How to prepare your yacht for pirate attacks

20 January 2015 • Written by Kate Hubert

It's possible to prepare your yacht for pirate attacks by outfitting a great deal of equipment to protect its passengers and crew. Masters and owners may also hire private armed security forces to protect their yacht against piracy. However, if the crew aren’t trained in how to respond to a pirate attack any preventative measures taken can be lost.

Marine security companies can provide audits of a boat’s security, and help to prepare a crew for when the worst might occur.

Improving security on your yacht

Security companies will look at the course the yacht will take across the high-risk area (HRA) and the unique setup of the yacht to tailor-make a training course for that vessel and crew. But security training isn’t just for stopping pirates taking a vessel.

‘Piracy worries gets people to talk to us,’ Dan Hooton, managing director of Spearfish Maritime Security, explains, ‘but we also work with them to give wider training for the majority of the time when they won’t be in high-risk areas.’

Training ideally takes place on board the yacht, just prior to transit, for two to three days.

‘We’ll get them to search each other and the ship, and then head out to sea,’ Hooton explains, ‘and then we’ll get them to launch a tender and reconstruct a skiff coming in.’

In this way some fun role-playing can prepare the crew for the most serious situation of a pirate attack.

‘We’ll start off slowly with the “skiff” stopping and starting so the bridge crew can practice their drills and try to manoeuvre the yacht so the tender can’t get alongside.’

The security team will identify a ‘citadel’– a safe room containing external communications equipment – and drill the crew on retreating there and make sure they can use external comms and, ideally, control the yacht.

‘You need a minimum of two to three days for security awareness training and longer to get to ISPS [International Ship and Port Facility Security Code] levels,’ says Barlow. ‘Training is often carried out on board, even on passage.’

When the transit is undertaken, Spearfish will send at least one of the trainers on the trip.

The citadel

If pirates do board the yacht, the crew can be locked down in the ‘citadel’. This should be a lockable, watertight section of the yacht (not the bridge) where communications and engine controls can be operated.

According to the IMO’s reports on merchant vessels attacked by Somali pirates, in the majority of cases where the pirates have been foiled, the crew retreated to a citadel and called for help. When the pirates realise they can’t get to the crew or sail the boat, they give up and flee the scene.

However, this is, at best, a short-term solution, and only practicable if help is no more than a few hours away. Pirates have been known to besiege citadels for days, before either breaking in or setting fire to the vessel.

Facing up to keeping your yacht, crew and guests safe in this changing world may threaten to take a little of the shine out of the pure pleasure of sailing. Yet if the systems are fully integrated and training kept up to date there is no reason why you shouldn’t be able to relax and enjoy your cruise, without feeling that you are sailing on a floating fortress.

Crossing a high-risk area

Even with training there is a limit to what the crew can operate safely, such as monitoring alarms and CCTV. For anything else a separate security team, usually of around two to six personnel, needs to be employed. They should be the only people on deck if pirates approach, as the yacht needs to appear (and be) well-prepared and well-defended.

In a recent transit Hooton’s team joined a large superyacht in Egypt.

‘As we headed down the Red Sea we hardened her up, adding wooden partitions and bracings, and trailing lines in the water.’

‘Pirates will look at a potential target from a long way out, if they see men in body armour and helmets, they know security is on board and decide not to risk it.’

The role of these personnel are to maintain a lookout and present the yacht and crew as being prepared to defend themselves against pirate attacks.

‘It’s vital to present as a hard target,’ says Hooton. ‘Prevention is better than cure.’

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