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Aren’t You Afraid of Pirates?

By Tom Neale, 4/3/2014


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People often ask me if we've feared pirates as we've cruised in remote areas. Yes, we have and we still do; but perhaps not the way you'd expect. Piracy comes in many forms.

Pirates aren't Disney cute. They've been responsible for sadistic horrible crimes, often against helpless people. Running around in bars and parties wearing fake hats and yelling "Aargg" doesn't change this fact. Fortunately those of us who cruise don't have to worry so much about the traditional type of pirates, even though there are areas of the world, usually distant from this continent, where it still happens. We're all familiar with the heroism of Captain Phillips of the Maersk Alabama off Somalia in 2009 and the four innocent Americans who were killed aboard the sailing vessel Quest in February 2011 around 190 miles off the Oman Coast. This was as US Navy personnel on nearby vessels were attempting to negotiate with the pirates. But I'm not going to this area, and you probably aren't either. However, even near home, I still have concern, perhaps in part because I define the word a lot more broadly than skeletal figures on worm eaten sailing vessels flying the black and white flag. The smarter (and sometimes more dangerous) pirates today are more sophisticated and come in different forms.

Capture of Blackbeard by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris
Capture of Blackbeard by by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris.

My personal definition of "pirates" includes anyone out there on the water who would do my family harm or others harm, particularly with illegal or evil motive. And when I say "harm," I'm generally referring to harm that includes violence and/or theft.

For example, I'd include smugglers of drugs, people and other illegal cargo as pirates, particularly if they would harm me to protect or enhance their operation. And probably most of them would. I'll never forget the horribly overloaded small 4th world sailing craft floundering on reefs and beaches as the Haitians or other would-be escapists aboard tried to swim to shore…most of them drowning. It happens in the islands, probably, far more often than we hear about it in the states. But it's even happened on the beaches of Florida, as those who have survived the surf race across the beach in early morning dawn, seeking the greater seclusion, such as it is, in the streets and alleys and between buildings ashore. When I think about the people who sell the passages to these poor souls, knowing the type of boat they're going to be in and knowing full well the distance they must travel, the perils of the weather and the reefs and the lack of medical and food supplies, I have to think that they'd not hesitate to ravage my boat and me (or you and your boat) if they felt that I threatened them or that it would profit them. And the same goes for someone who stands to make millions for a successful run from, say, the Bahamas, to the Keys with a boatload of drugs. And then there is the threat of terrorists. Our government has made it abundantly clear to us that we should be concerned about terrorist activity on the water, as well as in other areas. I don't think that any of these people would take kindly to a perceived threat from a cruiser, and I think that many of these people would do what it takes to eliminate that threat. No, they don't match the cool chic definition of pirates, but niceties of semantics become starkly irrelevant when you're under attack.

The Black Raven, a Pirate Adventure Tourboat
The Black Raven, a Pirate Adventure Tourboat out of St Augustine, FL.

So does this mean that we need to do our boating under a cloud of fear, constantly prepared for a deadly fight? That answer is "No." There are many things, mostly common sense, to minimize any threat from modern day pirates. And these aren't draconian steps, they basically involve extending common sense for self protection out beyond the shores. Here are a few.

Don't go to bad places. We know this from everyday living ashore. There are places you just don't go. It doesn't change when you get on the water. And we can learn about these places the same way we would ashore, plus there are additional methods on the water. Listen to the news, listen to talk. On the water we have the VHF, Single Side Band radio, HAM radio, cruisers' nets and many other ways of hearing about what's going down. Don't be misled as to where you hang out by Margaritaville myths. They're fun but not necessarily real. Use common sense.

If, for example, there are drug cartels at war with each other in a particular country, one might assume that's not a good place for idyllic cruising. If an island has a reputation for drug smuggling, there are other islands which don't. In the early 1970s one island in the Bahamas was reputed to be completely under the control of the leader of a large drug smuggling operation. Not a great place to anchor where, incidentally, there was a crashed drug plane in the water, replete with bullet holes. If a formerly impoverished small island is suddenly full of flashy new cars, expensive go fast boats, new houses…and there isn't a ready explanation …then maybe that's not the best place to hang out. If you see something suspicious going on in an anchorage, that might be a good time to leave. Maybe not, but make a smart judgment. We remember seeing a gunfight between men in a go-fast boat and law enforcement people in a government boat giving chase. They were out on the beautiful Bahamas Banks as they raced past our beautiful anchorage. The bad guys were captured shortly thereafter, so we remained.

Tom's Tips
Tom's Tips About Dealing with Real Life Piracy

1. Be sure you mean what you say. For example, consider not flying the skull and crossbones unless you're confident everyone around knows you're joking or playing games. This has been a serious and deadly threat to many people for many centuries.

2. Don't assume someone is a threat merely because they're different. Always start out with politeness and a smile. If it looks like this isn't appropriate for the situation, change the situation by leaving. You're on the water to have fun, not to be uptight about your surroundings.

3. Beware of boats that are particularly severely unkempt. Most boaters take pride in their boats. People who are using boating as a means to a nefarious end might not feel this way about the boats they're on. This doesn't mean we need to be snobby, just exercise common sense.

4. Be concerned about boats with evidence of a recent and hastily done name change or numbers change.

5. Don't leave dinghies hanging off your stern on a rope painter at night, or unattended at the beach.

6. If you do leave your dinghy on a beach and take a walk, take your handheld VHF with you so you can call for help when you return to an empty beach.

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I remember the eerie feeling every time I used to dive on "Dead Man's Cay" in the Exumas. A few years before we first came there, a sailboat had been found near the spot. It was riddled with bullets, as were the bodies of the two occupants. By the time authorities arrived, those bodies had disappeared forever. The word went out fast. If I'd been in the area at the time, I think I would have gone elsewhere.

Another way to lessen the odds is to travel with friends in groups. A lone boat crossing the Gulf Stream between south Florida and the Bimini Chain on a dark night presents a much easier target than several. Besides, it's fun to cruise with friends.

It also helps to remember that when one comes to an anchorage, one can, if he chooses, create his identity. Boaters in this very temporary community don't know that you're not who you say you are, unless you go really far over the top. Over the years we've seen some cruisers, exuberant and thrilled with their new lifestyle and its romantic portrayal by songs and stories, tend to take things too much at face value rather than exercising a bit of prudent caution.

But we don't need to do long term far away cruising to be concerned about the pirates. A weekend cruise deserves common sense precaution also. Choose marinas with which you have some familiarity, at least by word of mouth from friends. Choose marinas which have good security and aren't in an area that makes you uncomfortable. Fortunately, most marinas these days are good places to stay. Homeland Security constantly reminds even boaters to be on the lookout for strange behavior. (I think many would consider most of my life to have consisted of strange behavior, but that's another subject.) There are things, such as appearing to case out bridges and locks or hanging out in waters near airports or heavily attended public events…particularly if those waters aren't where the typical boater would want to hang out. When you're on this continent, most anchorages are going to be over crowded and near law enforcement and relatively safe. However, even here, there are anchorages in which you may be quite remote. We were shot at in one, by people ashore. Paradoxically, remote anchorages are what most of us are looking for. But if you pull into such an anchorage and there are boats, people or other things that are of concern, consider going elsewhere. I've always loved living on a boat because my "castle" is surrounded by a "moat." But rats can swim.



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