#15 – How About Those Pirates

If we cruisers got a nickel every time landlubbers asked one of the pirate questions – “Aren’t you worried about pirates?” we’d never have to fret about our cruising kitties again.

The sailing world is certainly full of pirates: the ones singing along to Jimmy Buffet, watching Johnny Depp videos, and, of course, the ones running boatyards! The Jolly Roger signals to us not a nautical brigand, but a free-thinking, free-sailing anarchist, the sort of person who stands outside the strictures of the fixed world.

But the pirates those landlubbers are asking about are a different sort. They’re asking about pirates-as-muggers, people deliberately perpetrating bad stuff against cruisers. They see us as particularly vulnerable out there, floating about on our own. I’d sure like to write that it’s a groundless question, but I can’t. Bad things do happen in this world, even to cruisers. But the good news is they happen very rarely, far less often than bad stuff ashore, and there are many things we can do to reduce the chance of it happening to US! Like so much in boating, prevention is the key.

The easiest way to prevent problems is to avoid problem areas. Cruisers have many resources for learning about troubled areas, official government websites like America’s www.travel.state.gov, or Canada’s www.voyage.gc.ca or, more to the point, like Jimmy Cornell’s cruising-specific website www.noonsite.com. The Seven Seas Cruising Association (SSCA) (www.ssca.org) and Canada’s Bluewater Cruising Association (www.bluewatercruising.org) publish monthly bulletins with pointed articles by active cruisers with up-to-date information from cruising destinations around the world. And finally, we have our Ham and SSB radio nets on which we all share the most current information. The Caribbean even has a specific net devoted to “Safety and Security” issues (www.safetyandsecuritynet.com)

Beware, though, of paranoia. One cruiser’s mountain may prove to be another’s molehill!

When traveling through dicey areas, many cruisers opt to travel with buddy boats. For example, in 2000, when we cruised the Caribbean coast of Colombia, the twenty-some boats making the trip traveled in loosely-organized groups of four or five boats, maintaining radio contact and reporting anything suspicious. A more formalized version of group travel are rallies like Sail Indonesia’s annual rally (www.sailindonesia.net) from Darwin, Australia to Kupang and then onward to Singapore. Indonesia is a prime example of an area with a reputation for pirates but which cruisers can’t stay away from.

This leads to the other question that cruisers hear over and over: Do you carry a gun aboard? No one has admitted to me that they do. The red tape for declaring guns in foreign ports – where you often have to leave them locked up upon arrival and then return to collect them upon departure – is way too inconvenient for most small boats, and the penalties risked in carrying undeclared weapons is high. The reality is you may not be able to reach your concealed gun quick enough, and, since most of us aren’t trained weapon handlers, it is as likely to be turned against us. Consider instead “alternative” defenses such as an extra flare gun, a can or two of pepper spray (Bear Spray from hunting stores is the jumbo version!), a fishing club, or even your spear gun – all (except the pepper spray) things with other real uses aboard.

A more realistic anxiety is petty theft and burglary at anchor, and here prudence is the watchword. “We ALWAYS lock the boat,” says Jane of Cormorant, “even in a ‘safe’ place, because we decided it was foolish to always be deciding if a new place is safe or not. And realistically, a thief is as likely to be another boatie as a local.” Fearing a boarding at night while they sleep, many cruisers prep their boats against these eventualities, fabricating custom-made grates for the companionway and hatches, mounting simple motion detectors on side decks or companionways, or, as we have, wiring deck lights and a siren to a switch over our bunk. Donna of Exit Only recommends a flashlight in every cabin, and Debbie of Illusions keeps an air horn at her bedside and locks herself in at night. And then, of course, there are dogs. Marjetka, a Slovenian single-hander aboard Little Mermaid, rescued a scrawny pup from mistreatment in Martinique and gained a loyal –and watchful – cruising companion. “Many island men see a woman alone and think they are doing us a favor with a midnight call. They think twice with Cherie aboard.”

One of the most enticing possessions cruisers have is their outboard engine — universally in demand and hard to identify. To hold on to yours, lock it to your dinghy and hoist the dinghy out of the water at night, either on davits or with a halyard and harness alongside the boat (which will also keep its bottom clean!). In areas with a bad reputation, take the extra step to lock the dinghy to the boat with a cable run through the engine and gas container…and use the same cable to lock it up at dinghy docks.

The stuff we leave about the deck is also tempting to locals passing by: gas cans, fishing rods, snorkel gear, spare lines, towels, T-shirts. From a passing canoe or panga it is too easy to lift simple items like these, often something the locals may actually need. You may be surprised to find that respect for personal possessions is not a world-wide fundamental, especially in communal cultures where all things are readily shared.

For the same reason, exercise discretion about who you invite on board, especially who you invite below decks. You will certainly make friends as you cruise, and you will want to reciprocate native hospitality by entertaining them on the boat. But differentiate between new friends and people you hardly know. The less innocent among them may use a visit to “case” your possessions.

In areas where cruisers more regularly gather, theft of opportunity may have advanced to deliberate burglary. It is easy to become careless when talking on the radio, to say on the air that you will be off the boat for diner ashore or will be flying out for a trip back home. Publicizing by any means that your boat will be unattended is unwise, and whenever you must leave it, leave a bright light on in the cockpit and try to arrange with a known buddy boat to keep a watchful eye. When leaving your boat long term, stash anything valuable and portable well out of sight.

Finally, when going ashore don’t “bait the hook.” Dress down instead of up, taking care not to affront locals customs (eg. Short shorts and bikini tops!), and leave your glittery jewelry on board (although a simple wedding band can be good insurance for women!) Use the same street smarts you would in any downtown area, and carry your bag across your shoulders with a hand on it, and put in it only what you need for the day.

The key to safe cruising, I think, is to avoid romanticizing the innocence of the paradises we visit. As Jane of Cormorant says, “Back home there are muggings in every city, and yet we went freely to stores, to work, or to the movies. We locked our cars and our house and knew not to go into certain areas at some hours. We used normal caution. Why less on the boat? It may be that the world is becoming more dangerous, but I think it would be a horrible life to give in to fear and live in a locked-up, gated artificial place. There are so many wonderful people and places in this world, and I hope and plan to get to know more of them.”

Contributing Admirals: Jane Lothrop, Cormorant; Debbie Leisure, Illusions; Jean Service, Jean Marie; Donna Abbott, Exit Only; Judy Knape, Ursa Minor; Kathy Blanding, Sunflower; Marjetka, Little Mermaid; and others. (And thanks very much to my webmaster, Sherry McCampbell on Soggy Paws)

This article was published in the October 2007 issue of Latitudes and Attitudes.

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