Safety at Sea - Dealing With An Actual Threat

We continue our series on maritime security by looking at how to handle a perceived or actual threat to you and your crew. And I will continue to paraphrase the comments and words of Gary Stubblefield, a retired SEAL who shared a wealth of real life information on this and other security subjects. He is an expert and corroborates what other experts have said.

That boat running up behind you may be a high speed transport from one town to the next, pulling up to you to see if you have the latest weather forecast...or it might be something more sinister. How to tell?

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That is where night vision and stabilized binoculars come in. They tell you if there is some threat approaching your boat.

As Stubblefield explained, “If you walk into a bar, you have a sixth sense that tells you if there are people here that you should be fearful of. Same thing goes when you look at people running boats.

“Thugs look like thugs. I don’t know how else to explain it, but bad guys look like bad guys. Generally speaking, a low life is going to look like low life. So when you look at a boat in the distance coming at you, even if the guy is driving a $100,000 speedboat coming up your backside, and he looks like, well, let’s just say he doesn’t look like George Clooney on his boat, then you’re probably going to think this guy doesn’t look like he is supposed to look.”

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Pay attention to your instincts.

Everything else aside, don’t be afraid to tell the world you think you are about to be boarded. In international waters, no one has the right to board you. Even if an official-looking boat approaches you, with men in uniforms, don’t assume anything. In the U.S. we have become conditioned to assume we can be pulled over at any time for any reason by police without obvious provocation.

While in our country we think it is okay for people to be stopped by the authorities, actually it is not a good thing.

Don’t hesitate to communicate to the world that you have a risk approaching. Don’t hesitate to give your position on the VHF radio and SSB if you have one that a suspicious vessel is approaching you with the potential intent on doing harm. Inform everyone on the radio that you will be transmitting frequent status reports on this frequency as the situation unfolds, and will come back when things are clear.

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This is not a Mayday call, but as this situation can be highly stressful for you and your crew, it is not a bad idea to write a script to read in such a situation, so you only have to add your current position lat/lon to complete the prepared message.

(Letting those on the approaching boat see you on the radio is a good thing as well. They will be less likely to complete their intentions if they think you are communicating with authorities and other vessels. It never hurts to show yourself on the radio.)

Sometimes just turning on your lights lets them know that you are aware of their presence. A good spotlight can illuminate the approaching boat and communicate volumes if they expected a surprise visit, especially if they are blacked out. Lighting also acts as a warning.

Light Him Up

While on the subject of lighting, it is important to be clear about the need to light them up, not yourself. No bad guy likes to be in the spotlight, literally. It also blinds him and takes away his night vision.

When you are anchored, and you hear a noise on deck, the absolutely worst thing you can do is also the most common reaction, to turn on an interior light to get out of your berth. Rather than shed light on the bad guy (if there is one), you have just killed your night vision, illuminated yourself as well as where you are on the boat. As dumb as it gets.

It is much better to be able to throw a switch that turns on your mast and other exterior lights, wired to throw the entire deck and exterior into bright light, especially doable now with small intense LED lighting fixtures around the boat. Anyone on deck is going to be immediately uncomfortable as the center of attention, and yet he still won’t know who you are, how many are aboard, and where you are. This is a much better scenario.

 Perhaps this is a bit extreme, but it would be hard to sneak aboard a boat so well lit. Take control of your exterior lighting. Wire a system together that you can switch on from near your berth, at the helm, or other locations where it is easy to get to undetected in the dark interior.

Perhaps this is a bit extreme, but it would be hard to sneak aboard a boat so well lit. Take control of your exterior lighting. Wire a system together that you can switch on from near your berth, at the helm, or other locations where it is easy to get to undetected in the dark interior.

Common sense should tell you to put the lights on the bad guy, not yourself.

If your boat is set up properly and can handle the electrical load, it is not a bad idea to leave exterior lighting on all night, as it is good deterrent to keep anything from happening. Having your boat bathed in bright light is a simple way to avoid trouble. Alternately, using night vision on a black-out vessel keeps you situationally aware of any threats.

In high risk areas, it might also make sense when underway to mimic the lighting of a working fishing vessel, with red over white, if any fishing boats display their lights, that is.

Maneuver!

It always helps if you can increase your speed to get out of an area where risk is perceived. If you can’t out distance a threat take a zigzag course, which can be used quite successfully.

Stubblefield said that few people realize that a boat or car in their control is a weapon in itself, and can be used effectively to ram a smaller skiff, causing damage that won't likely harm your own boat. His special operations background trained him to see weapons outside normal awareness. Just like any large automobile, a boat is one of the least known but best weapons in the world (and which people never seem to think about). You have a tremendous advantage already. International security training teaches that if you are driving a car in a hostile environment and are about to be taken over by a bad guy who tries to stop you, run him over!

“A boat or car is a wonderful weapon when you are really in trouble,” he told me. So if you can turn around and run right over a small boat following you, it is going to hurt him way more than you. And the bad guys won’t know what to do. Even though they may be faster or more maneuverable, that doesn’t mean you can’t hurt them.

