Safety, Security and Circumnavigating with some tips on how to stay safe

10/15/2010

By Tom Morkin

Killarney, Ont.

Have you ever been attacked by pirates, or have you ever felt threatened while cruising?
These are two questions Liz and I are often asked when people learn how long and far we’ve sailed. To which we answer ‘no’ to the former and ‘yes’ to the latter.

 
Fact of the matter is, for anyone contemplating a circumnavigation or an extended multi country cruise by sailboat, you cannot avoid some dodgy countries.

During our world cruise from Vancouver westabout across the north and south Pacific, Indian Ocean, Red Sea, Mediterranean, north Atlantic and ¾ of the way across the Caribbean, we’ve visited 45 countries. Of those, I would have to say we were on heightened alert in only five countries. In almost all cases, only some parts of the countries are dangerous and in many cases, the dangerous areas are avoidable.

Sailing west from Vancouver most of the Pacific islands by small craft voyage are quite safe, (no doubt safer than most North American zip codes), with the possible exception of parts of the Solomon Islands and Papua New Guinea (easy to avoid), both with exquisite cruising grounds.

It was not until we arrived in Southeast Asia that we found cruisers spending a lot of time talking about security matters. The Straits of Malacca and Singapore got a lot of discussion, then the Gulf of Aden between Somalia and Yemen, southern Red Sea, Djibouti and Yemen caused many sleepless nights. In the Mediterranean, Algeria was a hot spot, but since it is difficult to get permission to enter, it is not a problem for most cruisers. Otherwise, I’d rate the Med as a safe place to cruise.
Continuing west across the Atlantic to the Caribbean and all of a sudden, the hot spots outnumber the safe countries. With the possible exception of the ABC islands (Aruba, Bonaire and Curacao), Barbados, parts of the Bahamas and Cuba, vigilance is the order of the day. Venezuela has simply become a ‘no go’ zone. Attacks on yachts are now a common occurrence there, despite everything the country has going for it- nice people, beautiful countryside and a plethora of fantastic anchorages.
If there is anyone who has a handle on the crime situation in the Caribbean, it has to be Melodye Pompa. She has served as the Radio Net Controller of the Caribbean Safety and Security Net (aka “Murder and Mayhem Net”) for more than 12 years, every morning at 0815 Eastern Standard Time or 1215 UTC on the single side band frequency 8104, the purpose of which is the exchange of information with regard to safety and security concerns while cruising in the Eastern Caribbean. By keeping a tally of the locations of actual crimes, be they physical assaults, stolen dinghies, boat break-ins etc. and reporting these incidents, cruisers can better decide for themselves if the risk level of a cruising destination is low enough to keep them within their own personal comfort zone.
Melodye also maintains a website that is an invaluable itinerary planning resource for sailors:
www.safetyandsecuritynet.com. Here’s a recent posting about Trinidad:

31 July 2010 - Chagauramas Dinghy Thefts on the Upswing

The Most Recent page and the Southern Windwards page list two thefts of dinghies and outboards, appropriately chained and locked but the thieves were able to cut through using bolt cutters. Additional e-mails report that there have been at least ten burglaries of yachts on the hard and in the anchorage, as well as four outboards stolen from yachts at the TTSA mooring field and three thefts during the last week of July.
Few details have been reported outside of Trinidad but there does seem to be an increase in crime against yachts there. The Trinidad and Tobago Coast Guard is now patrolling the Chagauramas from dark until dawn and there is talk of re-instituting the cruisers’ safety watch.
Any yacht visiting Trinidad should be prepared to take all appropriate precautions with regard to the security of the yacht and the dinghy and outboard.

Continuing up the Pacific coast of Central America means sailing the waters of western Panama, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Mexico and west coast US which may not match the Caribbean.

So how much risk do you face from other human beings when you take your little sailing cocoon away from your home port and venture to far off lands? How do we and others manage that risk? What do we and countless others, many with young families, do to keep safe, not from bad weather, storms or big seas, but from what I consider a bigger danger, other people?

Following are some ideas to help you stay safe if cruising in high risk areas.

