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Ship Security & Modern Day Piracy
Capt. Gregory T.
A boatís onboard security issues can be divided into three general areas:
Since this is an online article Iíve embedded links to other related articles and topics in case you want to digress and explore something in more detail. Of course you must be online when viewing the article to use these links. Iíd suggest printing out this article, then going back online if you want to use some of the links later.
Having cruised from the Great Lakes, Inland Rivers, East Coast of the U.S., to Cuba and the Bahamas with my family Iíve thought about security a lot. Iíve heard the extreme views on each side. Some just shirk off the idea of modern day pirates and take the position that you wonít have a problem unless you go looking for it (like drug dealing and the like). I also have a friend in the D.E.A. that thinks itís crazy to go cruising alone in any remote area because of the personal risks. What to do? Ignore our oath to help others in distress, or offer all the assistance that we can and expose ourselves to some risk.
Monitoring of your shipís systems is the easiest security issue to address because it involves no emotional or human factors, unlike dealing with thugs, thieves and pirates. An onboard alarm system provides a tremendous amount of psychological comfort and Iíd highly recommend it for anyoneís boat. In its simplest form this is just a high water bilge alarm to alert anyone around the docks that your boat is taking on water and that something should be done quickly. The circuit is pretty basic. Place a float switch at a level somewhat higher than the switch for your bilge pump and wire one side to ground. Lead the other wire to a 12v bell or horn somewhere, which is in turn connected to a fused +12v source. Now anytime the water gets high the horn will go off and alert anyone within earshot of the problem. EVERY boat should have one of these Ė even open fishing boats if you donít take it out of the water after each use.
More sophisticated alarm systems are very useful for boats with cabins or larger cruisers. Ours is a NAPCO computerized home security alarm. The bulkhead mounted keypad is located just inside the salon and is activated and deactivated by entering a secure code. This provides for monitoring of multiple entryways (both into the boat and internally inside the boat). It monitors the high bilge water alarm 24 hrs a day whether the rest of the alarm is activated or not. When the alarm is triggered for any reason a siren goes off on deck and the halogen docking lights start flashing. Itís wired to its own dedicated shipboard cellular system (costs me $20/month for minimal service, which an alarm monitoring agency would charge anyway) and calls me on my cell phone anywhere in the U.S. when the alarm is activated. That makes me feel MUCH better when I leave the boat unattended, and if it did start taking on water Iíd be notified soon enough to have something done about it before it sank. You can buy very sophisticated boat alarms and monitoring systems, but most of these start at about $800 and up. I bought the home system for less than $200 (I did all the installation and programming myself) and it does all of what I want it to do Ė multiple entryway alarms, infrared detector in the cabin, 24 hr a day bilge alarm, low battery voltage alarm (silent) and you can wire smoke and fire detectors into it. Sometimes when the boat is at the home dock I forget to turn on shore power and leave the inverter on with the refrigerator and freezer running. A couple of times Iíve gotten a phone call late at night from the boat about it. The lights and siren donít go off for this low battery condition, but the phone notification works. I just walk outside and turn on the shore power. Itís great to have a boat that will call you when it needs help!
Some of the more sophisticated dedicated boat alarms will allow you to monitor your bilge alarm, internal temperatures, smoke and fire, voltage levels and more. Check out the websites of these companies for marine alarm systems:
The alarm system will also help with the ďthugs / thievesĒ aspect of boat security. There are subtleties built into our system that I wonít go into here that makes it difficult if not impossible to defeat the system even if you are aware of it. Last month while I was traveling to Ohio I got an alarm phone call just after midnight from the boat in Marathon. I called my son in Marathon to go over and check it. It turns out that someone had been on the boat and activated the internal alarms (nothing was stolen or hurt). The lights and siren scared them away and I got someone there within 10 minutes to check on it and reset it. I think it was kids.
When weíre outside of cellular service and out of sight of the boat, but within a few miles of it (dinghy rides or local shore leave) we can switch it over to radio notification. With a small two way radio I carry, the boat can still call me if there is a problem.
