Little Compass
      RoseCaribbean Compass   September 2012

Cruising with(out) Fear
by Frank Virgintino

Cruising is an art and those of us who pursue this art define it in different ways. However, the motives that most of us share are satisfaction and enjoyment. We invest a great deal of time and money to make our lifestyle as cruising sailors possible.

When we outline a cruise we pick an area that will serve our definition of cruising. It does not have to be far from home, but it can be halfway around the world. No matter the distance, there is planning involved. Provisions need to be put on board; the boat needs to be equipped with all that is required to make our trip safe. Our route needs to be reviewed, and so do the probable sea conditions that we will encounter. Weather patterns for the time of year and the area we will cruise need to be studied. Research needs to be done to determine what documents we will need and what procedures we will need to follow to gain entry to a foreign country if we go outside of our own borders.

As we undertake all of the above, we naturally assume certain things. One of these is that the effort will produce what we are looking for — satisfaction, enjoyment, etcetera.
In the back of our minds, we may have other concerns. What if one of us gets hurt or falls ill? What if we encounter really bad weather? Do we have to do “overnights”, the bane of many cruisers who do not have night-sailing experience? Do we have to go offshore, the bane of those of us who fear being out of the sight of land? The list of things that concern us goes on and on and becomes the subject of many a discussion between cruisers when they gather.

Facing the Fear Factor
However, there is one fear that is perhaps greater than all of our normal fears, and that is the fear of being boarded, either at anchor or underway, by those who would seek to rob us and possibly hurt us in the process. This fear is growing among cruisers and justifiably so. We are anxious because we do not know what to do if we are victims of such an act. Reports of crime, and in particular violent crime, against cruising boats are on the rise.
There is a difference between theft and violent crime and, in cases of offshore boarding, piracy. Theft has always been a concern for maritime vessels whether they are commercial or pleasure craft. Capt. Joshua Slocum of the yacht Spray, when sailing around the world alone (he began in 1895 out of Boston), put thumbtacks on his decks at night when he anchored off South America to deter the Native Americans from stealing. He said that he slept soundly at night but waited to hear a “yelp” from barefoot would-be burglars. He was concerned for his own personal safety as well as for his vessel and its gear.
Perhaps our greatest fears were realized when the crew of the sailing yacht Quest was murdered by the pirates who had attacked their vessel in the Red Sea. When a boat chases you and you see that the occupants are pointing guns at you, you can assume that they are not trying to sell you fish! Venezuelan pirates use similar tactics and automatic weapons. As cruising boats we have no defense whatsoever against them — other than avoidance.
The fear of having our dinghy stolen and the anger that results from finding it missing are very different than being chased by a boat with six men aboard all armed with high-powered weapons. Or being woken in the dark of night at an anchorage by someone in our cabin, armed and ready to do us harm. Or the type of fear that was reported by Bernice and James Ludwig of the sailing vessel Shea-Lena in the Letter of the Month, Caribbean Compass April 2012, as they related the “pitch of fear” that was evident in the woman’s voice who was calling on her VHF for help, screaming, “He is trying to break in!”

Exercising Rights or Prudence?
Derek and Ariel Hillen of the sailing vessel Tehani-li discuss “avoiding piracy” in the June 2012 members’ bulletin of the Seven Seas Cruising Association. What is noteworthy is that they say that “many sailors believe it is their right to sail the oceans” when in fact it is a privilege. They ask, “Would you go to sea in a hurricane because it is your right?” They are saying that we need to get over thinking it is our right to sail wherever we wish in safety, because that is not always the case.
Prudence must prevail. We use prudence when we set up our routes and waypoints. We avoid rocks and reefs. We use prudence when we check the weather forecast, to avoid heavy sailing conditions. We use prudence when we set our anchors, to avoid breaking free and going adrift. We use prudence to maintain our vessels, to avoid having a breakdown that can result in damage to our vessels and injury to ourselves.
The key word is always “avoid” and it is avoidance that reduces fear and anxiety.
What do we do about the possibility of crime against us? Principally we worry. Some of us decide to buddy boat. Others discuss carrying weapons. Weapons are not the answer unless we are trained to use them and we have the same firepower that the pirates have. The truth is that in most cases there is not much you can do once you are being boarded, other than fight for your life or accept the boarding and hope for the best.
The best tactic to avoid crime is to be prudent and the best way to be prudent is to avoid crime.

