Boat Rat: Self-Defense on Cruising Boats

With all of the news about piracy in the Indian Ocean and the repeated tales of theft and violence in the southern Caribbean, self-defense has never been a hotter topic. We’ll offer our thoughts on the subject and hope you will respond with your own!

We’ve sailed one and half times around the world, visited and lived in scores of foreign lands, met all types of people, and–luckily–have not been confronted violently or robbed…except once in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida. We have never carried guns aboard because we are not proficient with them, don’t own them at home, don’t want the official hassles and have often sailed with children. For self-defense, we equip our boats with mace, flare pistols, machetes, air horns, bright lights and good locks. Our primary mode of self-defense has always been to avoid areas known to be troublesome or to travel cautiously in the company of other cruisers. This system has worked for us.

For those who are proficient with firearms and feel comfortable confronting a stranger with a deadly weapon, there are a few things to think about when contemplating carrying guns on your boats. In most foreign countries, you will have to declare your weapons. In some countries, officials will confiscate them and return them when you check out, which can be a problem if the entry and departure ports are far apart. In others, the weapons will be sealed in an onboard locker with their use prohibited. In countries that regulate weapon ownership, it is a crime to use a gun even in self-defense, particularly if you are a foreigner. Those who carry guns have to be ready to deal with the hassles of officialdom and need to know the local laws and regulations.

In strange lands, it is often difficult at first to tell friend from foe. This is particularly true in poor countries where you don’t know the language, the customs, the laws and the traditions. Indonesia comes to mind. It can be easy to mistake a boatload of fishermen for a boatload of pirates and react inappropriately by flashing a weapon. Conversely, in a confrontation with an armed gang of pirates, you will be facing desperate people who are often accustomed to violence and ready to blaze away with powerful weapons. In the first case, you become an aggressor who could make a terrible mistake. In the second, you are probably overmatched, outgunned and at a tactical disadvantage.

There is no simple answer. There have been instances when armed cruisers saved themselves from pirates by engaging in a firefight instead of fleeing or surrendering. And there have been instances—remember Peter Blake—when challenging a boatload of thieves with a weapon resulted in a sailor’s untimely death. We’ve gotten by for 40 years of sailing and cruising without guns. How about you?

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