We set this alarm system when staying on the boat at either anchor or at the dock. This was especially useful when the kids were small, but still helps us with the seven year old. We certainly donít want a child going up on deck in the middle of the night while weíre asleep. With the alarm set we not only know if someone would try to enter the boat, but also know if one of the kids starts to go out. One of my kids used to sleepwalk and this was particularly worrisome on the boat. If theyíd fall overboard in the middle of the night and we didnít hear them, weíd probably find no trace of them come the morning. An annunciator function on the alarm also helps us during the day with the kids. With the push of one button we can set it so that a very audible chime sounds each time the companionway door to the deck opens. This is really helpful with the smaller children. At night we turn off this function and just activate the alarm.
Though we donít get carried away with fancy systems, there really are plenty of other things you can wire your boat for (or home) that helps with security. SmartHomes sells automated security and monitoring devices for homes that will also work with boats. Much of this is the X10 system that works through your 110v onboard wiring. This includes remote video monitoring of your boat. Iím considering this. Iím already installing some of the cheap ($50-60) cameras on deck and in the engine room. Primarily I can use these while underway with my electronic charting program to take a look around the boat without leaving the helm. I surely would check the engine room more often while Iím underway with this, but it also opens up the possibility for remote monitoring. Cell phone data connections are slow but theyíll work to relay video pictures to you at some remote location upon demand. You donít even need a dedicated onboard computer to do this, but you can incorporate one if you want. If my boat calls me while Iím away I sure would like to be able hook up my laptop right away and take a look around the boat to see whatís going on, or who is on it. You can also capture these video frames to memory and store them. With some automated systems you can set the system to capture images automatically when motion sensors are triggered, then email the image to you and notify you by phone or email. If youíre onboard asleep in your cabin at night you can view whatís happening on deck without leaving your cabin. Even with our current NAPCO home alarm system there is a program available so you can use your laptop to remotely interrogate the system and decide what actually triggered the alarm. You can use these remote systems to turn on and off your boat air conditioning or open or close the salon curtains. You could even configure it with some type of dock mounted ďdoorbellĒ device so that when someone on the dock rings your bell it calls you remotely, shows you their picture at your remote location and lets you start talking to them on the speaker like youíre right there on your boat! Fancy, huh!? OK, this is at the extreme end of alarms and onboard security but Iíll mention it because itís easily do-able.
One basic security device that is a useful deterrent on deck, prior to anyone activating the full alarm system, is simply an outdoor motion detector floodlamp. Even at anchor, with an inverter, we can plug in this floodlamp at the helm and point it at the aft deck. If anyone comes on board two 150 watt lamps illuminate the deck for however long we have it set. The sensitivity is set so that only something on deck will trigger it. Ours is mounted on a small portable stand so we can move it around to where we want but easily store it. You can do this whenever you leave the boat unattended at the dock or at anchor. I wish I had used it one night when we stayed at the Pensacola Yacht Club. Youíd think that would be a secure place. After we went to bed we heard Yacht Club members or guests on the docks outside our aft cabin talking about our boat. We just kind of passed it off but heard other strange noises as we dozed in and out of sleep. When we got up in the morning we discovered that they had used our aft deck as their party platform during the night and left their drinks and cigarette butts all over. They didnít hurt anything but it really irks us to have our privacy invaded like that Ė especially at the Yacht Club docks. The automatic floodlamps would have taken care of that. Now that Iím writing this Iím thinking about mounting the sensor permanently in the overhead console, and then just put a switch at the helm so I can arm it easily at will without getting out the apparatus each time. If itís convenient Iíd use it all the time.
There are other things you can do at anchor to provide deck security at night. This applies mostly to those of us who cruise in remote places, or anchored in ports where petty crimes and theft may be a problem. I must say that the most effective alarm system in this regard is a good dog. We have two of them (well, one of them is good anyway) that cruise with us. Barking can be a nuisance when itís unwanted, but sure helps with alerting you to nearby strangers. I have another device that Iíve occasionally used that is easy and cheap to build. I can guard the deck with it or even alarm the dingy while itís still floating in the water. The alarm is just a basic little buzzer (like piezo buzzers from Radio Shack) using either a built in battery or hooked to your shipís 12v system. The switch is just a small clamp (like a clothespin) that has both the leads wired to each side of the clamp (using aluminum foil around the ends works well). A small piece of thin cardboard or plastic is placed between the jaws of the clamp so that two leads are isolated. A long piece of monofilament fishing line is tied through a small hole in the end of this thin separating piece. The idea is that when the piece is pulled from between the jaws of the small clamp that the leads will make contact and sound the buzzer alarm. This is enough to awaken you if on board. To use it at night on the deck just thread the fishing line around the stanchions just above deck level. It will be almost impossible to see at night and anyone coming aboard is likely to snag on it and pull it. You can do the same thing with your dinghy. Tie the dinghy up by its painter, but run the separate fishing line to some obscure attachment low on the dinghy and allow a lot of slack so it goes in the water. Anyone taking your dingy wonít see the fishing line and the alarm will be activated as they try to move away with it. I havenít tried it yet but you could even do this as a towing alarm when underway. If you let out just enough slack on the fishing line so that itís not tight while towing you can keep the alarm activated. Then if the tow line parts while youíre not looking behind you it will pull the fishing line and activate the alarm. Itís then time to slow down and go back and retrieve your errant dinghy before you lose it.