Risk Assessment and Avoidance
What is the best way to avoid crime? There are many ways to avoid crime but the single best method is to avoid those areas where there is a propensity for or probability of crime. There are no “safe zones” within dangerous areas. There are no safe maneuvers. If you buddy boat, it only means that if armed men in a fast boat are overtaking you, a number of you will be overtaken rather than one. This is not a case of safety in numbers.
We all like a bargain but if to get a bargain we have to deceive ourselves into believing that Venezuela has “safe zones” then we have no one to blame but ourselves if we become victims of crime. We go cruising to enjoy; why would we put our life and the lives of our family and friends in danger?

Before we leave port we must investigate the areas that we will cruise to determine how safe they are with regard to crime against cruising boats. In the Caribbean, we can review the Caribbean Safety and Security Net ( and also the Noonsite piracy reports ( to see what has happened. The news of what has happened is equivalent to a police blotter: it gives us the history of events that have transpired in different areas over time.

However, to predict what might happen in the future requires doing probability studies or, as the military calls it, “risk assessment.” We must review what has happened and classify the events as to the risk that each type presents. Then we need to weigh the factors that lead to the statistics and from that conclude what the risk is going forward.
Consider the following tables. Table One compares violent crime versus non-violent crime against yachts as reported in selected areas and in the Lesser Antilles as a whole. Table Two compares violent crime versus non-violent crime against yachts as reported in the Venezuelan offshore islands and the Venezuelan mainland. (Violent = assault, and assault and robbery; non-violent = all other.) Once we see a high percentage of crime in an area, especially if that crime is violent, it is incumbent on a prudent skipper to avoid that area.

Violent vs. Non-Violent Crime against Yachts in the Lesser Antilles, 2008-2011
                           LESSER ANTILLES    GRENADA    GRENADINES    ST. MARTIN
Non-violent events    191                         72                   65                   5
Violent events            17                           4                   12                   1
Total 2008-2011       208                         76                   77                   6
% violent                  8.2                         5.3                 15.6               16.7

Violent vs. Non-Violent Crime against Yachts in Venezuelan Islands & Mainland, 2008-2011
                                      ISLANDS        MAINLAND
Non-violent events               25                   12
Violent events                      19                    9
Total 2008-2011                   44                  21
% violent                           43.2               42.9

The Caribbean Security Index ( is an index that compares past crimes in different areas of the Caribbean and undertakes to review the infrastructure of a given country or location with a resultant rating. For example, let us compare St. Barts, Grenada and the mainland of Venezuela. The following is a summary of the ratings those areas receive, based on the probability of a crime against a yacht occurring. In St. Barts even the thought of a crime seems to be illegal! Why is that so? Is it that they have a superior police force or are there other factors operating as well? What factors are present that has made the mainland of Venezuela so dangerous in recent years?
St. Bart’s
• Ratings:    In harbor 9.8    Anchored out 9.8
• Mitigating factors: This “jewel of France” has a strong but invisible police presence that discourages so much as a criminal thought.
• Ratings:    At marinas 9.6    Anchored out 8.6
• Recommendation: Good place to visit, with low crime, good yachting facilities and repair opportunities. Nice anchorages and harbors, and the company of many other cruisers.
• Mitigating factors: Grenada has a small population with a high literacy rate and a long and profitable history of catering to cruisers.
• Ratings:    In harbor 6.8    Anchored out 4.5
• Recommendation: Avoid this country.
• Mitigating factors: Venezuela is a country in chaos, without a rule of law or a process that allows for redress in the event of a crime against a yacht. The government recently announced they would appropriate yachts of Venezuelan citizens. Uncertainty surrounding government policies, coupled with high unemployment (nearing 50 percent), has led to a heightened level of criminal activity. While our research indicates that the off-lying islands have experienced less crime against cruisers than the mainland, CSI recommends complete avoidance of Venezuelan waters at this time.
Given the continuing rise in reports of crime against cruising boats, going forward the prudent skipper will review crime statistics as much as he reviews weather and sea conditions. In fact, we will use the same strategy that we have always used to navigate around reefs and rocks. We need to understand where the crimes are and what types they are — and then “go out of our way to avoid them!”

Frank Virgintino is the author of Free Cruising Guides (

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