Safety at Sea - The Issue of Guns

During my years at PassageMaker and beyond there have been repeated discussions about carrying firearms on cruising boats. It always comes up as part of the preparations for extended cruising, and everyone seems to consider the gun option, at least in this country. Unfortunately, in my experience, too many people base their position on such topics on incomplete or misinformation and what they hear from other people.

Some people think they need to be armed to the teeth in a scary world, because they don't know how to properly manage their fears. They don't keep in mind that people around the world eat food, drink water, buy fuel, breathe air, have fun, and live life. So any consideration about leaving the dock is racked by what-if scenarios that are fear-based of the unknown. At one particular TrawlerPort seminar panel discussion that I've mentioned before, the subject of an abandon ship bag came up. Some men began discussing how many rounds of ammo were appropriate to bring along to survive. One of our panelists broke the tension building around this fearful dialog by saying she planned to put mascara and a credit card in the bag, as she knew she would land somewhere and wanted to be ready. It broke the mood.

I've met so many people with wonderful stories about visiting all kinds of exotic lands and meeting many great people, a few then getting robbed in Miami or somewhere closer to home. The only time I have been robbed on my boat was right here in Annapolis, when someone during the fall migration south came aboard my sailboat and stole my full aluminum propane tank.

We occasionally published articles on security and related issues, and once it generated a most unusual response. After one such piece, a marketing guy from Barrett Headquarters in Tennessee contacted me and offered to send me one of their .50 caliber sniper rifles to "test." He said it was the ultimate stand-off weapon from the bridge of a Grand Banks, as it can hit targets and do damage well over a mile away. I couldn't quite imagine achieving that kind of accuracy from a moving sailboat or trawler offshore or even from the flybridge of a stabilized Fleming 55. We kidded about doing something with this military grade, $10,000 rifle, but to what end? Cruising is about having fun and fixing things in exotic places.

 Our military uses the M82 Barrett rifle with great effectiveness to engage targets at long distances. It is an awesome weapon in the hands of a trained sniper team. It does not belong on a cruising boat.

Our military uses the M82 Barrett rifle with great effectiveness to engage targets at long distances. It is an awesome weapon in the hands of a trained sniper team. It does not belong on a cruising boat.

I have spoken to several key folks at the NRA over the years for related articles, such as traveling with guns from state to state on your boat. I know firearms instructors, and Gary Stubblefield, a retired SEAL team commander and a genuine expert on security, safety, and taking out bad guys up close and personal. 

My goal here is to provide you with substance and facts, not opinions on the dock. So you can decide for yourself whether you want to carry firearms on your boat. And are willing to accept what goes with that decision. It is that simple, and it is reality.

I am not reviewing the many complex laws about carrying firearms, which vary from country to country. All are much stricter than here in the U.S. And even in our country, laws concerning firearms differ from state to state.

But laws are not the issue here. No, it is a much more basic discussion than territorial legalities and restrictions. 

The Gun Option Among Other Choices

Good people are not bad people. And most good people find it unacceptable to shoot and kill another human being, no matter what the reason.

"Here's the thing with a violent capability," Gary told me, "If you have a gun and point it at somebody, the tendency is to say 'Stop or I'll shoot,' because we don't want to kill anyone. To take someone's life is unnatural. We don't want to do that.

"But to spray someone in the face with pepper spray, disabling him for 30 minutes or more, well, we don't have a problem with that. If the guy is about to hurt you or your crew, you don't even think twice about doing that."

 Sabre's Home Defense Pepper Gel is the latest technology, widely used by police departments. This particular model shoots out to 30 feet, will incapacitate a bad guy for 45 minutes, and has a four-year shelf life. In this image, he is holding the can in its mounting bracket

Sabre's Home Defense Pepper Gel is the latest technology, widely used by police departments. This particular model shoots out to 30 feet, will incapacitate a bad guy for 45 minutes, and has a four-year shelf life. In this image, he is holding the can in its mounting bracket

The newer products in the pepper spray category use gel instead of an atomized chemical mist, so it is harder to blow back on the user if the wind blows your way. The gel only works on what it hits, so it is safer to use than traditional pepper spray, both inside a boat and outdoors.

"So why not have something you and your crew will really use, because the worst thing you can do is pick up a gun and say, 'Stop or I'll shoot.'

"'Yeah right,' and he keeps coming. Unless you are very competent with a firearm in a stressful situation, you might not even hit him. With pepper spray, you will most certainly slow him down, especially if you hit him with his eyes open and inhaling."

Firearms are meant to reach out and touch someone. It can keep them at a distance. But contrary to what you and I probably envision (again, it is our lack of field experience), Stubblefield said that most "gunfights" occur at a distance of less that 10 feet, where pepper spray will work well. Also surprisingly, he said the majority of actual shooting situations in the real world happen between 3 and 10 yards.

And he knows the effects of stress in these situations, something most of us can't quite imagine. "I can't tell you how many times that I know of where men have started shooting at people 10 feet away, emptied their magazines, and never hit a thing. Not one hit."

Stress has that effect, so when the shooting starts, you fall back to the level of your training. More on that in a moment.

There is no question that firearms can be deadly. But another issue with a gun as a defensive weapon is that guns are fairly complicated. They are subject to deterioration in the marine environment. Most guns today are not all that simple and have many moving parts. They have sliding surfaces and actions, and ammunition is subject to corrosion.