If you read some of the tricks of old time sailors youíll find some ingenious methods of providing security at anchor. One of these involves littering the decks with literally hundreds of small tacks, or treble fish hooks on line. The idea is that in remote areas where the primary concern is from villagers ashore, that theyíll probably be barefoot if they board your boat in the night. Once they step on all those sharp objects their own screams will serve as your alarm system! The tacks can be retrieved in the morning by sweeping the deck with a large magnet, or the treble fishhooks can all be strung together on a long monofilament line that can be picked up. Iíve never used these but it sounds like it would be effective in some areas.
Old time sailors also had jury-rigged alarms for anchor dragging. Theyíd drop a weight on the bottom beside their anchor and lead the attached line back into the forepeak (v-berth) with enough slack in it that it would not pull unless the anchor dragged. Then theyíd hook up a Rube-Goldberg contraption of pots and pans so that if the anchor dragged, the weight would stay put and finally pull on the line, sending the pots and pans clanging onto the sole of the boat and awakening the captain. Great idea!
The question of personal protection from thugs, thieves and pirates always brings up the question of firearms on board. I canít give you any definitive answers to that here because it is such a personal choice and fraught with such grave consequences on either end. If you have guns at home and are comfortable and proficient with them for self defense, then youíll probably have them on your cruising boat. If you donít have guns at home then donít bring them aboard your boat either. I keep them onboard most of the time, but not all the time. Because I have kids around I also do not keep a loaded weapon, and I keep the ammunition separate from the weapon. On the rifles I additionally keep the bolt separate from both the weapon AND the ammunition. Itís a good thing too Ė one time I came home and found that my young nephew had discovered a rifle hidden away in the closet and was playing with it. He had ALSO found the ammunition in a separate location! He just hadnít found the bolt yet because it was hidden in a high up location. That could have been a disaster and I recognize this. Some people point out that a gun isnít much good if you donít keep it handy and loaded. I see the point but I consider that way too risky for me whenever kids might be around. Itís even risky if the person using the gun doesnít have the self control and judgment to refrain from its use if itís not at a known target. Iíd hate to think that if I came in one night very late and unannounced for some reason that my wife would panic and shoot me because it was so close at hand and loaded. I also think itís a major mistake for anyone to have a gun for self defense if they are psychologically unwilling to kill another person with it, and have not logically thought out the circumstances where they consider this a last ditch effort at protecting the lives (not just property if lives are not at risk) of themselves and their family. If you point a gun at someone you better be prepared to use it if you must, because if they have a weapon they are surely going to try to use it on you after you do that. If you didnít have a weapon to begin with then you may not have provoked the intruderís use of lethal force either. You might have been violated but you and your family might be alive. I have had weapons at my side when Iíve investigated some activity around the boat, or confronted individuals, but I did not show the weapon at all because it wasnít absolutely necessary. These situations turned out OK because the use of such force was not warranted and I didnít provoke anything. If Iíd shown a weapon things might have been different. If you bring a weapon out be ready to use it, but only if there is no other choice. This is what concerns me with young people handling weapons Ė including marine patrols and coast guard. Age does bring some judgment. In one situation I was confronted by an individual that was threatening my life and would not back off. I had a flare gun that I pulled as he continued to get in my face and threaten me, including saying his friends would break every bone in my body. It was at night and he was bigger than me. At one point I had the flare gun barrel in his mouth with the hammer cocked and my finger on the trigger while I warned him of the consequences if he didnít back off. I kept looking quickly with my side vision for any indication of motion or a person coming up from behind or beside me. If I had seen such a thing I would have immediately pulled the trigger and turned to confront the others. As it turns out I never saw others coming at me and this person eventually backed off. Iím glad I didnít have to pull the trigger but I would have if I thought it was my only chance to save my life.
