Though the Caribbean remains generally safe for cruisers, boardings and other incidents can happen anywhere. Developing safety habits and contingency plans will contribute to a more enjoyable cruise.
The following recommendations to minimize the risk of theft, burglary and assault come from the experience of many cruisers in the Caribbean, some of whom have been directly affected by such incidents. The intent is not to frighten cruisers, but to identify steps that can be taken to prevent property loss or physical harm.
To prevent a boarding incident from possible escalation to violence, the emphasis is placed on scaring off rather than confronting intruders. Some of the recommendations seem obvious but if they do not become habits, they serve no purpose. On the other hand, if you habitually use these precautions, they become a not-burdensome routine. The more difficult you make life for the criminal, the more likely he is to leave you and your property alone.
- Avoid known high-risk anchorages; especially, do not anchor alone there. If you do stop, use full security precautions and post a watch. In all anchorages, introduce yourself to others in the harbor and decide on a VHF frequency for all to monitor. The emergency DSC button on your VHF will not function if you turn the radio off. Leave it on, even overnight, you can always turn the volume very low if you do not wish to monitor traffic.
- If you have an SSB/HF radio, preprogram the stations monitored by USCG and other authorities. The distress voice frequencies are 4125, 6215, 8291, or 12290 kHz. 14300 kHz (Maritime Mobile Service Network) is monitored nearly 24/7 and can be used by anyone during an emergency. If you have a satellite phone, ensure it is programmed with an emergency distress contact such as the ICC-CCS Anti-Piracy Hotline + 60 3 2031 0014.
- Whenever you leave the boat, lock/secure all access points, including hatches and ports, using good quality locks. It’s amazing what size opening a skinny, motivated kid can get through!
- Don’t leave desirable items unlocked in the dinghy behind the boat, at the dinghy dock while you’re ashore, or unattended on the beach while swimming. In addition to the obvious outboard, this includes gas tanks and diving/snorkeling gear. Don’t paint your yacht’s name on the dinghy: at dinghy docks, it broadcasts that at least one person is away from the yacht. A country/registration number will generally suffice in cases of locating the owner of a “found” dinghy.
- Don’t leave anything valuable on the deck or in the cockpit at night or when the boat is unoccupied. Equipment that cannot be stowed below should be secured with the heaviest chain or wire cable practicable. Pull up the boarding ladder, particularly on a catamaran or a monohull with a sugar scoop or boarding platform.
- Outboards are a major target: always lock them securely to the dinghy. Locking bars that cover the transom clamps and a high quality lock are advised. Lock dinghies to the dock when ashore, using a long enough heavy security cable or chain (stainless advised) so others can get their dinghies to the dock, too. Hoist and VISIBLY lock (heavy security cable or chain, preferably stainless) the dinghy to the boat at night. There have been few attempts, and NO successful dinghy thefts of dinghies from occupied yachts secured in this manner. Several raised but not locked dinghies have been stolen while owners slept onboard. If you remove your outboard secure it with its locking bar on mounts or chain/cable to the rail or in the cockpit or stow it below. Make your brand new clean shiny outboard less brand new clean and shiny, and therefore, less attractive. Again, always use good quality locks, not simple padlocks that are easily defeated. Swimmers easily steal dinghies left in the water, even when locked with cable; all they need is a hacksaw blade. If you must leave your dinghy in the water, use an appropriately sized quality stainless chain to secure it. Remember the dinghy end of your cable or chain must be secure – not an easily removed shackle!
- Don’t announce on the VHF or social media that you are leaving the boat for a day of shopping or sightseeing or an evening out on the town. If someone is calling a neighboring boat on the VHF, don’t helpfully advise the caller that the neighbors are off the boat. If you call on the VHF for reservations at a restaurant or taxi, use your name, not your boat name.
- In high-risk areas, if asleep below during the day and especially at night, secure the companionway with barrel bolts and the hatches with security bars. Use stainless steel hasps and fixings. Fix hinges internally so they cannot be pried off or unscrewed.
- Separate and hide valuables in multiple unpredictable areas onboard. Have a “sacrificial stash” to surrender. Store an electronic copy of all important materials where it can be accessed if your computer is stolen: your passports and boat documents, the contents of all your wallets: credit cards (both sides), licenses, etc. and an up to date equipment list with serial numbers. If possible, hide a spare GPS and handheld VHF radio, even a personal locator beacon. Check the battery status of these items on a regular basis.
- Install an alarm system or use portable alarms/lights to cover key access points. A simple US$30 motion detector in the cockpit or on the transom(s) that activates lights/sirens can do much to startle and scare off thieves. A blaring siren will draw the attention of nearby yachts, even if you are not onboard.
- Have a response plan ready to use if boarded, whether at anchor or underway, with the emphasis on scaring away intruders before they board and enter your boat. Additional deterrents can be kept inside, but should be easily accessible – near where you sleep. For example, a panic button that activates external sirens and lights, an air horn, pepper spray, etc., next to your bunk. If you have pepper spray, learn how to use it and be cognizant of wind direction. Stay out of sight when the boat is approached, speaking from the companionway rather than cockpit in questionable circumstances. Do NOT leave the safety of your secure interior and risk a violent encounter with unknown attackers.
- If you hear someone in the cockpit or on deck, DO NOT turn on any lights below – the light makes it possible for the intruders to see you. Keep a flashlight next to your bunk for light. Turn on/flash the spreader lights and any other exterior lights and sirens. This will likely deter the intruder, and alert others to the situation.
- Do not unlock a hatch or companionway to set off an alarm or turn on a light. Install additional remote switches that can be easily activated from inside your secure cabins.
- When going ashore store valuables in a pouch that can be tucked inside clothes rather than in a wallet, purse, fanny pack or daypack. Do not carry your wallet in a daypack or backpack; a clever pickpocket can get a wallet from a pack without you feeling anything.
- Carry only the amount of money needed for the day; a “sacrificial stash” in a pocket can be helpful.
- Be aware of your environment and dress/act accordingly. Avoid wearing flashy clothing and expensive looking jewelry.
- Use a taxi if transiting high-risk neighborhoods; use a bus only if you are knowledgeable about the location of your destination and use of the bus system, i.e. how to identify that a bus is going in the proper direction.
- If you are involved in an incident, report it to the local authorities (police, marina management, tourist office, yachting and marine trade organization) and to the Caribbean Safety and Security Net. An incident unreported, for all practical purposes, never happened.
- Don’t discuss your departure plans (time and destination) with strangers on shore, or on social media. Don’t describe your boat to strangers: location, name, number of people on board, whether you are armed.
- Sometimes the presence of a large and voluble dog on a boat is sufficient to deter unarmed or casual boarders. Do not expect your pet to become an attack dog unless it has been specifically trained for this purpose. Weapons and/or multiple thieves change this dynamic. CAUTION: When pets are ashore, be sure to be alert for poison. (Please read: Attention Dog / Pet Owners for more information.)
- When on the hard perform a safety check on all your boat to shore electrical connections, be certain there is a proper grounding system in place. 110/220 VAC can KILL.
- Many thefts occur while the boat is on the hard. Don’t forget about normal precautions when out of the water, while you are working and when you are away from the boat.
To review precautions specific to passages see: