Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Security and Cruising

It's always interesting to get into discussions of the dangers and risks of cruising.  There are actual risks of theft and violence out in the big bad world, along with plenty of horror stories to back them up. People come up with all kinds of different solutions; automatic deck lints, tacks on the deck, electrified lifelines, and carrying weapons on boats.  

And, the thing is, the work-ability of some of these aren't the technical implementations but the human factor.  Sure, you can set up surveillance systems to monitor your boat, anti-boarding systems to keep uninvited boarders off the boat, and implement various self defense measures if they are on board.

But you have to look at the situation you are facing, or are likely to face, in order to be effective.  You also have to look at yourself and what you are able, especially willing, to do.

The continuum of risks is broad. The spectrum could be:
  1. A simple attempt at non-violent theft.  This is just stuff.  It might be stuff you really like or stuff you need.  It's your stuff and you don't want it taken.  This kind of theft doesn't want you around.  If you are around, they will go where there is no risk of conflict. These are cowardly thefts.  They tend to happen to the less vigilant.  
  2. It could be theft in mind, backed by defensive violence.  This is an added risk that this kind of thief, while not wanting to run into you, will have no problem whatsoever with using violence to escape with your stuff.  They may not be willing to kill you but they will fight you directly instead of just trying to run off.
  3. Then there is the theft where they will maim or kill you to get your stuff.  They don't care of you are there.  They might even plan for you to be there.
  4. Let's not forget boarding for rape, kidnapping or simply outright murder.

Items 1 and 2 can be mitigated by staying away from high-crime areas, being very visible on your boat, practicing vigilance, and making it clear that you protect your boat and the people aboard.  These kinds of thieves don't want conflict.  They don't usually carry weapons.  They are opportunistic in nature.  Likely, as others have pointed out, they could also be other cruisers.   We like to be a friendly lot but, don't forget that people who pretend to like you can also be casing your place for a future theft. Your best defense here is to deny them the opportunity.  They will go hunting somewhere else for friendly and less vigilant folk.  

Item 3 represents the horror stories we have heard, where pirates or boarders will have it in their plan to simply kill you and take your stuff.  The only defense you have against them is not being where they are, demonstrating a strong enough deterrent that they will go hunting elsewhere, or be capable enough to defend yourself if you are approached or boarded.

Item 4 is pure self defense.  They don't want your stuff so much as they want you, or your wife, or your daughter.  They are hunting you, not your stuff.  Best thing is to be where they are not but, if you present a good target, I hope you are capable of defending yourself.

This brings us to handing out violence terrible and deadly.  Are you ready to do that?  Are you willing to literally run someone through with a pike?  If you carry a firearm, are you well trained in it's use?  Do you know how to bring it to bear in a combat situation?  How well would your firearm (unless it's an AR variant) fare against a pirate with a AK?  I'm not asking these questions from an air of superiority but engaging you to seriously ask yourself these questions.  You could have the fanciest pike, the best gun, in the world.  If you aren't willing to tear up the center of mass with that pike, or rounds from your weapon, it's useless to you. Keep in mind that video games, as violent as they may be, don't prepare you for face to face violence.  Only training or pure survival does that.

There is nothing wrong with talking about self-defense, even using deadly force to defend you or yours from grave bodily injury or death.  I support your right to survive, even if it means the unfortunate death of your assailant.  

The very serious question is: are you ready to do that?

The protective measures we choose, no matter what they are, are our personal decisions as captains/cruisers/travelers.  It matters not so much which tactic or strategy we choose as much as if we are comfortable executing it.  It's much like the PFD statement that says the best PFD is the one you will use.

I've been involved in law enforcement and personal security.  I've been ready to defend myself and others by bringing violence to bear as effectively and directly as possible.  Contrast this with my personal wish for non-violence and it's a bit of cognitive dissonance to those that don't understand it.  The thing is, my very job, the places I needed to go, had a high likelihood of violence.  Whether it was a felony traffic stop or patrolling a fence line in Iraq, I was placing myself in an environment where violence was likely.  I put myself there.

But back to real risks and the likelihood of same for us as cruisers (or homeowners for that matter).

The advantage of this, instead of what I describe above, is that cruisers can usually choose where we cruise.  One of the most effective survival tactics is to avoid the risk all together.  If you don't fall off the boat, you are less likely to drown.  If you don't pass though a gang-infested part of an inner city, you are less likely to be a victim of gang violence.  If you don't cruise in areas where poverty or opportunity have contributed to high crime rates, you are less likely to be a victim of violent crime.  Now, none of this blames the victim of violence.  I can't stand when people do that.  It does, however, speak to how we can lessen the likelihood of being a victim of violence.

While I'm perfectly capable of defending me and mine, I'd really rather not if I have a choice.

The world is large.  We don't have to go everywhere.  


  1. I can fault neither your logic nor your experience. At the same time, outside of American waters, the problems associated with gun ownership are significant. Maybe a old-style flare could be a deterrent?

    I think part of the solution...unless you encounter a straight-up murderous to "case the joints" you intend to visit. Make use of the Internet, cruisers' nets, and even guidebooks to suggest which areas are customarily low-crime, and which are not. Reputations last longer than headlines, and a lot of places that attract cruiser visits are well-aware of the touristic benefits that flow from them.

    I also think, however, that prudence is part of the mix: Don't post ahead of time that you will be off the boat at Carnaval X on Tuesday; thieves can read, too. Don't dress too up or down: ostentatious clothing will be noticed and ratty clothing will be, in many places, considered insulting or immodest. Leave a light and a radio running on board; devise an audible alarm; tell nearby cruisers (whom you trust) to keep an eye out. Stow outboards below, chained. Stow tenders on deck. Thieves by nature don't care to work hard, and your boat should be difficult to board or to steal from. Many boats also leave hatches and companionways open: ventilation must be thought out to keep the boat cool without leaving man-sized passages open. I can lock myself in at night better on our steel boat than I can in my house, and it doesn't take a lot of effort...just planning.

    Lastly, and this one might sound odd, don't have the shiniest boat in the roadstead. I'm not advocating banana bunches in the rigging and tighty whities pinned to the boom, but if you look slightly down-at-heel or, conversely, a touch more veteran, theives will select the new Awlgripped Bendytoy with the elderly couple with creased Tilleys. Unfair, true, but likely factual. Cruisers are frequently going to be, by definition, materially more blessed than a stall keeper or a fisherman in some tropical country. A can of something cold or a non-patronizing purchase can go a long way to being a good guest in situations where you are coming to someone's workplace to overeat, drink rum on a deck and scratch yourself, which is how it probably looks from the beach or the bumboat.

  2. Excellent post, Rhys. I wasn't advocating firearms so much as cautioning people that, if they choose to plan on using weapons, they better have thought through the act of using them.

    As for your other feedback, that's absolutely spot on.

  3. I'm reminded of the unfortunate death of Sir Peter Blake, whose rifle, once displayed against boarders, was turned, fatally, against him.

    We got a steel boat for many reasons. One of the minor ones is that they are hard to pierce with bullets (as are the half-inch-thick Lexan pilothouse and cabin fixed portlights, at least from a moving boat), and because we can chop a panga in half with ease and churn miscreants into chum with our four-bladed prop.

    Yes, I am not a pacifist.

    But I would sincerely have to believe my family was in mortal danger to take such actions. I have means to secure critical documents and money aboard in ways that would take hours to figure out; if I had to, I could stand to lose a couple of handhelds and a set of binoculars and a digital camera. That's not worth my life or the lives of my wife and son.

    If we are in the Red Sea, under radio silence, and are approached by an unlit, unflagged little vessel, we ram first and radio later. In Bonaire, a different tactic is called for. Of course, why are we in the Red Sea, knowing its circumstances? I truly believe that foresight is not magical: one can learn in advance the sort of obstacles that lie, even potentially, ahead.

    So itis with so many things involving Westerners swanning about in boats off their home patch. Responses must be considered conditional and variable to current conditions.

  4. Donn, Interesting discussion here. The poster, Rhys' boat description sounds like a vessel I saw featured on an episode of "Doomsday Preppers" (although I almost never see any television, as a matter of choice...). Not to demean Rhys' preps, either, I thought the guy on that show had some great ideas, and plenty of resources to implement them! Maintaining Security and Freedom, while cruising the world in a small vessel, is no small feat. I truly respect and admire what you are planning. We are personally acquainted. I've read your blog for a long time but just have never commented. If you don't recognize me? ask your first mate. I am writing to be helpful, that's all.

    As a landlubber, I have no advice about your boat or equipment. It sounds like you are making the right choices with that. Likewise, I'll offer no advice on what places are safe to travel to, and which aren't? Those you will research ahead and as you go (and may be subject to the changing times, as well..). Just Being Able to go somewhere else could be the greatest.asset. I am concerned that you may be unable to get to open water from where you are if there is a sudden disaster or emergency. If Mt. Rainier erupts suddenly, a large earthquake hits, or (heaven forbid) an EMP, solar flare or cyber attack knocks out the power grid for your metro area will the drawbridges and locks between you and the open water still be able to function and let you get through?? There could be hundreds or thousands of other boats all trying to navigate that bottleneck at the same time. Do the locks and drawbridges all have their own backup generators? Will the authorities declare martial law? And could THAT prevent them from allowing any boats to get through there? Just a thought. I haven't researched those things. Have you? Is your boat all provisioned, stocked, fueled, watered and ready to sail away at a moments notice, if you needed to? Is there any alternate docks or moorings options that would be outside of that bottleneck?

    The other concern that I would have, if I were in your position, is finances. The economy may still be booming in your local metro area, but nationally and worldwide the dollar is in pretty big trouble. If your voyage funding plans were counting on periodic transfers of dollars from a US bank to overseas? That is probably a really bad idea. As it collapses, there will be severe capital controls implemented. That has already begun. No specific advice, Don't reply with specifics. Just know that time is crucial. You surely must know about this already. Don't delay.

    1. We have thought about the fact that we must go through two bridges and the locks if and when we ever have a city wide emergency. Hopefully we'll have enough notice before things really devolve and we'll have the time we need to get through. For now, I think the day to day ease of being where we are in terms of only needing one car, being close to work, stores, restaurants, etc makes a strong enough argument to stay where we are. For now.
      We're thinking through the financial stuff and will try to get the info we need to make good decisions going forward. All good things to think about.
      Thank you for your post pman45! ;-)