Only one time in many tens of thousands of miles of cruising have I actually loaded my shotgun and kept it by my berth at night Ė even with my youngest child aboard. We were in South Florida around Miami somewhere staying in a Marina. The marina itself had security and locking chain link gates down to the docks. There was a public pier just off to the side however, and around sunset a group of young men in their late teens to early 20ís started jumping in off the pier and swimming around. Their language was less than civilized. We were at the end of a long pier and I saw them looking at our boat and pointing to it. This made me particularly nervous because they could easily swim up to our swim platform from where they were in the water, and it was getting dark. I kept the loaded gun beside the berth that night, but fortunately had no reason to use it.
I would like to emphatically state here that I think the best method of dealing with ďpotentialĒ thugs, thieves and pirates is personal diplomacy and respect for the individual, not lethal force, no matter how ďrankĒ you think the person. Talking to someone is far better than threatening them in any circumstance. Even making unjust concessions on your own part fares better than the use of force. Discretion is the better part of valor. Your possessions are not worth the loss of a human life Ė certainly not yours or your families, but not even that of a common thief. Lethal force should only be displayed and used when no other choice exists to protect the physical well being of the innocent, including you and your family. If there is no question in your mind that you are about to be physically assaulted, and lethal force is the only way to stop it, then do not hesitate to use it. Otherwise use every other option available including loss of your property. I donít mean that you should roll over and give up though. Fighting to protect yourself and your things should be automatic, but taking it to the level of lethal force should give one cause for pause unless you are about to be physically assaulted in a serious manner.
Iíve heard law enforcements people say that the psychological aspects of the sound of a pump shotgun putting a shell in its chamber is a strong deterrent. Remember that if you do this you are displaying your weapon and should be ready to use it. However, if the display is necessary as a preliminary threat then this sound has a definite impact.
A friend of mine who works with the DEA and U.S. military here in the Keys and through Latin America shared with me some of his opinions on security issues for private boats cruising in remote areas. This includes the Bahamas, Latin America and the remote parts of the Florida Keys like the backcountry, Marquesas and Tortugas. First of all you have to realize that an international ďpolicemanĒ like this has a much distorted view of humanity and of private cruising. He only sees the worst of things most of the time. His view is that anyone that cruises alone in these areas is nuts to begin with, is at high risk and shouldnít do it. Having said that he acknowledges that most boaters do OK in this regard and that problems arenít all that prevalent Ė he just sees them when it is. Remember that this comes from someone who sits in the mangroves of Boot Key in the middle of the night, dressed in camouflage and blackened faces, using night imaging to look for the druggies coming in to Marathon. He thinks that if someone does cruise alone like this then they must have weapons and know how to use them. He insists on a shotgun for short range confrontations, particularly on a pitching boat (short barrel is best), and a high powered rifle to disable other boats at a distance. This is precisely what we carry, even before having heard his advice. You must remember that these would only be used in a last ditch life and death effort with no other recourse. A shotgun is used with various sized shot for short range personal confrontation. Even with the scatter itís difficult to hit a close target on a pitching boat. Single large slugs in the shotgun shell (we used to call them pumpkin balls) are also carried in order to put a hole in the waterline of another boat. The high powered rifle is similarly used to disable another vessel but at a farther (safer for us) distance. You can approximate the location of the engines and disable them with the high powered slugs. If you think the other boat has gasoline engines you can explode it from a distance with these shots by hitting the tanks, otherwise itís just slow leaks from diesel tanks but it may set it on fire. If you can hit the waterline with the rifle slugs you can also sink the other boat. Certainly it would also work on the individuals but thatís not our primary use for having a high powered rifle.
