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Should you carry a firearm on board?

To carry or not to carry, that is the question.

Whether ’tis … enough Shakespeare. This article is about carrying weapons on board. The issue is whether you are better off running the complications of dealing with officialdom in foreign waters should you, God forbid, need to defend yourself when voyaging, or leave your firearms at home.

Mike Saylor

Many years ago, the watchstander on a sailboat heading south about 40 miles off Costa Rica felt uneasy. Everything was quiet around 0230 on a moonless night with a Force 2 or so breeze. Have you ever felt as if someone or something were watching or following you? The helmsman had that feeling. Looking ahead, astern, to weather and to lee revealed nothing. It was quiet, with only the occasional sound of water “chuckling” under the hull counter.

By 0300 the feeling of unease increased; something was out there. Then he heard the thrum of an old-fashioned, slow-turning diesel. With 7x50 binoculars, the helmsman thought he made out an area of denser blackness about 100 yards astern. The momentary flash of a bow wave confirmed a vessel running without lights and closing.

He secured the wheel, went below and roused the owner awake, informing him of the situation. He broke out a stainless-steel Mini-14, handed the rifle and a 20-round magazine of 5.56-mm ammunition to the helmsman and quietly alerted the rest of the crew.

Back on deck, the helmsman saw that the other vessel had halved its distance to the sailboat. The helmsman hailed the other vessel, calling for it to stand off or he would fire. Ducking below the bulwark, the helmsman loaded the magazine and chambered a round. Pointing the rifle skyward he fired off five rounds as fast as he could pull the trigger. The other vessel, now visible, altered course away from the sailboat. No one on board went back to sleep that night.

Ruger Firearms makes an All-Weather version of its Mini-14 rifle.

Late last year, my wife pointed to an article in the Hartford (Conn.) Courant newspaper about a retired couple on a 38-foot sailboat that had been taken by pirates off Somalia. They were boarded while they slept. Closer to home, pirates and drug smugglers have taken boats cruising the Caribbean.

I believe being armed is better than being victimized. Most pirates closer to home — certainly those off Costa Rica in the incident above — are probably fishermen who come across a target that appears to be easy pickings. When confronted with the possibility of armed resistance, they veer off. They’re looking for quick profit, not a fight.

Drug smugglers are an entirely different problem. Here are two possible scenarios: The cruising vessel stumbles upon a transfer location and has to be eliminated to keep the location secret, or the vessel is targeted as a means of transporting the drugs. High-speed drug runners are one thing, but a slow-moving sailboat or passagemaker …

1. Before you convert your boat into a floating arsenal, consider that the most dangerous thing after a dull knife or an impaired driver is a gun available to an untrained person. Before you venture offshore armed, make darn sure you are trained and have the will to use the weapons you carry. If you point a gun, you must be prepared to use it. Make sure everyone on board is at least trained in weapons safety. Small children on board obviously make this problematic.

2. Know the law. What is acceptable in the jurisdiction into which you’ll be cruising, and what arrangements must you make in advance? Many countries will not permit pistols unless you have prior authority to carry them or any other weapon. Even with authority to possess a weapon, local authorities may take possession of your firearms. If it’s a quality piece, lots of luck getting it back. Know beforehand how far offshore the countries you’ll be visiting, or passing, extend their authority. It can vary from as little as 12 miles to as much as 200 miles. Declare your firearms, and your pistol may be confiscated. Don’t declare them, and your boat may be confiscated if they’re found. In the United States, each state has its own rules and regulations. Check with the National Rifle Association and local jurisdictions.

3. Pistols, in my opinion, are poor weapons for self-defense. A rifle is far more powerful and accurate, and it has a longer reach. For my money, if there’s going to be one weapon on board, make it a shotgun. Mossberg used to make a good five-round stainless steel shotgun, which I liked, but now

offers the Mariner, which has a durable weather resistant MarineCote finish. There are other manufacturers as well. Get a piece with the shortest legal barrel available and don’t cut it down. If you’re cruising foreign waters, don’t get any weapon that looks like it’s military-issue. It will get you in trouble.

4. Obviously, avoid trouble spots: the Red Sea, the Horn of Africa, and other locales where piracy has gone from a cottage industry to a full-blown business. Maritime insurers and the Coast Guard may be able to give you advice, since they monitor pirate activity. The International Maritime Organization also monitors piracy around the world.

5. Have a safe cruise, keep your powder dry and be prepared. Good luck.

This article originally appeared in the February 2010 issue.