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Some pirates get headlines; others spoil the anchorage

I have always loved living on a boat because my “castle” is surrounded by a “moat.” But rats can swim.

The pirates prowling off Somalia are well known, but piracy can come in many forms anywhere in the world.

It’s not unusual to be talking with someone at a social gathering and have them ask, with wide eyes, “But aren’t you afraid of pirates?”

Usually this happens after someone has pointed to me, whispering something like “that’s that weird guy who’s lived on his boat most of his life.”

I guess I’m supposed to puff up my chest and say, “Of course not.” But I don’t say that. Because we do fear pirates. We always have, though perhaps not the way you’d expect. Piracy comes in many forms, and I have a broader definition than some do.

Pirates aren’t Disney-cute, whatever their form. They’ve been responsible for horrible crimes, often against helpless people. Running around in bars and at parties wearing fake hats and yelling “argh” doesn’t change this fact. Fortunately, those of us who cruise don’t have to worry so much about the traditional type of pirate, even though there are areas of the world where piracy still happens.

Lest we become complacent

The people who stormed the Maersk Alabama off Somalia in 2009 were more like the “good ol’ fashioned” kind of pirates. We’re all familiar with the heroism of Capt. Richard Phillips and of our military in dealing with this situation, but it hasn’t always turned out so well.

The people who boarded the sailboat Quest in February 2011 190 miles off Oman and killed the four innocent Americans aboard were also more like the “good ol’ fashioned” kind. According to reports, they killed their victims in cold blood as U.S. Navy personnel on nearby vessels were attempting to negotiate with the pirates.

You may also recall the report of the Chandlers, who were captured Oct. 23, 2009, aboard their 38-foot sailboat and held for 388 days by Somali pirates. I’m not planning to do any boating in this area of the world, and you probably aren’t, either. However, even near home, I have concerns. This is perhaps in part because I define the word “pirate” a lot more broadly than skeletal figures on worm-eaten sailing ships flying the Jolly Roger. But it’s also because, from what we’ve observed, crime isn’t just relegated to city streets. The smarter (and sometimes more dangerous) pirates today are more sophisticated and come in different forms.

Disney-cute pirates

My definition of “pirate” includes anyone out there on the water who would do my family or others harm, particularly with an illegal or evil motive. When I say “harm,” I’m generally referring to harm that includes violence and/or theft. For example, I’d include smugglers of drugs, people and other illegal cargo as pirates, especially if they would harm others to protect their operation. And probably most of them would.

I’ll never forget the images of horribly overloaded fourth-world sailing craft floundering on reefs and beaches. Often the Haitians or other tragic would-be escapists to the promised land try to swim to shore — most of them drowning. It happens in the islands, sometimes on small spits of sand with nothing but rock and scrub brush and certainly no water or food. We’ve known it to happen with no reports of the event by the news media in the States. But it’s also happened on the beaches of Florida, as those who have survived the surf race across the beach in the early morning dawn, seeking to hide in the streets and alleys and between buildings.

When I think about the people who sell passages to these poor souls, knowing the type of boat they’re going to be in and knowing full well the distance they must travel, the perils of the weather and the reefs and the lack of medical and food supplies, I have to think that they’d not hesitate to ravage a yacht and those aboard if they felt that we threatened them or that it would profit them. The same goes for someone who stands to make millions for a successful run from, say, the Bahamas to the Keys with a boatload of drugs.

I remember the eerie feeling I had every time I dove off Dead Man’s Cay in the Exumas. A few years before we first came there, a sailboat had been found near the spot. It was said to have been riddled with bullets, as were the bodies of the two occupants. By the time authorities arrived, those bodies had disappeared. The word went out fast. Part of the local talk was that drugs were involved in some way. I don’t know that anyone really knows. If I’d been in the area at the time, I think I would have gone elsewhere.

I’ll never forget a time, some years later, when we were in one of our favorite anchorages in the Bahamas. We were surrounded by other boats and friends. It was just another beautiful day in paradise. The anchorage was protected on three sides, and the western side was open to the vast Bahama Banks. Suddenly came the roar of go-fast boats out on the banks. The boats were hidden from us by the rocky shores of the islands to the north of the anchorage. Then came the unmistakable pop-popping of gunshots.