Cruisers passing through different countries have an additional problem with firearms and that is impoundment by local customs offices. You are allowed to carry anything you want on a cruising vessel whether it is legal to have it in that country or not. You declare ďShipís storesĒ Ė whether itís beer, liquor or guns as long as itís legal in your own flagged country. Local custom officials then have a choice of confiscating the items until your departure, locking them away on your own boat, or just documenting that you have them onboard. This can be a real hassle. If they take them then you have to go back to that same port when you depart the country. Sometimes this is OK but other times not. You also have to trust that your things will not get ďlostĒ while in their custody. Some cruisers build locking gun cabinets for their weapons. Then the local customs agent can either accept your own lock or additionally put their seal on it which canít be broken until you depart. The same can apply to booze too. In the Bahamas they generally let me keep my guns onboard. Theyíve never taken an actual count of the ammunition but they can, and you better leave with the same amount of ammunition that you came with. In Cuba donít even think about taking firearms or ammunition. In Canada they donít allow firearms at all and you have to leave them with customs. The last time I went there in 2001 though (prior to 9-11, I would never do this now) I called by telephone to report in and declared my weapons. When they told me I couldnít have them I said OK Ė they were ships stores and they were welcome to hold them until I left. The young Canadian Customs agent told me they wouldnít do that and I couldnít have them. I said OK, that I would lock them up onboard then. He told me that I couldnít do that either and that I was not allowed to have them. I told him again that I DID have them and said Iíd do whatever they liked. He couldnít respond with anything other than the fact that I was NOT allowed to have them. We went back and forth with this nonsensical rhetoric to no avail. Finally I restated that I WAS there in Canada and that I DID have firearms. I told him who I was, where I was, all my specific documentation numbers including passports. We finally left it by just saying goodbye. He never did give me a clearance number because he said I wasnít allowed to be there with firearms. I just stayed there illegally with the kids for 4 days until we left. Post 9-11 I would never do that. The world is too paranoid now. I will say though that even before 9-11 that it is a VERY BAD idea to not report firearms onboard if you have them. Another frightening aspect of the use of lethal force in a foreign country (even if you deem it absolutely necessary) is the fact that you might end up in a foreign jail for many years even before you are tried.
Some people believe that firearms are unnecessary in any situation. Many long range cruisers go without them. I find no fault with their positions.
There are other alternatives to self defense weapons other than firearms. It also helps you slip through the technical cracks of customs declarations. Iíve never seen a form that asks you if you have weapons (after all the kitchen knife can be a weapon), they always ask if you have firearms onboard. There are some alternatives which include Bows (crossbows are best since theyíre smaller, store easily, are very powerful and can be used to fish) and flare guns. I also have a slingshot aboard with steel hunting shot. I donít think Iíd recommend this for self defense however. When I tried to get a goose once for dinner I shot it directly in the butt with a big steel shot. It simply flicked its feathers and paddled quickly away!
I have to elaborate some on the flare guns. My younger brother used to fly business jets internationally for the Limited Stores (Limited, Victoria Secret, etc.). They flew to very exotic locations and the CEO of the limited required very high security. They employed the worlds top security specialists. Their aircraft had monitoring systems would tell the pilot upon his return if anyone had even walked around the plane, where they were, what time, and what they might have done. Domestically the pilot (my brother) could always carry a handgun as a defensive weapon. Internationally this was a problem for the same reason it is on boats Ė local customs offices. Guns also pose another problem for aircraft in flight at altitude and that is explosive depressurization of the aircraft when the slug penetrates the hull. This is an issue now with the question of arming U.S. commercial aviation pilots, but the slugs that will be used are of a material that can cripple an individual but not penetrate the aircraft hull. The security firm for the Limited told my brother that the best possible weapon to disable a hijacker was a flare gun. These are legal in all jurisdictions so they donít elicit the administrative hassles, but are also more effective at close range for disabling an attacker. The flare itself is a burning wad that can melt metal. It wonít immediately kill a person like a well placed slug might, but the intense pain immobilizes them so quickly that they canít take any other actions. If you need to exert additional force on them after this you can easily do it. Placed in their face or mouth it can be quickly lethal. Remember though that it can set a boat on fire. The regular flares I carry for rescue at sea are the expensive SOLAS flares, especially the parachute ones. I donít rely on anything else. However I do carry a 25mm flare gun with regular and rocket flares. This really isnít to be rescued. I use it as an onboard weapon. Whenever Iím approached directly by a boat at sea (especially at night) or when I pick up strangers in distress, I load this flare gun and keep it by me at the helm. Even Cuba has no problem with me bringing in this type of ďgunĒ aboard my boat.
