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Avoid Engagement

"Enough is enough," says Charles Clifton, founder and director of Humanitarian Defense, referring to the four American cruisers who were shot and killed by Somali pirates off Oman.

"If people are going to sail in these waters, they have to take some responsibility to protect themselves," says the 31-year-old international security operations specialist from Gardnerville, Nev.

Clifton has started offering counterpiracy, terrorism, robbery and crime training to help cruisers meet the challenges of passing through increasingly hostile waters. And those waters aren't just in the Gulf of Aden and the Indian Ocean, but also the Malacca Straits and even more benign cruising grounds like the Caribbean and the Intracoastal Waterway. "You have to take responsibility for your own safety," he says.

Clifton's organization - the first 501(c)3 non-profit in the international security field - focuses mainly on providing protection to relief workers, missionaries and staff of non-governmental organizations, and training them in personal security so they are better prepared to work in dangerous places. The maritime training is new, done aboard your boat anywhere in the world, at your yacht club or marina for a group you draw together, or at a neutral site for anyone who signs up for the training. Clifton says it responds to the vulnerability of cruisers, many of whom can't afford to take classes from private security companies.

Clifton draws his team from a pool of 20 like-minded security specialists who have other higher-paying jobs and do work for Humanitarian Defense as a service - not for free but for much-reduced rates, he says. Humanitarian Defense fielded anywhere from three to 10 of its people for six weeks during the Haiti earthquake crisis to protect an orphanage - its 150 children and staff - and keep them supplied with basic necessities, all for $70,000. "If you had the same operation through a private company, it could have cost you $20,000 to $30,000 a day," Clifton says.

His self-defense training is based on conflict avoidance. "Our whole thing is not to have to engage, to use our brains and avoid engaging," he says.

That means:

  • Stay away from waters known to harbor pirates.
  • If you must be in those waters, be aware of your surroundings, keep a careful watch for pirates and steer clear of them. Know how to avoid them.
  • If you can't avoid them and they attack, know ways to fend off the attack boat and keep the pirates from boarding.
  • If they board your boat and if you are able, know how to defend yourself - with or without firearms - and try to drive them off.
  • If taken captive, know what you can do to help rather than hinder a rescue operation, if one can be launched.

Clifton says the harsh reality is that if Somali pirates board your boat, it is going to be very difficult to fend them off. They likely will take you captive, and the likelihood of American warships launching an operation to rescue you is remote.

The pirates have demonstrated that they are willing to kill yachtsmen. They killed Americans Scott and Jean Adam of Marina del Rey, Calif., and their friends Phyllis Macay and Robert Riggle of Seattle while holding them captive aboard the 58-foot sailboat Quest. "If the pirates get on your boat, the fight's over," Clifton says. "There's not much that can be done for you. If you don't have a lot of money in the bank and you don't have a rich uncle who can plunk $4 million down, you are either going to die or you're going to spend years in captivity."

Stay away from pirate waters, avoid engagement, don't let them board - or carry a couple of Clifton's armed security operatives with you in dangerous waters. Contact Humanitarian Defense at (775) 273-9646 or visit

See related article:

- High stakes for cruisers in pirate waters

This article originally appeared in the June 2011 issue.