Soon, first one boat and then a second raced past the islands, tearing across the vista of the banks. The first boat was filled with numerous men, and these men were shooting automatic weapons back at the second boat, which was obviously in chase. This boat had uniformed personnel aboard, and they were also firing. Apparently none of the rounds hit intended targets as the two boats bounced across the waves, but the rounds were going somewhere, and the boats in the anchorage were clearly in range. And there was nothing we could do except sit there, grateful that the gunfight was traveling at such a high rate of speed and would soon, hopefully, be on the other side of the rocky islands to the south side of the anchorage.

Although I can guess, I don’t know the details of this interlude in an otherwise perfect day, but I feel confident that the people in that first boat would have fired at us directly if they had perceived us to be a threat or, for other reasons, to be a desirable target.

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There was a beautiful island that was reputed to have been taken over some years previous by a drug-smuggling kingpin. For years, it was reported that he used it as a base. Before he and his “friends” came, the island had been owned by other people and had private homes, cars and a few docks. After the drug people came, it hadn’t been a friendly place. You got this impression quickly enough from walking around and seeing the heavy-caliber bullet holes in houses, wrecked cars and machinery. It was evident as you walked past the dog pen where, we were told, trained attack dogs were kept and upon motoring into the harbor where a partly submerged transport plane was visible. It had apparently been used for target practice — before it crashed or, as a pleasant pastime afterward, wasn’t clear. We were told that the owners and inhabitants of the island who didn’t leave voluntarily were forced to leave, anyway. We spoke with people who had innocently entered that anchorage and found themselves quite unwelcome. When you look ashore and see men with automatic weapons, you get this feeling.

Piracy up close and personal

There have been less draconian forms of piracy or, if you prefer, maritime criminal conduct, with which we’ve become familiar. One of the first was up close and personal, the first time we came south in our 47-foot motorsailer. We had a brand-new Boston Whaler inflatable and a new 15-hp Johnson.

We anchored in Fort Lauderdale at Las Olas bight, immediately south of the Las Olas Bridge. This was a long time ago. Today that’s a mooring field maintained by the city, which also has a well-tended marina across the ICW channel. Back in those days, you could anchor, and lots of folks hung out there, sometimes for long periods of time. We’d reached Fort Lauderdale after a long, stormy day and were exhausted. We hoped to get up very early the next day and head over to the Bahamas. The weather forecast was good for this, and when you get a good weather window to cross the Gulf Stream, you take it seriously, especially in a boat that only makes about 7 knots.

That night, we crashed into a deep sleep, Mel and I in our aft stateroom and our daughters in their stateroom forward. I remember dreaming that night about yelling or some other type of disturbance, but the dream didn’t awaken me. The next morning, at first light, I went on deck to check everything out and see about getting under way. We’d left our tender tied close to our port quarter — bow and stern — just under the open portholes to our stateroom. It was gone. Both lines had been cut. A small, very disheveled sailboat that had been anchored nearby, with only one guy aboard, was also gone.

We called the police on VHF and a marine police officer came alongside awhile later. He took a report, shook his head and told us that although he hated to say it, we’d probably never see our dinghy and outboard again. He said the pattern was typically for someone to swim up quietly in the night, cut the lines and silently drift away with the tender. When the distance was great enough he’d climb aboard and start rowing or start the motor. The next step would be to take the tender to a preselected place on a beach where a car would be waiting. The motor would be removed to be sold, and the inflatable would be deflated for the same purpose. If they had to choose between the motor and the inflatable, they would generally choose the former, we were told, because it was easier to transport and brought more money.

This theft meant we had to go into a marina for which we hadn’t budgeted in order to buy another tender and outboard, since this was the only way we could go ashore to get around. And oh, yes, we could hardly go to the Bahamas on that weather window. A few incredibly expensive days later, we were able to leave the marina with a new tender and motor and go back out to anchor to wait for the next crossing opportunity.

