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Life At Sea: Keeping Trouble At Bay

Dexter Van Zile

Viv Maren and her husband, Bo Altheden, were sailing the waters near Venezuela last March when they learned firsthand that pirate attacks are not just the stuff of Robert Louis Stevenson novels and Errol Flynn films. However rare, they are still an actual threat in the modern world. The Swedish couple had no reason to suspect that four men approaching in a pirogue asking for cigarettes intended any harm— until Altheden was shot when he went topside to tell the men there were no cigarettes on board.

As Altheden lay on the floor of the cockpit, bleeding, the armed men boarded the vessel and terrorized the couple with knives and pistols while ransacking the boat for jewelry, cash, and alcohol. Eventually, after Maren pleaded for her life and that of her husband, the bandits sped away with their loot. Altheden survived his wound, but only after five hours of surgery in a Trinidad hospital.

The attack, one of at least three recorded acts of piracy that took place near the Venezuelan coast last year, typifies a growing trend of violence against yacht owners along the coastlines of impoverished countries. It’s part of a larger problem of violence and lawlessness on the high seas.
For the past decade, the number of attacks on all types of vessels has increased substantially. According to the Piracy Reporting Center, established in 1992 by the International Maritime Bureau (IMB) in response to a rise in piracy incidents against commercial cargo vessels, the number of reported attacks has increased nearly fivefold in the last decade. It rose from 302 in 1999 to 469 in 2000—a jump of 56 percent in just one year. The IMB has not yet tallied all of last year’s incidents, but expects the final count for 2001 to be considerably higher than the 2000 total.

The ferocity and audacity of the attacks have increased as well, says Pottengal Mukandan, a former sea captain and now the director of Commercial Crime Services for the IMB. In all of 2000, there were eight reported hijackings on the high seas, and in the first nine months of 2001, there were 15. “Pirates have become increasingly determined and well armed and quite willing to use their weapons,” says Mukandan.


Despite the rising number of piracy incidents, many yacht owners remain oblivious to the danger, says Kenneth Gale Hawkes, a Miami maritime attorney who has written two books about maritime security—one for commercial ship owners and another for yacht owners. “They’re becoming a bit more aware, but you’d be amazed at how many yacht owners have absolutely no idea of the threats they’re facing,” he says. “On land, owners will travel around in armored motorcades with bodyguards, but once they get on board their yacht everyone goes home. They think they’re safe just because they’re on their boat.”

In fact, the opposite is true, says Hawkes. Opulent-looking yachts with gunwales close to the water present tantalizing targets to would-be bandits. Thieves know yachts and their passengers are carrying cash, jewelry, and other portable valuables that can be easily sold on the black market.

Last December’s murder of Sir Peter Blake aboard his 118-foot sailboat on the Amazon is a case in point. Blake, the revered New Zealand sailor who won the 1995 and 2000 America’s Cup, was shot in the chest during a robbery in which his assailants stole $1,500 in cash, some watches, an outboard motor, and camera equipment. “If a boat looks like it’s going to have televisions and Rolex watches—that’s when people are going to board,” says Hawkes. “Nice yachts bespeak money.”

One obvious way that boat owners can protect themselves is to stay away from countries where law enforcement is ineffective or corrupt and where guns are readily available. Consider this the yachting equivalent of staying out of bad neighborhoods. Predictably, drug trafficking, smuggling, and violent political conflict in an area are key indicators that piracy may be a problem there. Well-known hot spots in East Asia include the seas surrounding Indonesia, Malaysia, and Bangladesh as well as the South China Sea. In Africa, the Gulf of Aden is notorious for pirate attacks emanating from Somalia. A high number of attacks have also been reported from the Gold Coast.


“Poverty is always the critical factor,” says Patrick Estebe, a former French marine captain and the founder of AffAirAction, a security consulting firm in Florida that specializes in training yacht crews and owners to protect themselves from attacks like the one that killed Blake. “Many a fisherman will turn out to be an occasional pirate during harsh times, his conscience dulled by the needs of his family,” explains Estebe. “Some places just offer more opportunities.”