My DEA friend said that the BEST tool we can use is a set of stabilized high powered binoculars with the ability to use night vision through them. Being aware of what is around you, especially at night, is the best way to avoid problems. We donít do this ourselves because of the price tag of the technologically, but would if we could. Itís been 3 or 4 years since I got this advice, but he says the drug traffic is starting to come through the Bahamas again like it did in the 70ís. Mom and Pop type boats are again desirable for the druggies because of the disguise factor. Go fast boats are becoming prominent targets for the DEA so the druggies are trying to sneak their loads in under disguise. I donít really know much about this stuff but will pass along what I am told. I must tell you that I feel the safest when Iím cruising in Cuban waters (the trip enroute to Cuba is different however).
This brings up the question of how to assist others at sea when they are in distress. The rule of the Sea requires that we provide assistance to other seaman any time they require it. We should not deviate from this principle, but some common sense and logical precautions should guide us in order to protect ourselves from modern day pirates while helping others. Those that are out to commandeer our boats could use the disguise of ďvessel in distressĒ to gain control of us and our vessels.
The most common occurrence of rendering assistance at sea would be near-shore situations while coastal cruising. This probably doesnít present as great a risk as assistance in very remote locations, but even less than a mile offshore provides enough isolation for a pirate (or pervert) to quickly inflict some damage. I will say that the most conservative approach, that I donít disagree with but also donít abide by, is to stand by a vessel and call for help, waiting until the help arrives. You can do this and be fairly safe.
When we see or hear someone in distress we always respond firsthand. The first thing I do is to get registration numbers and any identity off the boat that I can before I engage them. I log them in my logbook, then I place a radio call to the Coast Guard or local law enforcement to let them know that weíre about to render assistance, and give them specifics on the vessel. That wonít protect us from harm, but at least someone knows whatís going on. Before I even get close to the boat I get out my 25mm flare gun and load it with the largest flares I have. I keep this by me at the helm to use as a weapon if it is needed. I then engage the distressed vessel, assessing them for potential risk as I talk to them, and asking how I might best help. The rest depends on the particular situation and geography. Most of the time they end up needing a tow somewhere, which I am glad to provide. The Towboat US and SeaTow services are never happy about this. Unless circumstances dictate otherwise, I prefer that they remain in their own boat while I rig and throw to them a tow line. If I perceive them to be of low risk, or especially when women and children are onboard, Iíll invite them onto my boat during the tow. I do ask them to sit at the rear of the aft deck (away from me) when I do this, and always have the 25mm flare gun at hand at the helm. If the weather is particularly threatening Iíll also ask them aboard if my boat provides more protection. When Iíve delivered them to their destination I update the Coast Guard on the status. I donít know if theyíd ever follow through on checking on me if something happened, but at least they have the information.
Once when we towed a young family to a port in Lake Oneida in New York, I felt comfortable enough with them to let them have the run of our boat at dock while we went to dinner and they waited for their ride. My wife told me I was stupid but I did it anyway. We did OK and nothing was hurt or stolen, but retrospectively she was right (as she usually is) and Iíll try not to do that again.
I also once found myself in a situation that I regret, trying to give assistance to a boater lost in Mobile Bay. I wonít go into details here, but I and a newfound friend at the Dog River Marina found ourselves on this guyís boat by ourselves, alone, miles from shore when we discovered all the loaded weapons and the ďcrazinessĒ of this guy as we tried to help. Iíll never do that again. If you want to read about this story go to http://www.BootKeyHarbor.com/MistySea.htm .
More remote locations require greater vigilance when assisting others. No one else is out there to help you if they are pirates. I assess the situation as best Iím able, but always try to help. Depending on my assessment of our own vulnerability, I now start taking out firearms instead of just the flare gun, and keep them close at hand, but unseen. I still place a call to authorities to let them know whatís going on if I can. If weíre out of VHF or cell phone range I try the SSB radio. I am more inclined now to keep them on their own boat except in the direst of circumstances Ė always striving to keep some distance between us if possible. I want to be able to quickly cut the towline if needed. I want the firearms to be ready to disable their boat quickly if that turns out to be necessary. I donít want to hurt them; I just want to be able to get away from them. Iíve never had occasion to employ this, but I read about a psychological tactic once that seems right to me. When encountering a boat in distress in a very remote location, and needing to get close to them to help, and assessing their risk factor as high (like all guys on a suspicious boat), I would first require that all persons onboard get on deck, strip butt naked, and throw their clothes into the sea. There are two aspects of this action. The first is that itís hard to hide weapons on a naked body, assuming you get everyone on deck. The second is the psychological humility involved with not only getting naked but abandoning your clothes overboard. Someone who was truly in distress would probably do this, while someone who was trying to deceive you would most likely be very hesitant. (Bad guys donít read this Ė because Iíll still have my weapons at hand and you canít get too close Ė especially naked).