 The .45 caliber 1911 is a favorite handgun, used in every U.S. conflict in the last 100 years. But look at the many parts!

The .45 caliber 1911 is a favorite handgun, used in every U.S. conflict in the last 100 years. But look at the many parts!

"When I teach people deadly force on board a yacht, I spend as much time teaching them how to maintain their weapons as I do teaching them how to shoot those weapons. Every two weeks in the tropics, they have to pull the guns out, clean them, oil them, and then put them back in their secure locker."

 This stainless steel Smith & Wesson .357 Magnum revolver is much simpler than a semi-automatic pistols.

This stainless steel Smith & Wesson .357 Magnum revolver is much simpler than a semi-automatic pistols.

The most foolproof handgun is a double action revolver, and it should be stainless steel, in a proper caliber to stop someone. The problem with "proper" caliber is that it will shoot right through the side of your boat, which would be unfortunate if you shoot in a direction below the waterline.

However, in Stubblefield's experienced view, the absolutely best defensive weapon, among all other firearm choices, is a 12-gauge shotgun.

 This Mossberg 12-gauge Mariner has a corrosion resistant finish.

This Mossberg 12-gauge Mariner has a corrosion resistant finish.

Practice, Practice, Practice

What is vital to gain any level of proficiency with firearms is dedicated, regular, and disciplined practice. How many people are willing to practice enough that they know without question they can hit a target where they are supposed to when the time comes, under the stress of an actual situation? Not very many, according to Stubblefield, including the police, as the average hit rate of law enforcement is around 12 percent, and most of those hits are off the mark and not deadly.

At the other extreme, and to get a sense of the kind of training employed by the top special forces, I asked Gary about SEAL training. While this was awhile ago, it is still likely close to accurate today. What is the training regime of those who achieve the absolute highest levels of expertise in hostile situations, where there is absolute certainly of doing everything right? He spoke of the special SEALs who are first into hostile buildings, the guys he calls the "Door Breakers." These guys rescue hostages held by terrorists and take out targets like bin Laden. To reach and maintain such unflappable focus, situational awareness, and team competency, they routinely shoot 400-600 rounds four or five times a week to maintain this skill level. When stress and confusion send the best prepared battle plans out the window, trained operators fall back to the level of their training and for them it is automatic, allowing every shot to go precisely where they need it to hit.

That is extraordinary and intense training, of course, but doesn't it put things into perspective?

The other aspect of gaining proficiency is disciplined practice. For example, he suggests shooting at a floating container tied to your boat, trailing astern. Try to hit it repeatedly. And what is a reasonable amount of practice for cruisers who carry firearms to stay reasonably proficient? Stubblefield recommends shooting 200 rounds a month for a handgun, or at least 20 rounds a month for a shotgun or rifle. And do it regularly. Take six months off and you are back to square one. Practice at night, practice in the rain. And all practice must be with the same weapon you carry. The weapon you use for defense is what you train with. It's almost a cardinal rule.

I believe the reality check for me is this: Becoming competent with a gun, and staying proficient enough to make the gun option viable (and one shouldn't have it on the boat if they aren't), is simply beyond the interest level of most cruisers. Aren't we out here to have fun?

But the biggest issue of this discussion isn't about training and proficiency, it is mental attitude. "You can't just threaten to use it, you have to be willing to commit to pull the trigger. You can't hesitate. Otherwise don't even bother to pick it up." You are better off using pepper spray, a whistle, or an air horn.

"I can't emphasize this enough. If you haven't got the will to kill, do not get involved with firearms. And most people do not. They'll tell you that they do, and they'll say how if someone came onboard they'd shoot him. Those are stories. Trust me." 

 The Storm is a superior whistle design. It is super loud, and readily available at sporting goods and marine stores.

The Storm is a superior whistle design. It is super loud, and readily available at sporting goods and marine stores.

Veteran cruiser Don Saunders told me he eventually threw his shotgun overboard, as it was just too much of a hassle. When he cleared into an island chain, he would have to give it up while visiting the country. Then, weeks or months later, after cruising the length of the islands, he would have to travel all the way back to the beginning to get his shotgun back. After doing that once or twice, he figured it was more trouble than he cared to deal with. Into the sea it went.

(Some years ago, a retired Los Angeles cop came up with a metal sleeve to fit inside a plastic flare gun. It was chambered for a .38 round and he sent us a couple. We did a little test, and if I recall correctly, it blew the flare gun apart at the hinge after three or four rounds. It was an attempt to not have a firearm aboard, yet have the ability to produce one if necessary. Needless to say, the U.S. Coast Guard was not supportive of the idea.)

You Have the Facts

I hope it is clear that simply buying a gun to keep on the boat just in case is worse than worthless. It's downright dangerous to assume its presence will somehow be a magic solution in case of trouble when no one on the boat is competent enough to use it. Honestly, I also can't imagine, while cruising, spending the time and money with the necessary practice and maintenance guns require in the marine environment. I am on my boat to meet new people, see new things, and do more with less. My walk in Spain last month reminded me of that last point.

But this is your decision, of course. You now know what is involved, backed up with experienced advice and relevant information. You know what you need to do to become and stay proficient, and what you need to know in your heart. For a great many cruisers considering the gun option, I hear a collective sigh of relief.

I will find other strategies to stay safe, such as those we have already discussed in previous posts, as well as my next post, which is about managing one's fears and staying grounded in reality.