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Pirates Or Paranoia? - 9/2/04

By Little Gidding - Published September 02, 2004 - Viewed 655 times

A NOTE TO OUR READERS: We're off the boat for the moment, but we'll continue posting stories, like the one below, about our previous cruising experiences and what we're doing now. We'll be back on board and actively cruising in the fall. Please keep visiting our log in the meantime. -- D&E

Pirates and Paranoia

September 2, 2004


A deserted isle: quiet retreat or pirate lair?

It was after midnight and we were anchored all alone off Turneffe Island in Belize. A cold front was passing through and it was howling outside; torrents of rain pounded the deck. In a lull between gusts we heard a faint cry. We weren’t alone after all.

David struggled into his shorts, turned on the spreader lights, and stumbled up on deck. In the blackness off our stern he could just make out the form of an open wooden boat. It bucked into the cone of light spreading out from our mast. Eileen emerged from below. In faces as dark as the night, two pairs of wide, terrified eyes stared up at us.

“Hey, mon! We’re lost. Let us tie up alongside!”

The skinny guy at the bow threw Eileen a line. She caught it and glanced at David. He looked down at the two drenched figures in the fishing boat and shrugged. Eileen cleated off the line. “Welcome aboard,” she said.

Thoroughly soaked, we all squeezed under the canvas cockpit enclosure. Eileen ducked below leaving David warily eyeing our guests. Foremost in his thoughts was an incident involving Canadian friends that had occurred only a month before. Jim den Hartog and Helen den Dekker’s sailboat "Gaia" had been boarded at night in Guatemala’s Rio Dulce and Jim had come close to losing the use of his right hand to a brutal knife wound. But our visitors didn’t look very dangerous. They mostly looked cold and miserable.

Eileen handed up towels. “Anyone for some hot tea?” she asked.

Our visitors told us they had left late to return to their village and had got caught in the storm. Along a featureless shoreline on a night as dark as the inside of a tomb they had turned to the only beacon in sight -- our anchor light. We stayed up with our new friends until grey smudges on the horizon marked the beginning of another day. By the time we waved goodbye to them, we had consumed a few gallons of tea and learned every significant detail of their lives, and they of ours.

Other cruisers to whom we've told this story have questioned the wisdom of our actions that night. In a deserted location, inviting strangers on board could be inviting trouble. A few well publicized incidents of violent crime have created something of a siege mentality within the cruising community. The mainstream media have picked up on some of the more sensational cases. When a Quebec couple were terrorized and their boat ransacked in the Colombian Rosario Islands a few years ago, we learned of the incident from ham radio operators in Canada, who had read about it in the national newspapers. We had visited the Rosarios only months earlier, but were blithely unaware of the attack.

Whenever we return home to visit we are invariably asked, "Have you ever been attacked by pirates?" We probably disappoint our landlubber friends when we reply in the negative. Although we personally know some cruisers who have been assaulted, we don't think we've been particularly lucky in avoiding a similar fate during the ten years we've been cruising. Rather, we believe the victims of armed boardings have been particularly UNLUCKY and -- in some cases -- poorly informed and ill-prepared.

World-wide, piracy appears to be on the rise. The brigands of today don't wear eye patches and wield cutlasses, and their victims aren't usually on sailboats. Modern pirates are more likely to carry automatic weapons and to use high speed power boats to attack tankers and container ships. Pirates pose a serious enough threat to commercial shipping that the International Maritime Bureau has been compiling statistics on attacks at its piracy reporting centre in Kuala Lumpur since 1991. Its latest annual report, "Piracy and Armed Robbery against Ships", isn't exactly a cheerful read.

There were 445 reported incidents last year, a 20% increase from 2002. Of the total number of ships attacked, 311 were boarded and 19 hijacked. The number of hostages taken nearly doubled to 359; 21 seafarers were known to have been killed (over twice the number of the previous year) and 71 crew and passengers were listed as missing. Yikes! It's not safe out there!

Before we all abandon our boats and head for the hills, we should look a little deeper into what's behind these statistics. First, the attacks have been highly localized. Malaysia and Indonesia accounted for one-third of last year's piracy incidents. Other world hot spots were Bangladesh (58 attacks), Nigeria (39), and the Red Sea/Gulf of Aden (21). Second, the tendency is towards co-ordinated, military style operations targeting large vessels. These boys are in the big league; they're less likely to be interested in your typical mom-and-pop cruiser on a 40 foot sailboat. Having said that, we'd still feel a bit nervous cruising the Strait of Malacca or the coast of Eritrea (cruisers transiting these high traffic areas typically travel in convoys and don't linger along the way).

Armed boardings involving yachts generally occur in areas that are impoverished, relatively remote, and perhaps politically unstable. The perpetrators are usually fewer in number, less sophisticated, and not as well armed as their big boat brethren. Again, location is everything. To use a terrestrial analogy, muggings, rapes, and shootings happen all the time in most large North American cities; the key is not being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Going back to our Belizean example, we took a calculated risk. We had never heard of transient boaters being attacked in Belize. If we had been anchored off Isla Coche at the northeastern corner of Venezuela, we probably would not have been so welcoming. Since January 2003, at least seven yachts have been boarded by armed intruders along that stretch of coastline.

Caribbean cruisers have a valuable resource for keeping abreast of security concerns: the Caribbean Safety and Security radio net, which meets daily at 0815 Atlantic time (1215 UTC) on SSB frequency 8104 Khz. We remember when the net was first established in 1995, mainly in response to a rash of dinghy thefts in Venezuela. Back then it reported on some factual incidents, a few rumours, and a lot of hysteria. Our friends Melodye and John Pompa on "Second Millennium" have been net controllers for the past five years and have developed the net into an objective and accurate listing of security incidents. More than eight years of reports have been filed online at www.caribcruisers.com and are updated monthly.

Perusing the Caribbean Safety and Security files confirms that acts of piracy are rare among private yachts. Most reported security incidents involve property theft or vandalism, not personal injury. A handful of boats have been violently attacked in Guatemala's Rio Dulce and in the atolls off northeastern Honduras, but none within the last couple of years. The current hot spots are northeastern Venezuela and Colombia. It's fairly easy to avoid these high risk areas. In 1995, we gunkholed along the Venezuelan coast, enjoying the Paria Peninsula's pristine bays; six years and a number of pirate attacks later, we transited the same coastline fifty miles offshore.


To deter night boarders, be prepared to make lots of light and noise, and keep in radio contact with nearby boats

Yachts that opt to visit known trouble zones often do so in the company of others, adhering to the maxim that there's strength in numbers (an opposing view holds that a single boat makes less of a target than several boats). Routine precautions include: maintaining radio silence on the official calling channels, but agreeing to monitor a chosen working channel; locking companionways and large hatches from the inside at night; establishing twenty-four hour surveillance schedules; hiding important documentation and all but a token amount of cash; and keeping air horns, flares, and spotlights close at hand.

We stocked up on pepper spray after we learned from Jim and Helen on "Gaia" that they had used it successfully to repel their knife-wielding assailants. We do not carry firearms, although some cruisers do. It's instructive that many victims of recent pirate attacks do not regret being unarmed. After they were boarded in Colombia, Jim and Katie Coolbaugh on the sailboat "Asylum" reported in the Seven Seas Cruising Association "Bulletin" (November 2002) that, "we do not carry weapons and are convinced that had we come out shooting, we could be dead now. We did not know at the time that there were five armed men out there ... Had one, or even two of us, come out with a gun, we would have been completely outgunned by all of them."

When people new to the cruising scene ask us about pirates, we advise them to be prudent, not paranoid. The new places they'll visit are probably no less secure than the familiar ones they left behind. Whether at home or abroad, one's personal security is largely determined by common-sense precautions and practices. For our part, we hope we'll still feel comfortable putting the kettle on when we hear a knock on the hull some dark and stormy night.

Cheers,
David & Eileen





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