What reasonable measures can you take to ensure your sailing security? Helen Fretter reports

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How safe is it to sail around the world and what precautions do you need to take? We asked bluewater sailors who have cruised areas including the Caribbean, Pacific and Indian Ocean how safe they felt living aboard. Reassuringly, none reported what they considered to be any serious incidents. They also shared tips on how they had improved security afloat.

The most fundamental decision every sailor said they made to reduce risk was in their choice of route. Besides keeping abreast of the political climate and other risks in the local press and on Foreign Office websites, Noonsite publishes reports of issues affecting cruising sailors by region, with a page dedicated to piracy and security incidents.

The Caribbean Safety and Security Net (CSSN) also publishes reports made by yachtsmen of incidents in the Caribbean, including the many thefts from unsecured yachts or dinghies.

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Motion sensors in the companionway and movement-sensitive padlocks on the dinghy and outboard were favoured options

Sue Richards, editor of Noonsite, says: “Cruisers need to have their wits about them and research in advance the reputation a place has so they can prepare where to anchor/moor, where to go and how to behave once they get there. Twenty years ago, your average cruiser was pretty low profile. Nowadays, there are many more out there doing it, on high-value boats with flashy kit. Consequently, they are a hot target.”

Stuart Letton, who has sailed his Island Packet 45, Time Bandit, from Scotland to the southern hemisphere, says he trusts his instincts when choosing a Caribbean anchorage. “We’ve never had any problems but we have steered clear of some of the bays in St Lucia.

“St Vincent I’d never stop in an open bay again; a very unpleasant vibe. I have to say, it’s one reason we’ve really enjoyed the Pacific – the Caribbean without the hassle.”

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While volunteering for the Sea Mercy charity on his 47ft catamaran Shine of Exeter, Paul Whetter has visited remote and poverty-stricken regions but says they have felt safe on board. “In our three years cruising I can honestly say we never had any concerns.

“We travelled the well-trodden path from the Med to Australia and were probably more cautious in the Caribbean than anywhere else and avoided Venezuela on purpose.

“Along the way I did see a couple of issues, the first a Dutch couple who went into Essaouira in Morocco to hide from the same weather as us. We anchored off, they went into the port and unfortunately were robbed in broad daylight whilst at the Customs office.

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A custom-made companionway security grille. Photo: rapidengineering.co.uk

“There was also the occasional fishing rod that disappeared from the backs of boats in French Polynesia. Whilst for us it is plain theft, you have to ask yourself how much of it could be coming from a different culture where nothing is owned.”

Only one sinister incident was reported by any of our cruising sailors. Suzy Carmody, who has been sailing around the world on her Liberty 458 Distant Drummer, recalls: “In the Java Sea we were followed by a strange boat.

“In Asia most fishing boats are brightly painted and are strewn with buoys and nets and men hanging about smoking. This boat was painted black, had no fishing equipment and there was no-one around on deck.

“They followed us for two hours coming up close then pulling back to about 200m, again and again. We tried to hail them on the radio, then I took the helm and Neil got the flare gun out and we monitored them closely. We think they were trying to intimidate us but eventually they got bored and peeled away.”

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‘If you think there is a chance you might be boarded, have a plan,’ urges Bones Black

Moveable objects

The most common reported incidents on sites such as CSSN are petty thefts. Bones Black, who runs ocean cruising charters on the Bowman 57 Emily Morgan, comments, “I think there is a great deal of scaremongering going on.

“Yes, a boat may have been broken into in a particular anchorage but when you unravel the facts it was years ago and a mobile phone and a pair of binoculars were stolen that were left in the cockpit.

“Would you park your car with all the windows open, a laptop on the seat and expensive sunglasses on the dash? Of course not, so let’s apply common sense!”

All the cruisers we spoke to have developed robust systems to secure their dinghy and outboard. “When ashore we always lock the dinghy with an 8mm stainless steel chain with a big lock welded to it, and the other end secured to a hard point in the dinghy. We had a dinghy stolen in St Martin. It was locked with a cable, they just cut the cable!” comments Bones.

Tereysa Vanderloo has been cruising the Caribbean and blogging on their Southerly 38 Ruby Rose. She says: “Dinghy theft is unfortunately relatively common in some parts of the Caribbean.

“We work on the premise that thieves will target the dinghy that looks easiest to steal; therefore, we endeavour to make sure ours looks more difficult to steal than others in the vicinity.”

Carmody says: “Our yacht insurance requires the outboard to be attached to the dinghy with a specific outboard lock in order to be covered by the policy. The locks of course are very expensive and do not preclude the dinghy as well as the outboard being stolen!

