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First published in Multihull World, Australia. Written May 2007

Joseph Conrad, who should have known better, called pirates "those colourful vagabonds of the sea." Unfortunately pirates don't have parrots on their shoulders any more, they have AK47's, and so we're not talking about Jack Sparrow here, but rather a deadly menace to sailors around the globe.

Although acts of piracy can occur both at sea and at anchor, the latter incidents are actually classified as marine muggings and robberies, as technically piracy only happens in international waters. Be that as it may, many people don't realize that there are now more pirates than there were 300 years ago.

Admittedly, most prey on ships, but attacks on yachts are increasing. Yet piracy against yachtsmen is nothing new. We all know Slocum's stories about the upturned tacks and being chased by pirates off the Moroccan coast. Thirty years ago, when Tristan Jones returned from his "Incredible Voyage" he said that piracy was his biggest concern and that he wished he had sailed a grey hulled boat with a pale blue mast. Normally I prefer a yellow hull as it can be easily seen, but there have been times when I'd also wished I was less conspicuous.

Probably the most notorious of recent incidents occurred on 6 December 2001, when pirates murdered Sir Peter Blake while he was on an environmental trip at the mouth of the Amazon. A group of armed robbers boarded his yacht; Blake heard the noise and came out carrying a gun. As he approached the companionway a gun fired and he was killed. The boarders injured two other crew members with knives, but the remaining seven were unhurt. So of the ten people on board, the one killed was the one carrying the gun.

At much the same time the 38ft catamaran Ocean Swan was sailing six miles off the Yemeni coast when three open powerboats appeared shortly after dawn and opened fire with automatic rifles. Two of the boats came alongside and three men with weapons jumped onboard and demanded money. One of the pirates held a knife to the owner's wife. The pirates ransacked the yacht, taking personal effects before leaving. The crew were badly shaken, but otherwise unharmed.

I found 36 similar documented incidents of armed pirates attacking yachts since 1999. I have also heard of others, some firsthand, which shows that many attacks are never reported. For example, I know of cruisers, anchored in Venezuela, who were not only robbed but the woman on board was raped. A similar incident occurred in Rodney Bay, St Lucia. More recently a 30m super-yacht with 30 crew on board was attacked by pirates off Somalia. The French intervened and rescued the crew and yacht, but not until a USD1m ransom had been paid. In The S Pacific, a yacht was attacked in Fiji; the woman on board was raped.

The reports I read were full of quotes like "fired three warning shots with a semi-automatic rifle", "crews fired semi-automatic guns forcing the yacht to heave-to"; "pirates were all masked, armed with pistols, one even had a machine gun"; "as an afterthought they shot the skipper in the knee."

Sometimes, though, the tables are turned. In March 2005 when sailing in convoy east of Aden two yachts were attacked by pirates who approached while firing automatic weapons. One of the boat owners was a retired US Marine and he returned fire (with his shotgun) - shooting two pirates as they were boarding his yacht over the stern, and hitting another in the pirate's boat. Not surprisingly, his actions drove off the attackers.

However, if you aren't trained and experienced at killing people don't try it. Remember you'll have to live with the psychological consequences, and maybe face a trial and possible jail time.

This talk of pirate attacks is all very frightening, and there isn't much one can do even against men armed with knives (as we found to our cost), never mind guns.

Clearly it is best to avoid known trouble areas in the first place. These are primarily the Gulf of Aden and Horn of Africa region, with the centre of the attacks at 13° 30 ' N 48° 18' E; the Red Sea; Venezuela - it is most dangerous at the eastern end; the Malacca Strait and in the East Mediterranean, Corfu and Albania. Several yachts have also been attacked between Panama and the Galapagos and in Papua New Guinea. Fortunately, few yachts sail down the W African coast.

However, not all strange boats are full of pirates. Many are fishermen trying to sell you their catch. I met a super-yacht owner who almost gunned down the man coming to repair his radio, while cruisers in Guatemala nearly shot the water police who were checking that they were OK.

What is far more likely is that you will fall prey to petty crime. Unfortunately you don't have to go far to be a victim; friends were boarded by two masked men when at anchor in my home port of Plymouth, while I had my dinghy stolen (no, it wasn't padlocked!) three days before setting off across the Atlantic.

So what can you do to prepare your boat?

Prevention is the answer, but you don't have to turn your boat into Fort Knox. Since thieves always prefer easy targets, you don't need to make your boat totally secure, just make it safer than the other boats in the area.

The golden rule is don't let people get on board in the first place. So have a method of blocking off the transom steps and always raise boarding ladders. In Panama I met an English cruiser who had electrified his lifelines (using a cattle fencing unit), but what it did to electrolysis and his SSB transmissions I daren't think. So maybe a better solution is to string fish hooks along the top lifeline. You could also embed hooks in transom-step mats. Mind you, I'm not sure of the legality of any of this, given that one can't attack burglars in ones own home. So it may be a good idea to put a sign on the boat saying "electric fence" (even if you haven't got one!).

