Piracy in the Caribbean

The quiet little secret sailing magazines don’t want to mention

©2013 – Troy Gilbert

These aren’t the notorious swashbuckling anti-heroes of yesteryear plying the Gulf Stream in search of fat Spanish galleons laden with the plunder of the Americas. Today’s pirates are more likely to be drug traffickers seeking transportation for their contraband or run-of-the-mill thieves motivated by poverty in search of fat cruising sailboats or powerboats laden with electronics, gear and the cash of their unsuspecting crew.

Statistics on the number of attacks are generally recognized to be severely underreported, but the IMB Piracy Reporting Center in Kuala Lumpur states that worldwide the number of attacks on vessels of all variations is at 106 in 2013. Most of these attacks, many exceedingly violent, took place either in Nigerian and Indonesian waters or the in Gulf of Aden to commercial shipping.

However there has been a significant rise in violent attacks onboard privately owned yachts in Caribbean waters. Most notably these events take place off the Colombian and Venezuelan coasts, but attacks are on the rise off the coasts of Nicaragua, Honduras and Guatemala. 99% of all attacks occur in coastal waters.

If the idea of modern-day piratical activity conjures up in your mind situations akin to Johnny Depp rescuing Keira Knightingly or parrots and eye-patches think again. Today these buccaneers are more likely to brandish AK-47’s and machetes, and they will not hesitate to use them.

Most everyone remembers the news about Sir Peter Blake, the two-time winner of the America’s Cup, who was murdered aboard his yacht, Seamaster, on December 5, 2001 in Brazil. But how many have heard of Bruno Bianchella, who was sailing aboard his catamaran off the Venzuelan coast when his vessel was attacked resulting in his murder. Or the story of Lynne and Chris Morgan who’s yacht Malaika was boarded by pirates armed with guns off the coast of Columbia in 2003, and who barely escaped with their lives after fighting with the six intruders and escaped only by jumping overboard.

The list goes on and includes numerous accountings of thefts under threat of violence and stories of individuals being bound or beaten and left to drift. A particularly vicious incident occurred on the yacht, Panacea, where the transiting couple was bound by their attackers and helplessly watched as their vessel was ransacked. Then as a memento, the hooded and armed men shot the skipper in the kneecap.

There isn’t any particular strength in numbers either. A convoy of three sailboats was raided off the coast of Columbia in 2002, which luckily resulted in no serious injuries. However, they relate an ominous tale of barricading themselves below in their boat and defending themselves by shooting pepper spray through portholes as the raiders hacked away at the locked cabin door.  After the attackers fled, they instantly attempted to contact the other two boats in their party by radio, but only received acknowledgment from one. After rafting up, they discovered the couple below decks bound and gagged, with the boat completely ransacked and stripped.

Almost every vessel that has reported piratical incidents to the proper authorities state to not expect anything in the way of assistance during these events and expect only bureaucratic red tape or down right hostility from these government agencies after the fact. One victim in Columbia was called a “Gringo” by a woman in a Coast Guard office, who then slammed the door on them.

Klaus Hympendahl, the author of “Pirates Aboard” a non-fictional accounting of numerous piratical attacks on yachts, explains why he feels that the number of attacks is underreported. “Not many sailors believe in authorities being of help, so they don’t inform the police or the coast guard. Other skippers and crew suffer from traumatic experiences and are not willing to talk about their encounter with pirates. In addition, there are quite a number of yachts that have disappeared and nobody knows what has happened.”

Repelling boarders is problematic. Most attacks occur in the dead of night, and cruisers generally do not have the manpower onboard to keep watches while at anchor. So inevitably the idea of keeping a firearm onboard rises, but this ends up actually being a catch-22. While clearing customs, one must declare a firearm onboard and be forced to leave it with the custom’s officials or sealed onboard, thereby eliminating that defense while cruising in that country’s waters. If one chooses not to report it, and hide the weapon, you risk being prosecuted if it is discovered or not being able to get to the gun swiftly enough during an attack for it to be of any use. Remember also that Sir Peter Blake died with his rifle in his hands.

There are other defensive measures available such as pepper spray or even a Taser, but again, one must always consult with customs officials, preferably before hand for their legality in that nation.

The best defense is economic. Refraining from travel through these dangerous, though beautiful waters, will hopefully get the message to these nations that cruising dollars will dry up if their waters remain lawless.

Thoroughly researching the countries beforehand is key. Although there is a dearth of reliable resources regarding current yacht pirating and interestingly, a lack of coverage in sailing or boating periodicals that Hympendahl attributes to, “A kind of taboo that apparently doesn’t fit into the image of an intact world of bluewater sailors.”

There are some. Noonsite.com, a global site for cruising sailors provide some excellent information. Also, ICC-CCS.org is the site for the global weekly piracy reports put out by the IMB Piracy Reporting Center. The U.S. State Department is also a good bet.

The ISAF, International Sailing Federation, is currently compiling reports of yacht piracy and details can be found on their website, ISAF.co.uk.

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