Drug seizures, such as these bales of cocaine taken off the Dominican Republic, are a routine part of Coast Guard work.

From that point on, we’ve either chained our dinghy, if we leave it in the water, or lifted it aboard at night. We’ve also carried a spare inflatable and outboard for many years. When you’re out cruising, theft of your only means of transportation other than the mothership is a very big deal.

A few years later, a friend had a worse experience in the well-known capital city of an island nation. He’d tied to the stern a rather nice fiberglass boat, about 18 to 20 feet, with a fairly large outboard, trailing back with the current. You guessed it: One night he left it there, and the next morning the only thing remaining astern was a cut line.

He had an inflatable aboard and a smaller outboard. He inflated the spare dinghy, rigged the outboard and set out on a search. After an hour or so he found his boat pulled up on a beach and abandoned. The outboard was gone, literally cut off the transom. (It had been locked on.) The culprit had apparently been in a rush because he left his toolbox at the scene and a wallet that included his local driver’s license, photo ID and address. My friend took it to the police (whom he had already called) and was told, according to his report, that “Oh yes, we think we know him. But we’re rather busy now. We’ll go check on him tomorrow, maybe.” Needless to say, our friend never got his boat or motor back.

And then there is the threat of terrorism. The government has made it abundantly clear that we should be concerned about terrorist activity on the water, as well as in other areas. I don’t think any of these people would take kindly to a perceived threat from a cruiser and would do what it takes to eliminate that threat or to capture the boat, doing away with its passengers and using it in furtherance of their plans. No, these folks don’t match the traditional definition of pirates, but semantics become starkly irrelevant when you’re under attack or even threat.

Anti-piracy tactics

So does this mean we need to do our boating under a cloud of fear, constantly prepared for a deadly fight? The answer is no. There are lots of things, many of them common sense, that can minimize a threat from modern-day pirates. And these aren’t necessarily a big deal to implement. They’re similar to what we’re accustomed to doing ashore. Here are a few.

Don’t go to bad places. We know this from everyday living ashore. There are places you just don’t go. We can learn about these places the same way we would ashore, and there are additional methods on the water. Listen to the news, listen to chatter. On the water, we have the VHF, single side-band radio, ham radio, cruisers’ nets and many other ways of hearing about what’s going down. Don’t be misled by Margaritaville myths. These myths of paradise everywhere you go are fun, but not necessarily real. Use common sense. If there is known criminal activity in an area, stay away. A pertinent example would be a place where drug cartels are at war with each other in a particular country. One might assume that’s not a good place for idyllic cruising. If you see something suspicious going on in an anchorage, that might be a good time to leave.

Use smart judgment. When you’re on this continent, most anchorages are going to be crowded, close to law enforcement and relatively safe. However, even here there are anchorages where you may be quite remote. Paradoxically, these are what most of us are looking for. But if you pull into such an anchorage and there are boats, people or other things that are of concern, consider going elsewhere. When I’m out on the water, I like to assume that others out there are there for the same reasons as me. I consider everyone a friend or potential friend. And usually this works, but not always.

When anchoring in remote locations, be prudent as to neighbors.

If I see a severely unkempt boat, I get a little suspicious. Most people who are into boating love their boats and care for them. Not all of us have gold-plated yachts, and perhaps not all of us are neat (and, yes, I qualify in the lack-of-neatness department), but that’s not what I’m talking about.

A boat that’s essentially a piece of trash may not be inhabited by someone you want to hang out with. It may be used merely as an escape or means to some other end that’s not in your best interest. Be concerned about boats with evidence of a recent and hastily done name change or numbers change.

And this is not to say that I would assume people are a threat merely because they’re different. Always start out with politeness and a smile. But if it looks as if this is not a good situation, change it by leaving. It’s usually easy to do that on a boat, and you’re on the water to have fun, not to worry all night. Of course, there are plenty of good people with boats that are less than pristine, and I realize this may sound a bit snobby, but it’s not intended that way. It’s common sense.