Of course, there are disadvantages to this "keep off" approach. Several times I've boarded boats when the owners have been ashore - usually because the anchor was dragging and I was trying to save the boat. I wouldn't do that if I knew they had electrified life lines.

I recommend fitting a burglar alarm and a cockpit security light (we find this is very useful when coming back to the boat after dark). Ideally a burglar alarm would flash a masthead light, and hoot a horn loud enough to wake the anchorage. Maybe even start a tape recording of a barking dog. Also some home security systems designed for maritime use allow you to receive text messages straight to your mobile/cellphone if there is trouble.

However, those ideas never got off my "to do" list, so instead we had a battery powered shed alarm fitted to the aft bulkhead. Sometimes you'll need to lock yourself into the cabin at night. Make a stainless steel grill washboard so you can leave the main hatch open for ventilation, yet stay secure, but don't forget that small children can get through surprisingly small hatches!

Photo shows bar on Eclipse door, also shows our security light and burglar alarm. Note: Bar is padlocked in cockpit locker, the hatch of which is also padlocked

Have a built-in, well hidden, yet easily accessible safe, where apart from money, credit cards and passports you can store a spare VHF and handheld GPS. On my Eclipse I fitted one under the coal scuttle for the solid wood stove (see below). It was never found, even when we were comprehensively searched by Cuban customs. If you are leaving the boat for some time remove all electronics and hide them somewhere, or, preferably, take them home with you.

Mark all your equipment with a UV pen. It will help prove ownership, but to be honest once outside "civilization" we have found that going to the police is a waste of time. Record all serial numbers and photograph everything, then keep it all in a dedicated anti-theft notebook - not on your laptop!

Dinghy theft is very common everywhere, so you must "lift it or lose it", thus making davits essential. To discourage theft, glue on some fake patches, and use an old engine cowl on your new engine. Fit a stainless steel wire painter and lock it with a big padlock EVERY time you go ashore.

We wished we had sharpened our metal boathook before leaving the UK. Maybe we should have made a fake gun from scrap wood - you don't need a real replica, for who can tell the difference at 100ft?

There is a lot of symbolism about guns in both the Arab world and in Central America. In most Arabian countries the AK47 is a status symbol and is often waved as a hello, so it is prudent to wave one back, however disconcerting it may seem.

In Central America you'll see lots of guns on open display. Hand guns are casually stuffed into trouser belts, while every shop has an armed guard. We had heard that a cruiser was murdered in the Rio Dulce, Guatemala, shortly before we arrived. But by then it was too late to sail elsewhere. That worrying news was one reason why we decided to stay in a marina for the six months we were there. We felt safe, for who would want to mess with "Amazing Max", our armed guard.

You've got your boat prepared, but what can you do? You've done courses in sea survival, astro and First Aid, but what about self defense? One of the first things your instructor will tell you is to be inconspicuous. Jetti has even considered dying her blonde hair black to avoid looking a tourist. He will tell you to practice your new self-defense drills - just as you do for other emergencies. He will also tell you that if you get into an indefensible position, stay calm and give them whatever they want. There is no point in being a dead hero!

You should agree on two code words, one for "I'm OK", one for "Help" that can be introduced into any (telephone) conversation. Have a responsible person as your shore based contact - not aged parents.

We kept pepper spray by our bunk when anchored in Venezuela (OK, maybe that was being a bit paranoid since the companionway door was locked and the burglar alarm switched on, but that's what being robbed at knifepoint in a busy street does to you. The street in question is visible in the photo below, so yes, we were robbed in sight of the boat) On the other hand, there's no point in carrying pepper spray if it's out of reach when needed.

Never leave anything on deck, even during the day, as that's when thieves check out likely targets - snorkeling gear, spare fuel cans etc are easy to lift out of the cockpit, especially if you are asleep in the bows.

That is why, despite its obvious disadvantages, a dog makes sense, but take a Rotweiller rather than a yapping lapdog, and please train it so that it doesn't bark at every passing boat.

Anchor in the middle of anchorages, never alone. If you do have to sail through a dangerous area then take down the radar reflector and don't use your navigation lights, VHF or SSB. Sail in convoy and try not to be the last boat.

I met a couple of cruisers who got in that position. One was shot at, the other was boarded and had his boat ransacked.

If you suspect pirates are approaching and you make an emergency call on your VHF, reply with your own hand held; it may fool them into thinking another boat is nearby.

A final warning: Harbourmasters, and Port Captains know every yacht movement and how many crew yachts have. Not all are honest, some tip off pirates, so try to avoid telling anyone where you are going and how many you have on board.

Although the chance of genuine pirate attack is very slim, it is still there; so it is something to consider along with medical emergencies, storms and being hit by lightning when deciding whether the cruising life is for you.

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