Why sailors need to keep a ear out for trouble and be ready to adapt their plans

Is sailing round the world dangerous?

This is a question that many people are asking themselves as profound shockwaves reverberate through the sailing world following the murder of four US sailors in the Indian Ocean.

Should yachtsmen think again about sailing round the world, or continuing their voyage?

Statistically speaking, sailing is one of the safest ways of seeing the world.

But you can make it more dangerous if you’re not careful.

The problem of piracy highlighted in our current (March) issue and the proliferation of attacks throughout the Indian Ocean is but one example.

The sad truth is there are some parts of the world that aren’t safe. In the Indian Ocean right now, there is no law and no god.

No matter how much we debate the problems and possible solutions the situation is what it is. Just because the sea is a free place and it’s our right to sail where we will, it doesn’t mean that’s a wise idea.

But the Indian Ocean isn’t the only place that poses a risk or fringes a politically unstable area. You would have to be wary if you were thinking of sailing in certain parts of Indonesia or Venezuela or Nigeria, for instance.

Waves of crime against yachtsmen come and go. Recently there were reports of a spate of boardings and burglaries in the remote and normally peaceable Marshall Islands in the Pacific. We regularly report cases of violence and crime in parts of the Caribbean.

That’s not to say these whole areas are unsafe or that the problem will exist next month or next year. If you are cruising, you have to keep your ear to the ground.

It’s not like being at home. And, dare I say it, I think some yachtsmen forget this. Many places, many countries, are volatile.

Things can change quickly, and I mean anything from agents’ fees or facilities to the welcome you might receive, the people you’d best keep on the right side of and the going rate for baksheesh.

Most importantly of all for those of us lucky enough to come from stable, functional and generally lawful democracies, we have to accept that much of the rest of the world doesn’t run by our rules. Our expectations mean nothing and may entitle us to nothing.

We go cruising round the world to see what it is like. Sometimes we’ll find things that are not greatly to our liking.

If you are planning to sail round the world, it’s important to keep up to date. Look at what is happening right now in Arab countries. Minute-by-minute live blogs can’t keep up with it all.

How that will shake out is anyone’s guess. So, you go there, you take your chances.

You need to be ready to change and adapt a route or schedule. There’s no point when planning several years ahead thinking: we’ll go this way and we’ll be here on this date.

Maybe you will. But if it would be better not to, you should be flexible and ready to adapt.

I will never forget a remark made by Jimmy Cornell when he ran the first ever round the world rally in 1991 (through the Gulf of Aden, as it happens; it was much safer then).

As a young man Jimmy had managed to get out of Communist Romania, where he grew up, before circumnavigating with his family and he was pretty wise about the ways of the world.

“If you want things to be like at home,” he said bluntly, “stay at home.”

Any time I’ve fumed at bureaucracy, or the lengthy delays in organising simple things that are part of long-distance cruising I’ve thought about his comment.

We may rail about many things in the places we visit, and we may wish it were different, but it’s not. We are the lucky ones because we have a choice.

Life in so many places in the world is not fair. It’s not equal. There is corruption and poverty and cruelty and lawlessness.

Somalia is just such a place. It’s a country where the per capita GDP is $600. A country running with ransom money yet millions are dependent on humanitarian aid. The fastest growing business in this region is prostitution.

Yet to put it all in perspective, the reason people go cruising is because the world we live in is also very beautiful and varied and interesting. It is full of wonderful, generous people.

Seldom in normal life will you meet as many folk who will go so far to help you, or make lifelong friends so quickly as when you are cruising.

This is a very special sort of life and quite a free existence. The rewards are immense. It brings people very close together.

To my mind the biggest danger is in being too prescriptive, too single-minded. It’s safer to go with the flow. Keep an ear out for trouble and give it a very wide berth.

If you do that, you don’t need to let any scaremongering or worries put you off. Sailing on your own boat is still the safest way to see the world. And as the movie said: ‘It’s a Wonderful World’.