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Bicycle theft on shore is fairly common, but rarer from on board. The Carmodys lock their bicycles to the aft deck when not on passage. Photo: Suzy Carmody

“Paddles also go missing and I’ve seen holes drilled in the blades so that they too can be secured with wire rope.” She adds: “The bane of our lives has been our bicycles. In the last three years both bikes have been stolen as well as various parts. It always happens when we leave them ashore locked up on the dock or close by, so it’s a land-based issue.”

Keeping intruders out

The tender can often be used to make your yacht less accessible – to both humans and wildlife. David Batten, who sailed his 56ft custom cruiser Alcedo of Ryme from the Caribbean to New Zealand, says: “Every night we put the dinghy away. This has the double advantage that if we have to move in the night there is no dinghy to complicate things and whilst in the Galapagos we were not invaded by the sea lions!”

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A harness to support the dinghy from the spinnaker halyard makes it harder to board or tamper with when tied up to the boat. Suzy Carmody originally constructed this harness when cruising the Kimberleys in Northern Territory, Australia, to keep crocodiles out of the dinghy. Photo: Suzy Carmody

Bones Black adds: “Most boardings occur at night via the boarding ladder or over the sugar scoop at the transom. Catamarans can be more vulnerable. A monohull can pull the dinghy up on davits to block the transom making it almost impossible to get aboard that way.

“We always pull the boarding ladder up and hoist the dinghy but we have quite a high freeboard so it is very hard to get aboard from the water, but not impossible for the persistent.”

Options to deter intruders include security grilles and motion-sensor alarms. Stuart Letton on Time Bandit uses both. “Maybe to some eyes [I’m] a bit paranoid but then I do get good quality sleep.

“On retiring we always lock ourselves in with our stainless steel barred gate. This gate is one of the most useful things we’ve bought allowing us to leave the boat locked and ventilated 24/7.

“In some areas, Caribbean anchorages for example, I will mount our £20 B&Q infra-red alarm. This shrieks when a body comes in range. I have two.

“One is mounted in a poly bag in the cockpit, which would hopefully pick up movement before anyone gets aboard. The second is in the cabin looking out into the cockpit.

“I will often use this when leaving the boat for a few minutes rather than putting the hatch in. It’s a shame a marine electronics company doesn’t sell a marinised version at a reasonable price.”

Other simple precautions include leaving the stereo on, together with LED lights in the cockpit and saloon if the yacht is unattended. One cruiser adds: “We also have a hidden safe disguised as a standard pantry item (complete with authentic label) that holds our credit cards. We also have a false bottom in one of our lockers under which is a second locker, where we keep important documents.”

Unwanted visitors

Nobody wants to think about being boarded, but it’s imperative to agree what you would do in that scenario – just as you would for a fire or other incident on board your boat. Black says: “If we did get boarded we have already discussed a plan. Anna stays in the cabin with the door shut, I would put all the deck and cockpit lights on and make lots of noise. This should scare them off.

“Do not be a hero! Stay safe, stay below. There may be more than one and they may well be drugged up, on alcohol, armed and feel invincible. It could be a Mayday situation so don’t be frightened to hit the distress button on the VHF. Designate it ‘Piracy’. This will alert all the boats around you and the authorities. You can always cancel it.

“Personally I would not have a weapon. I have heard that most injuries to cruisers have been with their own weapons. I have thought a fire extinguisher may be the only thing I might use, but when faced with a situation who knows how I would react! This is why we have discussed it.”

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Yachts with a high freeboard, such as this Bowman 57, can be relatively challenging to board from the water when swim ladders are lifted and the dinghy is up on davits

Suzy Carmody agrees: “We do not carry firearms on board although we have been offered them a number of times. Apart from the huge hassle they cause when crossing borders, we decided that if you have a gun you need to know when to use it and I’m pretty sure the average Indonesian pirate doesn’t look much different from the average Indonesian fisherman.”

Some cruisers chose to keep their emergency plans anonymous, one saying: “My contingency is a decent sum of US dollars in the safe and be ready to use it if necessary.”

Making friends

While caution is wise, many sailors we spoke to felt that making yourself known to locals and fishermen can make you less of a target. Suzy Carmody says: “Indonesia has a bad reputation for piracy but we spent four months cruising through the entire archipelago and only met friendly locals and curious fishermen. Usually we give them a fishing lure or a couple of cigarettes to keep good relations with the neighbours.”

Bones Black adds: “Some of the local boat boys can be pushy and quite intimidating. I make sure they come alongside forward of the cockpit so they cannot case the joint. I also strike up a bit of rapport with them: ‘What’s your name? I like your boat, my name is Bones etc.’

“If it’s just the two of us I may well go to the companionway and shout down “John, Sally, Dave, Harry, do you want any fruit or veg?” just to make them think there are more people on board.”

First published in the October 2017 edition of Yachting World.