversial topic. While current world events have heightened almost everyone's anxiety about cruising overseas, one is arguably far less likely to encounter security issues ‘off the beaten track' in some remote anchorage than in areas of major urban populations, whether at home or abroad. However, every society has its ‘bad apples' and having a few contingency plans in mind for the petty thief or the aggressive pirate is wise.

Thieves and Pirates    Petty theft is a constant annoyance throughout the world, particularly in populated areas, although ironically it is often your fellow cruisers who do the stealing, with some nationalities having such bad reputations that some regional authorities will warn cruisers to watch out when these folks arrive!

We've found that the most sought-after items are outboard motors and dinghies, but any deck gear such as lines, electronics, windsurfers, and even life rafts can be vulnerable.

"It is wise to have a wire cable and a padlock to secure the dinghy to the dock or a tree when you are ashore."
So, to ensure safer cruising we follow these precautions: We remove all transportable equipment from the decks; we hoist the outboard on board (using a 5:1 block and tackle on a crane at the stern); we padlock the dinghy or hoist it out of the water at night (using a halyard and the anchor windlass). Some cruisers paint their outboards with bright colors to make them easily identifiable and more difficult for a thief to sell or use. And many cruisers have their boat name painted on the dinghy for ease of identification, although some feel that this advertises the fact that they're away from the boat when the dinghy is tied up ashore. Either way, it is wise to have a wire cable and a padlock to secure the dinghy to the dock or a tree when you are ashore.

In areas known for theft, it's wise to moor close to other boats, and make a point of getting to know the other cruisers so that you can keep watch for each other, particularly if going ashore for dinner.

In any culture, thieves are bold. We have friends whose boats were emptied when they were asleep, including items from the hanging locker which sits right beside their berth! Anchoring away from populated areas can help eliminate the risk of a break in, and securing hatches so they cannot be opened sufficiently to allow a person, even a child, below can also help. If possible rig a alarm system that will likely deter most intruders. And make it a practice to be back on board before dark.

In over 100,000 miles of cruising we have had altercations with thieves just three times. The first was in Greece when I actually watched a man take our sun-showers! I thought he was on board adjusting the lines between our boats because we were Med-moored.

One way to deter would-be thieves, says the author, is to adorn your dinghy's engine with bright colors so that it's easy to identify and difficult to fence.
The second time was in Zanzibar. We moved from the crowded harbor for the night and anchored out, but the thieves came out in their dugout canoe. Although we had carefully camouflaged our outboard in a padded sail bag, they weren't fooled. We were awaken in the middle of the calm night by a violent shudder of the boat, when they broke one of the outboard brackets. Andy immediately leapt jack-in-a-box style out of the forward hatch with a Tarzan yell. The thieves jumped into their boat, but capsized it in the process and then hurriedly swam ashore. Andy stayed on cockpit watch until dawn. When we all got up in the morning to analyze the situation, we realized that we had definitely won this time around. Not only did we gain a handcrafted canoe, which we turned into the marine police, the thieves had stolen just one bag–our trash!

The last attempt was in southern Tanzania. This time we heard intruders come alongside at night in their canoe and we easily scared them off. Our secret weapona tape recording of a couple of dobermans going beserkcan be switched on from our berth. Not many thieves would brave a boarding and confrontation with these dogs! Other cruisers have tried using alarms connected to movement detectors with some success and an Australian aquaintance swears by his electrified lifelines!

"You may wake up to find the dinghy gone, but later the fisherman who ‘found' it will return it—for a reward, of course!"

Be aware, however, that in many countries you may be in for a double-whammy if you report stolen goods. Not only are you unlikely to ever recover them and could possibly be delayed by all the formalities and paperwork, but the missing items may be deemed to have been imported and you could be charged duty on them! In other places you may wake up to find the dinghy gone, but some hours later the fisherman who ‘found' it will return it—for a reward, of course!

Piracy at sea still goes on in certain parts of the world. Places like Socotra (at the southern end of the Red Sea), the Malacca Strait (large ships are the normal targets here) and parts of the Philippines have a bad reputation. By avoiding these areas, or traveling in daylight well offshore and in company with other boats, most yachtsmen keep out of trouble and reports of problems are rare.

