Somali pirates currently hold 113 hostages, according to the IMB Piracy Reporting Centre. In the last few years, these aggressive pirates’ reach has grown from offshore Somalia to across the Arabian Sea and even into the southern Red Sea, with nearly daily attacks on commercial ships and several tragic situations involving private cruising boats.
On the other side of the world and crime spectrum, this past winter has seen a rash of yacht intrusions and burglaries at a popular Caribbean megayacht base.
Despite the risks that piracy presents, whether security personnel should be armed remains one of the most contentious issues of anti-piracy security. The International Marine Organisation responded to the increased use of armed private security on yachts by issuing circulars providing guidance to masters and owners on the hiring, use of such security forces, and the preparations and contingencies that must be made. Yet while most American yachts don’t think twice about using armed security, many European operators tend towards a non-armed approach.
Captain Ben Marshall, of Red Dragon, is unequivocal: ‘I would not go through the Gulf area without armed security… I’ve never had any problems in port, so long as the weapons are correctly registered and declared, no one bats an eyelid – they think you’re being sensible.’
So what’s a yacht owner to do? Should you carry a weapon on your yacht in case of an attack or intruder?
Researching the dangers
The answer starts with a risk assessment, says William Watson, the Washington DC-based vice president of government affairs for the Maritime Security Council and deputy commissioner of maritime affairs for the Marshall Islands Registry.
‘We advise that the decision of whether or not to carry arms aboard should be part of a larger overall risk analysis. For example, just as cruising entails preparation so should there be a planning process for security. Questions to consider include, “What is your itinerary?” and “What do you plan to do?” In other words, what is crime like in the area where you will be cruising and how much of a target do you represent?’
The US State Department website is a good place to start. It has travel information for every nation in the world, including country specific travel alerts and warnings about crime, as well as updates on other volatile situations such as wars and natural disasters. For yachts that represent a high-target risk, there are many yacht security consultants that specialize in providing intelligence and risk assessments.
The next consideration is port state restrictions. Some countries don’t allow entry with a weapon on board or require a certain protocol in handling weapons. For example, firearms must be declared on arrival to any port in Italy and non-declaration means imprisonment.
Yachtsmen visiting Fiji must also declare all weapons, then hand these weapons over to authorities for the duration of the port stay or risk a prison sentence; they then need to notify port officials of their time of departure so that the weapons can be returned one hour prior. Firearms also will be held by customs for the duration of a yacht’s stay in the Cayman Islands unless the vessel is fitted with a safe that can be sealed. Yachts entering Mexican waters require a permit to carry firearms and/or ammunition issued prior to arrival through a Mexican embassy or consulate.
The onus is on the captain and owner to understand the weapons restrictions for each country on their itinerary, as one captain of a 22m Viking found out the hard way when he accidentally ‘introduced weapons to Mexico’.
He did not have the requisite permit but he had dutifully declared the owner’s private stash of weapons – a pistol, a 12-gauge shotgun and a rifle – to customs authorities upon arrival. But in Mexico, customs do not have the authority to regulate firearms. The department that does, the Ministry of Defence, later searched the yacht, which led to the captain’s detainment in prison and the seizure of the yacht for four months.
Flag state laws
The flag state of the yacht also governs the use and possession of on-board weapons. For example, a UK-flagged yacht may be equipped with a shotgun. If other firearms are carried on board, they must be purchased outside the UK and the vessel cannot return to UK waters. If it does, the weapons will be seized by customs.
Due to these restrictions, Steve Black, founder of the Caribbean 1500 Cruising Rally and owner of a Pacer 42 that he cruises extensively in the Atlantic, says, ‘I always recommended that our ralliers not carry weapons. You have to declare them on entry and leave them with customs in many locations. This means you won’t have them aboard in your quiet anchorage and that you have to leave the country through the same port you entered in order for the weapons to be returned.
‘Even if you were allowed to keep a weapon on board, since you wouldn’t carry it into town, it is likely to be in the hands of the thieves when you return to your boat unarmed.
‘A weapon also causes false confidence. You would do better to choose your anchorages carefully and avoid troubled areas.’
Psychological effect of guns
Another point to consider is who is on board, both crew and guests. For example, is your crew properly trained?
Firearm training in cities near major seaports often can include exercises in firing in marine situations, such as on a rolling deck.
In addition, is your 25 year-old captain mentally prepared to shoot and kill someone? Are there children on board? Is the crew trained how to use these weapons in case of an emergency?
As for high-profile guests, Captain Jason Langford of the 58m Netanya 8 said during a recent security conference in St. Thomas that he doesn’t see the necessity of carrying a gun on board while in the Caribbean where the worst crimes were typically petty thefts of a dinghy or money. But he does hire a professional security team when he is in a high-risk area with guests who potentially may be a target.
There are other methods of protection for those who decide that they don’t want to carry a weapon, such as flare guns.
Watson says, ‘You’re not supposed to fire these at someone, but in a threatening situation they can be helpful. There are also laser rifles that can temporarily blind someone up to a quarter-mile away. These cost in the range of $20,000 to $30,000, but that might not be an issue on a mega-million-dollar yacht.
‘You can also get Taser [guns] although these require training to use safely and effectively.’
For those who do choose to carry a weapon, it’s imperative to keep the original sales receipt to prove ownership and a log detailing both the amount and use of ammunition as well as serial numbers of all firearms that are aboard and stored in the weapon’s locker.
While less-than-lethal weapons are an option, their practical use against veteran pirates is questionable.
‘Things like LRAD are pretty useless in my opinion,’ says Captain Marshall. ‘The pirates are already deafened by the 90hp Yanmar engines in their skiffs.’
So what type of weapon is best? Watson recommends a pump-action 12-gauge shotgun that can be loaded with lethal ammunition (such as low-recoil buckshot or slugs) or less-than lethal ammunition (birdshot or rubber bullets). This is what one senior captain with more than 25 years of yachting experience says he carries aboard with the owner’s blessing.
The only problem, says Watson, ‘is that once you engage someone who’s shooting with real bullets you want to be able to return fire. There’s the old saying, “Never bring a knife to a gun fight.”’
Hiring security personnel
If you do decide to carry weapons, it is imperative to use the right professionals. Marshall works with Keith Simpson from the security firm Ironside Associates.
‘I’m ex-special forces, as are most of our personnel,’ says Simpson. ‘The armed approach is the only way to avoid being captured in my opinion; unarmed security guards are just more hostages waiting to be taken.
‘Some people don’t like the idea of carrying guns, but it’s not about shooting pirates, it’s about prevention, about stopping the situation from escalating.
‘Pirates harass and intimidate, but if they see armed personnel who are taking aggressive stances and wearing body armour they will withdraw.’
Simpson has run ‘pirate alley’ on numerous occasions.
‘There may be seven mother ships operating at one time, and the navies do not have the assets to cover them all.
‘I know yacht crew who’ve resigned rather than go through there without armed protection. They’re right in my opinion, you’d be mad not to take armed personnel. But you need to choose the right guys, with Special Forces experience.’