Piracy in the 21st century and how to avoid its dangers

Many non-sailors think of pirates in a rather nostalgic and romantic way. In fact Johnny Depp’s wonderful Jack Sparrow probably springs to mind for most. In reality, piracy is, and always has been, an ugly and frightening phenomenon that is, sadly, on the increase in many parts of the World.

Somali piracy on the North Eastern Coast of Africa, extending into the Gulf is probably the most serious threat to shipping and small craft, but the West Coast of Africa, areas of the Philippines and the area around Singapore and even parts of the Caribbean are piracy hotspots. In 2007 it was estimated that over $16 Billion was lost due to acts of piracy worldwide!

Of course, the World is a big place and even in many of the areas where piracy has been reported the actual threat to the average yachtsman is probably quite limited. 

The area around Singapore is well know for pirate attacks, although in many cases they are after larger shipping, leaving small yachts alone, especially when in convoy. In fact, in most parts of the World, and especially parts of the Caribbean, an act of piracy is usually no more than a case of theft or burglary from a vessel at anchor. Whilst this can be frightening and expensive, most acts of piracy are no more than water-based muggings.   Unfortunately, due to the remote nature of most anchorages and the relative wealth-gap between the crooks and the victims, a simple, if unpleasant burglary can all too easily escalate into violence.

Worryingly, in some parts of the World, kidnapping for ransom is now becoming a significant threat, especially around Somalia and this region is best avoided by yachtsmen!

But don’t despair, being prepared for the worst is probably your biggest advantage, so when planning your voyage make sure you monitor pirate activity in areas you plan to sail. You can do this using your Sat C and Navtex to monitor security transmissions or by subscribing to several different sources of information. The US Government produce fact sheets and report on hotspots as does the Nato Shipping Centre. Other sites aimed at yachtsmen, such as noonsite are worth monitoring.

Avoiding detection is probably your best defence as a private yachtsman. To help to achieve a low profile, I have previously considered turning off AIS (and even Navigation lights), especially when transiting remote and narrow straits close to shore in remote pirate hot spots such as the Sulu and Celebes Seas and Singapore Straits. In the latter case, however, turning off navigation lights might not be the most sensible option, the risks of collision probably far outweighing attack from pirates!

Other actions worth considering are;

  • Travel in convoy with other yachts and keep radio traffic to a minimum, transmitting on low power handheld radios when necessary. If one of you has Sat C or email on board, or any other form of long distance communication equipment, consider having a pre-prepared and detailed ‘piracy attack’ mayday ‘ready-to-go’ in the case of an attack.
  • If you have a small crew and most are below deck, brief them what to do if an unknown craft should appear on the horizon and come your way. Looking organised and strong is about as much as you can do in most instances, so perhaps have all your crew wear the same T Shirts or jackets and have all hands on deck for the approach. You are trying to make a potential attacker think twice. Most pirates want easy money, not a fight.
  • It should go without saying that flashing cash or valuables is plain silly, no matter where you are in the World. The same goes on board your yacht. Sometimes, fishermen in poor parts of the World might be tempted to become part-time-pirates if the temptation is too great. Don’t put temptation in front of them. Most fishermen just want to sell their catch to the ‘rich’ yachtsman. Be prepared for this and have a few dollars in your pocket or something to exchange, rather than a large stash of cash!
  • Some yachtsmen carry firearms. Frankly, I don’t fancy getting into a firefight against armed pirates, especially when I am sitting on a fibreglass hull with no protection. The legal requirements, customs hassles and personal dangers inherent with carrying firearms on your yacht will almost certainly outweigh the benefits. But it’s a personal decision.

Finally, don’t be too paranoid. Greet approaching vessels with a wave and a smile during the day. At night, be very wary, especially if they approach from behind. In most cases you can quickly ascertain the difference between a friendly fisherman and a gang of dodgy pirates, but if all goes wrong, get that mayday away quickly! Be calm but compliant and if all else fails, go with your gut. In most instances you are unlikely to lose more than some pride and a few valuables.