With our scare in the Malacca Strait, for example, we had broken the golden rule and traveled alone at night because we were trying to make a deadline–something you should avoid as a cruiser. Now we tell our guests that they may have to find accommodations and await our arrival, or catch local transportation to reach the boat.

It's not unusual to be approached by local craft in foreign waters. Most of these mariners are more curious than criminal.

For cruisers it is not unusual to be approached by native craft or even by deep sea fishing vessels whose owners are curious and who often will want to give a gift of fish or to trade for tobacco, beer, or other items. Obviously we watch these people carefully to see if there is any sign of aggression, but have always had rewarding and friendly experiences that have led to memorable visits to their communities. Nonetheless, approaches at night are never comfortable, and at these times we use our powerful searchlight, not only for our own visibility, but also to blind the would-be intruders. Once blinded, aggressors cannot ascertain how many of you there are on board, and whether or not you have weapons, so they'll be less likely to risk a boarding.

Focus on Firearms    We do not carry firearms aboard Bagheera. Although many sailors carry guns when they first start cruising, most of those with experience have given them up as more of a problem than an asset.

Upon entering most foreign countries all guns on board have to be declared and deposited ashore with the authorities until the yacht leaves the country; a license issued at home for a weapon has no validity in another country. So while you are in a country or its coastal waters, the gun is not available for your use. On departure you must retrieve your weapon from your port of arrival then depart the country. This means sailing back, often upwind, sometimes several thousand miles in countries like Indonesia or Australia. (Although occasionally guns will be permitted to be kept on board in a designated locker, the locker will be sealed so that the weapons still cannot be used legally.)

So what if you don't declare your gun and hide it away on your boat? Unfortunately officials do regular searches, particularly if the vessel is American, as a high percentage of American cruisers start out armed. It depends upon the country that you're in, but if firearms are found, the boat is usually impounded. If the owner is lucky it might mean just a large fine, but if you're unlucky you may end up in the local prison, which can be a horrific proposition, and you may stay there for weeks or months until the issue is resolved.

The implications of carrying firearms go further than that. If you carry a gun you have to be prepared to use one, to be accurate and lethal if necessary, and know the consequences of your actions. If you shoot someone you'll have to be able to prove that it took place in self-defensedefense of your life, not your property. Furthermore, it's our belief that using a gun against several armed boarders would be difficult, resulting in retaliation that would almost certainly be terminal.

"We highly recommend having a strong searchlight accessible in the cockpit to ward of intruders. These are useful for entering harbors and signalling ship captains as well."
So what other options are available to cruisers? We highly recommend having a strong searchlight accessible in the cockpit. These are also useful for entering a harbor at night and for shining in the bridge of a ship at sea to alert them of your position. Buddy-boating and sailing only during daylight are two other commonly practiced methods that have kept cruisers safe in relatively unsafe waters. And for close encounters, pepper spray or pepper foam is an ideal protector. Although illegal in some countries, we've found that bear or dog repellent that contains pepper spray is allowed. We also have a knife by the chart table and among our safety equipment is a flare gun, or Very's pistol, which can be lethal at close range, but isn't illegal to have aboard.

These latter items, however, have never been put to the test as weapons. One reason is that we always spend time finding out about the local area and current political situation before we venture anywhere. There may be a turbulent political climate or specific anchorages where the locals have always been hostile. The BBC World Service is an excellent source of world news on such issues. Local residents and officials are usually very forthcoming about regional issues. And other cruisers pass on information over the radio nets, but, as with all news, it is important to get the whole story. Without doubt the yachting press and general marine grapevine can produce an over-reaction regarding occasional crimes that probably exist to a far greater extent, but would be accepted as normal in your town back home.

Finally, don't flaunt your wealth. Flashy jewelry, evidence of cash on board, or leaving items around that tantalize thieves all invite problems. Instead, get to know the local people and appreciate their culture and exchange their gifts with things such as food, medical supplies, fish hooks, toiletry items or clothing etc. Looking back at over 30 years of offshore cruising, some of our best experiences started with locals coming to the boat with a fish, a coconut, or papaya as a welcoming gift.

Liza Copeland is offline  
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