Safety at Sea - What Are The Risks?

I will publish some important stuff about safety in modern cruising in the next couple of weeks, so I urge you to subscribe to FollowingSeas.Media. Beyond this post, I may not always share to social media groups, as I've done in the past, as it is just too problematic when I am offsite. Guess it is time to step up and subscribe if you value this material. This new series focuses on our current world view, on whatever boat you cruise on, power or sail, as well as on land.

Everywhere you go, in fact.

Sometimes, to look ahead is to look at the past, and to do this I will go over and update material I published years ago in PassageMaker Magazine. Interestingly, it is even more relevant today. I already posted about the threat of piracy (, but there is much more to marine safety and security these days. Staying safe while cruising is no accident. And then there is the issue of dealing with threats, managing your fears, and the issue of guns. I will address each of these topics in turn.

When I first explored the issue of piracy in the late '90s, it was almost exclusively associated with large ships and their cargo, most often oil tankers. Today the prey includes private yachts and their crews, and while this threat is local to specific parts of the world, it is sufficient reason to avoid these areas altogether. They include the Strait of Malacca (off Indonesia and Malaysia), the Red Sea, northeastern Africa (off Djibouti, Somalia, Ethiopia, and Egypt), and the east coast of South America, especially off Brazil.


I will discuss safety at sea with new information as well as paraphrasing the comments and suggestions of Gary Stubblefield, with whom I first co-authored this material. Gary is a retired Navy SEAL, who went on to command SEAL Team Three. He is a recognized expert in maritime security, and his expertise is second to none. He presented this topic at Safety at Sea at the Naval Academy, and spent years fighting bad guys around the world, both in the Navy and with private security firms.

Today, his words are grounded in reality.

When we first discussed piracy in the world, he said the some cruisers view piracy as the primary threat, but as we've mentioned it is isolated to specific areas of the world. As Gary views it, the valid concern is not really about piracy, but being alone in a potentially hostile environment. Severe weather is much more of a concern than a bunch of gun-toting men coming at you in a small skiff. Having good seamanship skills to handle heavy weather is way more important than carrying guns to fight off pirates.


And ultimately, when it comes to personal safety around other people, pirates are not what most cruisers should be concerned about, but rather putting themselves in situations where they become victims of crime. Foolishly leaving valuables on deck, or a hatch open, or storing everyone's shoes on deck, your dinghy casually tied to your stern overnight, and other careless behavior simply invites petty theft. A radio snatched from just inside the companionway or off the flybridge is not considered piracy, but rather a crime occurring in port that is preventable.

When he worked in private security, Gary said he kept a much tighter watch when he was in port with his security team than at sea. He was more concerned about having a wealthy client abducted and held for ransom, or having someone come aboard and stealing valuables off the yacht. This concern was especially important when the boat was in Mexico, a beautiful country but in parts rampant with crime, often drug-related, and kidnapping, robberies, and worse.

Theft is the biggest single element of criminal activity in the world. Second is vandalism. The third is your crew's personal safety, in terms of being caught while a theft is taking place, being in a compromised situation where the criminal decides to hurt the victim. These are targets of opportunity rather than premeditated criminal acts.

One way to know what risks you face ahead of time is to use government resources that identify specific threats of cruising areas. The U.S. State Department has a great website for this: (, as does Canada (, Australia (, and England ( Educate yourself about the latest travel advisories, and whether the potential threat is criminal, drug-related, possible terrorism, or piracy-related.

It also helps to spend time planning your route to look at what funnels traffic and then planning to travel those areas in company of other boats. My nephew was an officer on an Aegis cruiser some years back and he said when the fleet passed through the narrow area between Morocco and Gibraltar, the warships made their passage at night, blacked out, and at speed to quickly get through the area before any bad guys knew they were even there.

File a float plan, let people know where you will be traveling, along which route, and when you expect to arrive. If you're going to travel past a potentially risky area, you might be better off heading farther offshore, in good weather. Twenty miles offshore puts you at much less risk than 10 miles, which may be easily within range of small, land-based boats. Most importantly, don't be in a hurry to connect the dots in troubled waters by taking the shortest route. It might be best to take your time, go a longer route, and stay well offshore.


Make sure your radar is working and use it. The most likely way for bad guys to approach you is from behind, as they know you are focused ahead, and most radars have a blind spot where it is attached to a mast. If your radar has a blind spot, it is likely going to be aft. Kudos if your radar is mounted on an arch.

If people see you are prepared, that may be enough of a deterrent because they know they lost the element of surprise. So a good pair of binoculars is very important. While they are relatively expensive, Fujinon's waterproof stabilized binoculars are well worth the investment. As Gary said during one of our interviews, "I required that gear on all of my combat craft. Absolutely every boat captain had to have a pair onboard. They are worth their weight in gold, because you can stand up on a rocking boat and pick out details of any craft around you."


As I presented in this week's Monday Minute, night vision gear also puts the odds in your favor, as you can see all. Having stabilized binoculars, radar, and night vision puts you way ahead in staying safe.

My friend circumnavigated with his son a few years back, and he told me it made sense in risk areas to sail with all lights off at night, notably off parts of South America and Africa, as lights attract attention. The bad guys will always be running without lights. And in Asian waters, only a small percentage of fishing boats will have lights on, so you blend in. Obviously, in high traffic areas, this is unsafe for other reasons, so it is better to make that transit during daylight hours. Time your passage through risk areas at the safe times.

My next post will be about dealing with an actual threat.