It also helps to remember that when one comes to an anchorage, one can, if he chooses, create his identity. Boaters in this very temporary anchorage cruising community don’t know that you’re not who you say you are unless you go really far over the top. Over the years, we’ve seen some cruisers so exuberant and thrilled with their new lifestyle and its romantic portrayal by songs and stories that they have tended to take things too much at face value, rather than exercise a bit of prudent caution. The result has been that they’ve been easily taken in by people who were out there to con or steal or do worse harm.

Another way to better the odds of having fun is to travel with friends in groups. A lone boat crossing the Gulf Stream between South Florida and the Bimini chain on a dark night presents a much easier target than several traveling together. Besides, it’s fun to cruise with friends.

Choose marinas with which you have some familiarity or know of through friends. Pick marinas that have good security and aren’t in an area that makes you uncomfortable.

The Homeland Security Department constantly reminds even boaters to be on the lookout for strange behavior, and we should. (This gives me cause for pause because I have to admit that many would consider much of my life to have consisted of strange behavior, but I don’t think that’s what they’re talking about — I hope). There are other things to look for, all common-sense based, such as people in boats appearing to case out bridges or locks and canals or hanging out in waters near airports or heavily attended public events, particularly if those waters aren’t where the typical boater would hang out.

And take simple security precautions. Joshua Slocum sprinkled his decks with tacks at night so he would hear the “ouches” and curses if the uninvited crept aboard as he slept. (I hope he remembered during nature calls at 2 a.m.) Another common-sense tactic is to not leave the hatches wide open when you leave your boat at anchor to explore or go ashore. Also, use transom locks for your dinghy motor. Sure, thieves may cut off the transom, but most would-be bad guys would rather go for the easier target.

Avoid leaving expensive or expensive-looking gear in the cockpit or center console or on the flybridge. It may be hard to conceal things such as fancy rod-and-reel sets or expensive electronics, but even some cover can make it less of a luscious invitation. There are systems that not only emit audible alarms upon a preset perimeter invasion but also can call or text you. Don’t leave dinghies unattended at the beach. If you do leave your dinghy on a beach and take a walk, take your handheld VHF with you (or cellphone if you’re in good range) so you can call for help if you return to an empty beach.

Just desserts

Another reassuring fact is that law enforcement is far more practical on the water than it was in days of old. But in those “days of old,” pirates who were captured were generally killed or hanged. This had a decidedly discouraging effect on the trade. Even the more notorious of them usually got their “just desserts.”

Story has it that Blackbeard, after many years of piracy, lost his battle with Lt. Robert Maynard’s Virginia forces and also lost his head, which was hung from the bowsprit of Maynard’s ship and, according to legend, later impaled on a stake on a point of land on the Hampton River in Hampton, Va. I suppose that today some sympathetic souls (who’ve perhaps never been to sea) would call this “cruel and unusual punishment.”

We may catch them quicker, but I’m not convinced we punish them as well. A jury in Norfolk, Va., recently sentenced some Somali pirates who had been prosecuted for killing four Americans to a life of free room and board, free TV, free medical and dental care, and many more amenities at our expense.

So I sometimes worry about the effectiveness of our modern societal values in providing a deterrent. But then I recall how sometimes Providence steps in and makes things right. A few years back, a pirate who came aboard my boat in the dark of night got a different type of “just desserts.” We were tied in a southeastern city, waiting to cross the Gulf Stream. Our tender was up on its lift, well secured. Nevertheless, we were awakened in the night by a thief walking across our decks, going straight to the stern, where he tried to launch the tender.

Apparently he didn’t realize we were aboard. I awoke and bellowed as ferociously as I could. It scared him so that he ran to the side and tried to jump over. His foot caught in the lifeline and he went over head-first. Tied to a float alongside was a pumpout boat. (I suppose that’s why the dockage fee was so “reasonable.”)

It had done what most pumpout boats seem to do so well — break down — and had flooded into its open bilge, leaving an odorous deluge of some magnitude, into which our thief plunged face-first. As he limped away down the street gagging, I felt a little safer, and I have ever since.

June 2014 issue