When anchored in remote locations you could set your radar alarm to run all night to warn you of approaching targets. Iíve never done this and would only do it in the most desperate of situation because of the high current draw all night, but it is possible.
Pirates are also a concern when running, mostly in the dark at night. I mostly encounter this with runs across the Gulf Stream to Cuba or the Bahamas. I always travel alone. Once weíre offshore we set the radar alarm for about a 4 or 8 mile radius. If anything then comes closer than 2 miles I come up on deck, even if Iím off watch and asleep. I watch the radar for a collision heading, and watch through the binoculars. If the boat is on a heading straight for us, in the middle of the Gulf Stream, then my antennas start to perk up. I get out the 25mm flare gun or firearm and keep at the helm. If I look through the binoculars and they are running without lights then my ďpucker factorĒ starts to go up more. I get the VHF or SSB radio ready to place a precautionary call if the boat gets closer than Ĺ mile on a course straight for us. This ignores big freighters because I can see them Ė even if no one is at their helm and they donít answer radio calls as usually occurs. When they get to about this Ĺ mile range and I canít make out who they are, I get the 25mm flare gun ready with a parachute flare to shoot over their head and illuminate them if they donít answer my radio calls. I want to see the boat. Iíve had many close approaches with suspicious boats in this regard, but never had to fire the flares. I wonder if they are on rendezvous with other boats, mistake my identity and just donít realize it until theyíre close up.
With my background in lasers, and once having thought that Iíd be full time world cruising by now, I worked out a plan for subtle laser defense of our boat. Without going into details I could defend our small boat and family even from the most formidable gunboats around the world without them even knowing what was happening. This extreme level of defense is not the point, but the idea that I had to think this way to ensure our safety in dangerous areas says a lot about piracy. Itís easier to just avoid those high risk areas in the first place. Freighters in some parts of the world are starting to put electrified fences around their decks while cruising (not a bad idea for private yachts either!).
You can look up piracy reports
for geographical areas at:
Iíve never encountered Cuban rafters in the Florida Straights, but always wondered exactly what Iíd do if that happens. One night in the predawn hours about 40 miles off Cuba I found an intermittent radar return about four miles out from me, and it didnít seem to be going anywhere aside from my own motion. As the sun rose I still could not make out any target with the binoculars. The return was consistent, but intermittent. Iím sure it was a small boat going in and out of the shadow of the waves, such as a rafter might. If they were in physical jeopardy there is no way that I would ignore their plight. An officer friend of mine in the US Coast Guard once advised me to NEVER pick up any Cuban rafters on my boat, no matter their plight. He said that since my boat was federally documented, once they were on my deck they had officially made US soil and were allowed to stay in the US. I politely told my friend that if someone was in trouble at sea Iíd help them first in any way I could, and they would have to work out the governmental administrative hassles after the fact.
Going through this long discussion of security and piracy at sea makes it seem like cruising is a risky business. I think that nothing could be further from the truth. Cruising, even in remote locations, is fun and relatively safe. We do it alone with our kids all the time. Itís our collective emotional assessment of the isolation and potential risk that makes it seem different. There are weirdoes everywhere, and if the truth be known we are more at risk from the weirdoís in our day-to-day landlocked life than we are at sea. For some irrational reason we just seem to feel ďsaferĒ if someone slits our throat in the middle of a crowd rather than out in the dark at sea at night.
Donít be afraid, but be aware and use caution. Life is full of immeasurable joy and rewards for those willing to accept reasonable risks.
Sterling Hayden Ė S/V Wanderer
 According to maritime law, salvage rights to a distressed boat belong to the person who owns the tow line. You might remember this if you need a tow yourself. We would never claim someoneís boat because we used our line to give them a tow, but we could. For this reason we always insist on using our own tow line if we need a tow from others.
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Boot Key Harbor website created and maintained by Capt.
Gregory T. Absten, Marathon. - A Boater's Guide to the Florida Keys & Cuba