Little Compass RoseCaribbean Compass   June 2009
Pirates and Bears in the Caribbean

by Devi Sharp

I know it sounds strange, but living in Alaska and camping in bear country prepared us in a small way for cruising in Venezuela. We did not forgo camping in bear country and we did not forgo cruising in Venezuela - we just took sensible precautions. Having said that, I do not consider myself smarter than the folks who have been victims of crime and violence in Venezuela; I consider it largely good fortune that we remained unmolested for the five months we enjoyed Venezuela in summer of 2008.
Back to bears. When you camp in bear country you become very aware of your surroundings. You take stock of the vegetation and the sources of attractants such as food - camping in heavy brush or near a salmon stream is not a good idea. At any location you need to make a plan to protect yourself and prevent the bear from entering camp and being successful in getting your food. We used bear-resistant food containers and carried bear spray and a flare gun, and at times a shotgun. We never had to use any of our protective equipment, but we always knew where they were and how to use them.

Okay, now back to boats and the discomforting reality that there is a lot of crime in Venezuela. And no matter how hard you are struggling to make your fixed income meet your cruising kitty, you are rich compared to many folks living in the Caribbean and Venezuela and are an attractive target for burglars and thieves.
My husband and I talked about what we would do in a variety of scenarios. We broke down the potentially most dangerous scenarios - those that might involve assault - to three possibilities: a boat approaching while we were underway, a boat approaching while we were at anchor, and a nighttime boarding.
We reviewed our defensive equipment: flares and flare gun, pepper spray and air horn. (I have intentionally not discussed the use of firearms in this article. That is a personal decision that comes with great consequences.) We reviewed radio procedures.

Like avoiding camping in heavy brush near a salmon stream, our choice of anchorages was important. Before we traveled to an area we researched security reports so we could evaluate the risk and the nature of previous incidents. We consulted the Caribbean safety net at and the Caribbean section of the Noonsite website,, for accounts of incidents in each area. We looked in the cruising guides for advice about the safety of a location. We also spoke with cruisers who had been around a while and listened to their experiences.

Like preventing bears from entering our campsites in Alaska, our focus was on not letting the bad guys board our boat.
In case of an approaching boat full of bad guys we decided we would first try to outrun or out-maneuver it and avoid contact, but this can be hard to do in a sailboat. After reading many accounts of piracy while underway we determined that many boardings were avoided by shooting a flare at, or into, an open boat. The gas tank is a powerful incentive to avoid a flare. If approached we planned to use the flare gun, or pepper spray at closer range, to deter boarders. If shots were fired we would stay low in the hope that the hull would absorb some of the impact of the bullet. If possible we would call the Guardia on the radio.

At anchor, we avoided behavior that we thought would make us vulnerable, such as running the generator at night, going over to another boat for drinks, or going below and becoming engrossed in a movie. Until we knew their intentions, we would not lean out over the lifeline to talk to visitors; we would stay low in the cockpit. We also used what we call the "gut check" - if we had a bad feeling about the situation we would go elsewhere. If there were other yachts in the anchorage we made contact and asked what VHF channel they monitored at night. In case of being approached by baddies while at anchor, we would follow the same general plan as if approached at sea - use the flare gun, horn, and pepper spray to keep boarders off of the boat - and would use the VHF to notify other boats or the Guardia if we were being boarded or harassed. (Venezuela has a very active Guardia and in one anchorage the Guardia gave us their cell phone number so we could call them if we had a problem at night in an anchorage. We had all of the Guardia numbers programmed in our cell phone.)

We always slept with a steel grate in our companionway and have installed a bar across the hatch above our bed. We closed all other access points. I have heard people express concern about being "locked in", but people do this all the time in houses. The grate gives us the opportunity to see what is happening outside and evaluate the situation, and the lock is on the inside. We kept a bright flashlight and other defensive equipment handy. If you shine a light at the bad guy you have just given away your position, so you must hold the light away from your body. We are able to turn on cockpit and deck lights from the interior of the boat in hopes that the lights would scare off a boarder. We also turned down the volume on the cockpit radio, so we could call from inside without being heard.

We removed the easy-to-take stuff, such as fenders, cushions, boat hooks and life rings and put them down below. We tried using a motion detector but found that it was too sensitive to waves and boat movement and if we turned down the sensitivity we could sneak up on it. We plan to work on improving the alarm system. We kept a few stashes of cash that were easy to find in hopes that if boarded the cash would satisfy the thieves, but at that point you are in a very poor position to manage the situation.
It surprised us that we met so many cruisers who had no security plan and just lived in fear of "something happening". They had never given any thought to what specific defensive actions they could take if a hostile boat approached while they were at sea or at anchor. That would be like camping in bear country beside a salmon stream without planning what to do if a bear comes into camp.

My husband and I both understand that the best plan could be useless in a second, but on the other hand a plan could save our lives.

Cruisers - Don't Be Losers!

Many of these tips on how yachtspeople can avoid being the victim of burglary or theft come from where, over the years, a list of tips has been developed through the suggestions of many cruisers. These precautions are not very different from the way you'd take care of your house or your car: most people lock their house when they are away and lock their car when they leave it. Your yacht is your house and your dinghy is your car.

1) It is always prudent to lock the yacht when you leave for a trip to shore or a visit to another yacht. Secure all access points, including hatches and ports: it's amazing how small an opening a skinny kid can get through!

2) Have a stash, in case thieves do get below. Separate and hide valuables in multiple unpredictable areas. In addition to hiding passports and ship's papers, hide a copy of each in a different spot. Make two copies of the contents of your wallet: credit cards (both sides), licenses, etcetera. Send one copy to a contact at home and hide one copy. If possible, hide a spare GPS and handheld VHF.

3) Outboards are a major target: always lock them, either to the dinghy when in use or to the yacht if not. Lock dinghy to dock when ashore (using a long enough cable or chain so others can get their dinghies to the dock, too). Hoist and chain the dinghy to the yacht at night. Chain the outboard separately to the rail or in the cockpit, or stow it below.

4) Don't leave attractive items (scuba/snorkeling gear, gas tanks, etcetera) unlocked in the dinghy, or on deck when you're away from the yacht or sleeping.

5) Why broadcast that your yacht will be unoccupied? If using VHF radio to make plans to be off the yacht (e.g. restaurant reservations, tours arrangements or get-togethers with friends), use your name, not the boat's name. If someone is calling a neighboring boat on the VHF, don't helpfully advise the caller that the neighbors are off the boat. If you call another boat on the VHF and they don't answer, don't keep calling - you could be alerting someone listening in that they are off the boat. Consider getting a cell phone so you can make arrangements discreetly.
The yacht's name painted on a dinghy ashore indicates that at least one person is away from the yacht.

6) Avoid known high-risk anchorages; especially, do not anchor alone there if you can avoid it. If you must, use full security precautions.

7) Ashore, be aware of your environment and dress/act accordingly. Avoid wearing flashy clothing and expensive-looking jewelry, displaying large wads of cash, staggering back to the dinghy-dock drunk, etcetera.

8) Many thefts occur while the boat is on the hard. Don't forget about security precautions when the yacht is out of the water.

9) If you are involved in an incident, report it to the local authorities (police, coast guard, marina management, tourist office and yachting/marine trade organization) and to the Caribbean Safety and Security Net. An incident unreported, for all practical purposes, never happened.

10) Make security precautions a regular habit. The more difficult you make things for the criminal, the more likely he is to leave you and your property alone. Developing safety habits and contingency plans will contribute to a more enjoyable cruise.

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