 

Unlike your garden variety mace, Bear spray (available in Canada over the counter) shoots a concentrated stream of pepper spray 30 feet- enough to stop a charging bear. Our Canadian friend Frank has repelled thieves once in Papua New Guinea and once in Zanzibar. In both cases the bad boys boarded Frank’s boat at O dark thirty and in both cases after receiving a dose of bear spray were seen coughing and gagging as they swam off. In the PNG case, a canoe was left tied to Frank’s boat.


2) Trail 100 yards of 200 pound monofilament fishing line while under way. A pursuing vessel will certainly not see it in the dark and should foul the pursuers’ propeller and stop them dead in their tracks.

3) It is now for better or for worse, standard operating policy for many boats to sail at night with their navigation lights turned off. This is certainly the case for many boats sailing to and from Trinidad, all along the Venezuelan coast, and the southwest coast of Haiti just to name a few.

 

During our four and a half years of living aboard while in Japan, we never locked the boat, even during our two week trips away from the boat. Indeed, this is a whole new world for “the Liz and Tom show.” Until the Caribbean, we so seldom locked our boat that when we did it was usually a production because we usually couldn’t remember where the key was last put. It was usually buried under a myriad of items not frequently used. No Todo, we’re not in Kansas any more.

 4) In addition to locking your dinghy on shore, remove the fuel line and take it with you. At anchor at night, don’t lock your trailed dinghy. Raise it on a halyard or davits and lock it. A recent first was when Kiwi friends Wendy and Ian of Remedy came over for dinner. After coming aboard, I dutifully secured their dinghy painter and then was surprised to watch Ian take a section of chain from the dinghy and padlock it to one of our stanchions. The catch phrase in these parts: Lock it or lose it!a

5) Don’t be a solitary boat at anchor.


6) Keep an air horn at the ready.


7) Keep a radio or sound system on when off the boat.


8) Do not put your boat name on your dinghy. A dinghy with the mother ship’s name on it is an announcement that the mother ship is unattended.


9) In high crime areas, use taxis not buses. Dress simply- no jewellery. Don’t carry a backpack or purse with a shoulder strap. A friend was badly injured in Malaysia when two males on a motorcycle approached from behind and grabbed her purse without stopping the bike. She was dragged to the ground before the shoulder strap broke. The bad guys got the purse and she got a bed in the hospital for two nights.


10) Put your shopping items like food and low cost value products in transparent plastic bags.


11) Don’t broadcast your departure from one port to another, or your destination on VHF radio. In fact, keep your imminent travel plans to friends only and tell them not to call you on the radio prior to departure to say good bye. The last thing you want is for the baddies to know your departure time, route and destination. Say your good byes face to face.


12) Travel in convoys. Sail close together.

13) To communicate while under way, use SSB radio or ham radio even if your boats are 100 yards apart. Bad guys can’t scan the SSB frequencies to listen to your conversation, but they can certainly scan VHF frequencies.


14) Many yacht invasions occur when yacht crews are at anchor and asleep. When in doubt about your watery neighbourhood, lock your hatches before going to bed. In the tropics, this could result in elevated temperatures inside the boat making sleep difficult. Many cruisers have stainless steel or aluminum bars fabricated and locked in hatch openings and companionways to remedy this. These keep the intruders out and the breeze in.

 

Here I am while in St. Vincent, measuring the forward locker to fabricate a kind of cage to prevent would-be intruders from entering the boat.

15) Electrify the boat’s lifelines. This is perhaps a tad extreme but we’ve been on two boats that used this deterrent, both anchored off Rabaul, Papua New Guinea. An insulated bare wire is placed inches above the boat’s lifeline and an electric current is sent. An intruder touching the wire will ground the wire in a most shocking manner. There are a couple of cautionary notes about this tip: turn off electricity when expecting friends to visit, and male crew must be diligent when relieving themselves of their daily beverages. A friend with such an electrified boat told me how he received a rather painful lesson of the conductivity of urine in the wee hours (pun unintended) of the night after an evening of beer consumption. The components for the electric fence can be found in most farm supply stores and are not expensive.