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Is Cruising Still Safe?

The authors have sailed to many countries off the beaten track

The authors have sailed to many countries off the beaten track

It is with great sadness that we read of the murder of New Zealand cruiser Alan Culverwell, and the attack on his family, by criminals who boarded their boat in Panama’s Guna Yala/San Blas Islands early in May. The San Blas were known as a “safe” area to cruise. Aside from petty theft, there had never been reason to believe the region was unsafe, especially when compared to some of the area’s cities.

Many cruisers feel that living aboard, even in exotic locations, is safer than living on land, but is it really? As cruisers, we generally anchor where nature gives us the best protection from wind and waves, not from humans. The human element is far more unpredictable than any weather forecast. What was once a friendly area can have sudden, unheard-of aggression perpetrated by desperate locals. Whether in a city or in a faraway anchorage, vigilance and security should be always in a sailor’s mind. Thieves—both the opportunistic kind who steal when no one is looking and those who aren’t afraid to board an occupied boat—have been stalking cruisers since the day the first boat circled the world. Remember Joshua Slocum sprinkling tacks on his deck in the Straits of Magellan?

You’ve got to be careful out there... the authors with their companionway screen

You’ve got to be careful out there... the authors with their companionway screen

It only seems reasonable that if you lock the doors of your home on land, you should be just as cautious when anchoring in a pleasant cove, especially in remote or impoverished areas where you can never truly know the constitution of every individual. We ourselves had a close call with some pirates off the coast of Vietnam a couple of years ago, eventually driving them off by firing flares at them.

We think that cruisers need to get with the times, and indeed, many are now becoming aware that there are thieves and robbbers in “paradise” and that there is a definite need to lock up at night and have security cameras and alarms, and deterrents like automatic lights, signs, shoes on deck or radios playing. Some of us also carry bats, knives, spearguns, pepper sprays, flares and even guns, although in some instances, even having an AK47 would be inadequate against an ill-intentioned intruder. Still, anything is better than nothing, and even just locked doors and lights may convince a potential attacker to look elsewhere.

Of course, those intrepid cruisers who sail in advance of us are our eyes and ears, reporting on where and where not to anchor safely. As cruisers, we can then do our best to stick to where there has been no reported violence or crime, at the same time relying on intuition and awareness to guide us. Still, we need to be more cautious than we are at home because we don’t have that “home advantage.” We may not, for example, recognize that the innocent-looking village we’ve anchored off is a place even locals avoid for safety reasons. We must also hope that karma and luck are on our side: dressing down, acting poor and trying not to cause resentment of our richness as we go. We must try not to perpetuate the myth that people on boats invariably have lots of money and possessions to spare, and hope that others before us have taken similar precautions.

Security cameras can be useful

Security cameras can be useful

To 90 percent of the world, most sailboats, even our 43-year-old, cosmetically challenged Valiant 40, are “treasure ships” when the anchor is dropped. We have cruised extensively in African and Asian countries and know that the simple act of hanging our laundry out to dry can demonstrate just how much we have compared to the local who feels lucky to have only an old T-shirt and a patched pair of britches. Even though most people in poverty-stricken communities have good hearts and respect others, the odds of experiencing crime, dishonesty or aggression increase as the population becomes familiar with the relative abundance that even the poorest of cruisers possess. There is always a tiny minority that a cruiser either has to guard against or roll the dice and take their chances with. The consequences can run the gamut from the theft of an outboard engine to being physically accosted with a serious outcome. We have taken measure to protect our boat and ourselves from thieves and pirates; there are details on our website (see below).

Many cruisers feel that their hard work earned the nice life they live afloat. We are also fortunate, though, to have been born in places that allow hard workers to get ahead the way we have. That guy who paddles up to you in his beat-up canoe likely worked just as hard as you and has taken advantage of every opportunity he had. But even having many successful days of fishing doesn’t bring the same material rewards.

Certainly, most cruisers can spare some of their possessions. We always have some trading items—sunglasses, shorts, shirts, fishing line, hooks, old pots and pans—on hand to exchange for the fruits, vegetables, fish and handicrafts that most islanders have for barter. Even if we don’t really need these goods, we see the effort they are making and try to help.

Unfortunately, as the world population grows, and the world’s resources remain the same (or even degrade) the resulting economic pressure will inevitably cause at least some people to want to squeeze even more from the passing treasure ships that cruise the world. What begins as their simple attempts to steal the possessions we cannot afford to share, and our attempts to guard against them will sometimes result in dire consequences.

Worse yet, away from daily television reports of crime, and with only intermittent word-of-mouth reports of crime in far-off anchorages, it is easy for cruisers to get soft and let their guard down—whether by leaving the dinghy tied alongside rather than hauling it out of the water every night, or worrying about power conservation instead of leaving a bright light on in the cockpit. Granted, it’s a lovely way to live, but sooner or later, there will be trouble. Are those friendly, smiling fishermen rowing by and offering fish actually sizing up their victim? We should not believe that we leave all our worries behind when we leave our homeland.

We have cruising friends and acquaintances who have been attacked and robbed. We’ve also had friends who have been taken from their boat and held hostage. Some made it out alive. Others did not. That makes us, as cruisers, more cautious about where and how we cruise, and where we anchor. As cruisers, we need to take more precautions like those living on land already are. We need to face reality, beef up our security and not live in the daydream we enjoyed in the past. 

At the time of writing, Patrick and Rebecca Childress were refitting their Valiant 40, Brick House, in Tanzania, Africa, before heading around the tip of South Africa and into the South Atlantic. You can keep up with their adventures on whereisbrickhouse.com

Photos courtesy of Patrick and Rebecca Childress

August 2019

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