Is it wise to carry a gun on board your boat if you are cruising round the world, or are they more trouble than they're worth? Let us know what you think
Should you carry a gun on board?
This is an important question, often a dilemma, for many long-distance sailors. It’s a generalisation for sure, but European sailors tend to decide they are not worth the risk, whereas Americans feel happier carrying firearms.
But what are the arguments for and against?
Against is a stronger argument, in my view. First, there are the practical aspects: in most countries you must check in firearms on entry and they are held ashore in a safe.
Shotguns are sometimes allowed to remain on board in a secure gun cabinet, provided they are declared at Customs.
If you do have to relinquish your gun(s), you will of course not have them at anchor, when you are most vulnerable to intruders or attack. Additionally, most countries require you to return to your port of entry to reclaim guns; the authorities won’t forward them to a port of exit.
Firearms laws differ hugely from country to country, but the penalties for not declaring firearms are usually heavy and involve prison time.
And some would also point out that the time you’re most likely to need a gun (if ever) is while anchored off rather than at sea, when your firearm would have been taken off you.
So, those are some of the practical considerations. Then there’s the worrying prospect of firearms escalating a situation. Sir Peter Blake was killed in 2001 while cruising on the Amazon after meeting intruders with a gun.
Once you have a gun in your hands, you should be trained and prepared to use it – and must live with the consequences. Two years ago, a yacht crew approaching the Gulf of Aden were confronted by armed men in a skiff and while taking avoiding action the skipper fired his gun and shot one of the pirates, mortally wounding him he believed. He did not hang around to find out and quickly made his escape.
Even when acting in self-defence against an armed aggressor, this situation is one that would make many of us feel very disturbed. If you carry a gun, you do have to ask yourself whether you are prepared to pull the trigger and kill another human being.
An American sailor I spoke to on the subject, Morgan, put it this way: ‘As an American, a 10-year Army veteran with two-and-a-half years in Vietnam, I have to tell you that I do not necessarily advocate the carrying of firearms on a boat. I own two pistols (a 38 calibre and a 25 calibre) and a 12 gauge shotgun.
“But before one considers the use of a firearm, one has to ask oneself: ‘Am I prepared to actually aim the gun and pull the trigger and kill another human being? Can I do it? Or if I pull the gun out and chicken out, will the bad guy take it away from me and shoot me with my own gun?”
“And what will I do if I misunderstand a stranger’s actions and kill that person, only to find out he had no evil intent and I am then facing trial for murder in a foreign country?
“Taking that into consideration as well as the legalities of carrying weapons in other countries, are the legal penalties worth it? I don’t think so.’
Guns on board can also make a crew feel very uncomfortable. Sailing north in the Red Sea some years ago I once met a (British) crew who had several guns on board, including a handbag-sized mother of pearl handled revolver for his wife. They used to practice by throwing beer cans over the transom and taking pot shots. I felt very uneasy about that.
So, if you chose to sail unarmed, as most sailors do, what can you, or should you, use in self-defence?
I’ve heard lots of suggestions. One skipper told me he kept a technical ice axe below “small enough to be wielded to shatter kneecaps” – and that he had once used it north of Jakarta.
Some say flares or flare guns might be effective. A ship crew had some luck in repelling Somali pirates not so long ago by making and lobbing Molotov cocktails from the aft deck – easy to create but a bit dangerous to use.
Still others say the best deterrent is a Mayday on the VHF, as well as firing off a satellite message to the Coastguard and setting off an EPIRB. The trouble is that there are some situations where none of these deterrents is likely to work.
Let me know your views about guns on board and other possible deterrents to intruders/pirates. Comments are up and running below.