Don’t Make It Easy

When you are cruising in remote areas, if you have the choice, don’t make your swim platform an open invitation. A German couple told me they purposely didn’t have a swim platform on their Nordhavn 46 as they previously found it impossible to keep fishermen and islanders from boarding the swim platform when they cruised remote island chains. Maybe they want to sell you something out of their canoe, but perhaps they have something else in mind. Think about that. Once they step on your swim platform, they are on your boat.

 Not having a swim platform allows you to control the situation. You can talk with those in a small boat from the safety of the cockpit while they remain in their dugout canoe or skiff, and determine their intentions. A swim platform invites them to sit on or the very natural tendency to climb onto your platform (and boat) to talk. A little separation is a good thing.

Not having a swim platform allows you to control the situation. You can talk with those in a small boat from the safety of the cockpit while they remain in their dugout canoe or skiff, and determine their intentions. A swim platform invites them to sit on or the very natural tendency to climb onto your platform (and boat) to talk. A little separation is a good thing.

Making it easy for other to board your boat is not always a good thing, and a swim platform represents a sort of welcome mat. This suggests the value of a Valiant 42’s canoe stern over the built-in transom steps of many modern cruising sailboats, which is the trend these days. While they may be great for local cruising near home, "welcome mat" transoms may not the best for visiting remote areas of the world.

 A good compromise between convenience and security found on this Beneteau Oceanis 48. Notice the hinged swim platform that can be pulled up flush to the transom, leaving no steps available from a small boat.

A good compromise between convenience and security found on this Beneteau Oceanis 48. Notice the hinged swim platform that can be pulled up flush to the transom, leaving no steps available from a small boat.

If you have davits, don’t leave your dinghy in the water, as it also is an open invitation. Even subtle preventative measures lets any potential thief or bad guy know that you are better prepared than other nearby boats, so he will go elsewhere.

It’s all about eliminating opportunity. Have your exterior lit up and no inviting way to board are two great ways to stay safe while cruising. Motion detectors are also worth considering if you really want security, so any movement turns on lights or alarms. Even if you are doing the Great Loop, keeping a couple of drunk guys off your boat is a good goal using these techniques. (This happened to a friend in Tennessee. They wanted to move their party onto his boat. Or another friend in Miami had a young couple sneak aboard his Fleming 55 to have some intimacy and fool around on the flybridge. They chose his boat as it was dark and appeared to have no one aboard.)

Again, don't make it easy.

As you probably know, having a dog is both a great deterrent and a four-legged defensive device. On Spitfire, we cruised with Annie, the sweetest faux golden retriever you will ever meet (when we rescued her we thought she was a golden mix, but her DNA shows she is equal parts Sheltie, Lab, and Norwegian Elkhound). She is a real sweetheart, loved by all.

 Annie seen here baking in the sun on  Spitfire's  flybridge. 

Annie seen here baking in the sun on Spitfire's flybridge. 

But despite her sweet disposition, Annie is a superb guard dog. She goes absolutely berserk when someone she doesn’t know comes near our transom steps or our front door at home. One doesn’t need to see her to imagine a rabid junkyard dog, as her bark is ferocious, loud, and downright scary. Her hackles go up when she engages a potential threat, and her blazing eyes shooting death rays and bared teeth are fiercely terrifying, truly a canine demon from Hell. A petty thief or other bad guy would have to be seriously delusional to step aboard, which reduced our crime risk to zero.

Non-Lethal Options

Sometime dealing with a threat involves countering violence with violence. We’re not going to discuss firearms just yet, as that is sufficient for a separate post. But we can take a look at non-lethal products that may prove effective, or at least provide a degree of comfort having them aboard.

Stun guns are not legal everywhere and some areas require formal instruction before one can purchase one. But they work well. If you go this route, don’t cheap out, get one with at least 150,000 volts of power. Keep the batteries charged, at least monthly. Baton versions are meant to keep someone at a distance versus the direct contact of a stun gun. Both do the job.

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The other product that works well is pepper spray, the kind that can shoot up to a distance of 20 feet. Pepper spray is very effective for the kinds of encounters faced on a boat. We’re not talking about keychain-sized units but rather the larger size cans, often carried in bear country.

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The one problem with pepper spray is that you never want to spray someone upwind of you, as it can come back to you. But as long as it takes out the bad guy for a half hour, you have accomplished your goal. Pepper spray is an effective tool that gives you the freedom of a proactive option without having a firearm onboard, which cannot be overstated. You will have the assurance of some protection without the risks associated with deadly weapons.

Cans of pepper spray should be replaced annually to ensure the propellant is full strength.

One last choice to consider is a handheld airhorn or quality whistle. Bad guys hate airhorns. They can’t stand the noise as it draws attention to them, much as a panic switch turns on a siren wired on the boat. If you have a panic situation, loud is good.

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In my next post, I will discuss the issue of firearms, and I hope to replace misinformation and sheer bravado with solid, honest information on this subject. Firearms are serious and dangerous business.