How great are the risks of piracy worldwide and what can sailors do to minimise them?



The brutal murder of yachtsman Malcolm Robertson (pictured right with his wife Linda), believed bludgeoned to death in Thailand when robbers broke into his 44ft yacht, is yet another terrible reminder of the vulnerability of a boat at anchor in many places of the world.

But where is piracy rife, and are there any ways of minimising the risks?

The answer to the first question is that piracy is rife hardly anywhere in the world. The tragic case of Malcolm Robertson is especially newsworthy for its rarity. Attacks in Thailand are almost unheard of: this is a friendly and welcoming country where cruisers generally feel very safe.

There are, however, two notable exceptions: the Gulf of Aden; and Venezuela, where armed attacks are increasing in number and violence. Parts of the country are no-go areas – see an official map of risk areas here).

The Gulf of Aden continues to be a big problem area. Patrols by the Combined Task Force are helping and the Yemeni government has committed itself to tackling it from their side by setting up three anti-piracy centres.

Here, however, pirates are after much bigger fry than yachts. They prefer to hijack ships because they often get large ransoms for their release. As for the GPS units, VHF radios and small amounts of cash that were the big lure on yachts – all but the poorest fishermen have them now.

Meanwhile, cruising sailors acutely conscious of the dangers are getting better at organising convoys and have, perhaps for the first time in 20 years, succeeded in reducing the real risks below the perceived level.

If by the term piracy we mean groups operating a policy of robbery at sea, the risk is extremely small. Attacks on yachts are usually small-scale opportunistic thefts, and where they have escalated into extreme violence, I’m prepared to bet most are spur-of-the-moment impulses carried out under the influence of drugs.

While rare, these are more random. In the last decade murders on yachts have occurred in Brazil, St Vincent, St Lucia, Barbuda and now Thailand. And because cases are infrequent and random it is hard to guard against them. There’s a limit to how much you can fortify a yacht, or be suspicious about locals and fishermen without subverting the whole concept of a long-term cruise and perverting its open-mindedness.

But it is a subject we’ve often covered in Yachting World and here are some suggestions to improve on board security put forward by long-term cruisers

1.Lift your dinghy alongsidethe toerail or on board at night, and if possible rig up a strop and halyard to make that easy. One of the easiest and highest value things to steal is a dinghy and outboard, and it will draw robbers to, and possibly on board, your boat. Going on initial reports, that’s what appears to have happened on the Robertson’s boat

2.Lift up the transom boarding ladder. This simple precaution will make it much more difficult to board your boat

3. Fit bunk fans andkeep the companionway hatch and other cabin hatches shutin areas you feel could be a problem (eg, some parts of the Caribbean). Ideally, all internal hatches should open toward the companion, and jamb toward the cabin

4. If you are worried about being boarded,fit an inexpensive infrared alarmin the cockpit that will emit a loud shriek.

5. Alwaysstow knives and any other items that might be used as a weapon

6.Fit a concealed safefor valuable possessions. Some cruisers also keep out of date credit cards, other fake valuables and some cash ready to give up if attacked. In my view this is risky – if robbers demand valuables, give them the real thing and don’t rely on fooling them; cash and items are replaceable but you and your crew are not.

7.Keep a hand-held VHF beside your bunkif you are in a suspect area

8. If you’re in a dodgy area,set up an anchor and VHF watchbetween nearby yachts

9. When you anchor,do pre-start-checksso that you can make way at a moment’s notice and keep a safe course to steer out written down by the wheel

10.Keep a red parachute flare handyso that it can be fired out of a hatch to raise the alarm

You’ll notice that I’ve not included guns on this list. Many US cruisers carry guns; British boats generally don’t. The reasoning is that if you have one, you’d better be prepared to shoot to kill, which hugely escalates the risks and consequences.

Finally, it’s worth reiterating how rare attacks are in most popular sailing areas worldwide. The risks of being mugged ashore are vastly greater. Be cautious but don’t panic. A cruising reader, Stephen Yeo, who suffered four robberies on a circumnavigation a couple of years ago, says it’s important not to be deterred from friendly interaction.

“I was approached on several occasions only to find that the ‘weapon’ I though the attacker was waving turned out to be a fish. He is hoping you might buy it, sometimes for as much as a dollar. And sometimes the locals come over to your boat because they are curious/bored/want water/old T-shirts, etc.”

Have you got some tips on security? Please email me with your comments and other suggestions using the ‘comment on my blog’ link just below and I’ll follow up on this subject here and in the next issue of Yachting World.