In addition to arming yourself with the knowledge of where attacks are likely to take place, there are other measures you can take to protect yourself, including arming yourself with weapons. Not everyone agrees that carrying a weapon on your vessel is a good idea, but some experts suggest that keeping a rifle, a shotgun, and a pistol on board will give you a better chance to prevent or to defend yourself against a boarding. The rifle can be used to keep hostile boats at a distance; the shotgun to prevent attackers from climbing over the rail; and the pistol to defend the boat and its passengers if the bandits do get on deck.

The primary purpose of arming yourself, says Hawkes, is to communicate to would-be attackers that the crew will defend itself with deadly force if necessary. The goal is to avoid using the weapons, but if brandishing a weapon isn’t enough, it may be necessary to fire. “You’ve got to look at a boarding as an extreme life-threatening situation,” Hawkes says. “If you allow that boarding to continue, you may very well lose your ship and your life.”

Hawkes acknowledges that carrying weapons does entail legal risks. Some law enforcement agencies will regard a weapon on board as evidence of gun-running and incarcerate the crew and owner. However, Hawkes believes the threat of legal action is less of a risk than the possibility of having to face down a group of armed bandits without a weapon of your own. “I’d rather be tried by 12 than buried by six,” he says.


While the presence of weapons on board a vessel can land the owner and crew in jail—a bad prospect in a foreign country—it can produce even worse consequences. With Blake, it turned an act of petty thievery into a lethal gunfight. Blake was shot in the chest after he stormed up from belowdecks brandishing a rifle and shot one of the bandits in the hand. Brazilian law enforcement officials suggest that Blake may have survived the confrontation if he had not used the weapon, asserting that the bandits would have taken a few valuables and left the scene.

The IMB tells commercial ship owners that crews should not be armed, because they will always be outgunned by pirates. The same advice is applicable to yacht owners, says Mukandan. “By carrying weapons you may be creating a worse problem,” he says. “I think the better answer is for yachts to keep away from coastal areas if they can. Pirates tend to be near the coast so they can carry out their attacks, get their goodies, and return home. They don’t want to go out 50 to 60 miles to attack a boat.”

Pirates don’t necessarily want to attack the biggest private boats, either. Mega-yachts are not the most attractive targets. They present too much risk, Estebe says, because they are likely to be protected by well-armed security professionals. Additionally, attackers might assume (often correctly) that the owner has a high enough profile that his death would attract a lot of attention from the local police, as Blake’s murder did last year. Brazilian citizens told reporters they were surprised that Blake’s attackers were caught at all, much less within a day, because theft and violence along the river is commonplace. “Attackers know the owner’s social and economic status comes with political clout that is likely to hurt in case of trouble,” Estebe says.

If you insist on sailing through high-risk areas, consider traveling with at least one other boat, say security experts. Take the case of Wanderlust. Last April, the yacht was sailing at night from the Maldives through the Gulf of Aden when one of its crew members, scanning the 6-mile radar screen, spotted two boats off starboard. Because neither vessel had its running light on, the captain and crew suspected the worst. When Wanderlust increased its speed from 6.5 knots to 8.5 knots, and the two boats kept pace, the captain contacted the U.S. embassy in Djibouti, but was informed that it could not offer any help. Next, Wanderlust radioed a U.S. Navy vessel that was stationed in the region, but the Navy said it could not act until the boats took aggressive action against the yacht.


For eight hours through the night, the boats pursued Wanderlust, until it contacted another yacht, Osprey. The two captains decided to change their courses and sped toward each other. The pirate boats, apparently realizing that help was on the way, ended their chase and disappeared from the radar screen. Wanderlust and Osprey completed their journey through the gulf together.

Whether you sail alone or with another vessel, you should equip your yacht with loudspeakers and spotlights, says Hawkes. The lights and loudspeakers can be used to warn the bandits that they have been seen and that more defensive measures are imminent. “If someone comes into range, the crew should turn the speakers on and blast them with spotlights,” says Hawkes. “That gives the intruders the message to stop or face the consequences.”

Estebe endorses the spotlight-and-loudspeaker defense, too, noting that IMB records include several incidents of pirates being repelled simply by a vessel sounding an alarm and turning on its lights. “Pirates who have lost the element of surprise do have a tendency to abort their attack,” he says. Estebe also advises that if you are sailing in dangerous waters, you should do as the crew of Wanderlust did: Maintain a constant watch on deck and keep a close eye on the radar screen to eliminate any chance that you will be caught off guard.

“Being surprised,” he says, “is the first element for being victimized.”

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