Latin America & Caribbean

Yachters fight back against real-life pirates of the Caribbean

Sailing boats in the waters off Antigua & Barbuda Image copyright Alex Andre Rhodes
Image caption Antigua & Barbuda is a popular hub for sailors

Pirates who target vulnerable vessels have plagued the oceans for centuries but violence and piracy against yachts cruising the Caribbean is on the rise.

The region's yachting fraternity is fighting back, using social media and online forums to unite, to warn fellow mariners of incidents and danger hotspots, and to raise money to get victims back on the water.

After a couple were held at gunpoint and assaulted, and had their yacht damaged, in Grenada on 30 July, the Caribbean cruising community raised several thousand dollars within days.

A boom in forums such as maritime Facebook groups means there are more people than ever sharing information and appealing for everything from cash to blood donors.

Image caption Pippa Turton says sailors use the internet to support each other

The internet has changed cruising habits with wifi availability a "must-have" for many when considering anchorages.

"Land-lubbers think of sailors as being alone on their boats and don't realise what a huge community we are and how many networks we have for dialogue, especially since the advent of things like Facebook," says Pippa Turton, of Antigua-based charter yacht firm Miramar.

"We don't always have that much money but we do like to help each other when needed. There have been incidents where someone has been seriously ill and everyone has gone and given blood or clubbed together to send someone to the US for medical treatment."

Crime figures compiled by the Caribbean Safety and Security Net (CSSN) indicate a three-fold surge on assaults against cruisers in 2015 compared to 2014, while last year also saw four incidents of piracy compared to none for the previous year.


CSSN tips for onboard safety

Image copyright Gemma Handy
  • Know before you go. Visit safetyandsecuritynet.com and subscribe to "alerts" to keep abreast with recent incidents in the area you plan to visit
  • Store electronic copies of passports, boat documents, credit cards, licences and equipment serial numbers where they can be accessed if your computer is stolen
  • Hide valuables in multiple unpredictable places. Have a "sacrificial stash" to surrender
  • Do not discuss departure plans with strangers on shore, or describe your yacht or its location to them
  • Consider travelling in a group, maintaining VHF or SSB radio contact on a regular schedule
  • Make a response plan including evasive manoeuvres, first aid kit, extinguishing fire, initiating a distress call, use of lights and flares, and communication with other vessels and local authorities

And the volunteer-run group says the real numbers are likely to be higher still with attacks often going unreported for reasons of privacy, embarrassment or fears of economic repercussions.

Dismal prosecution rates

Statistics from Noonsite, a cruisers' information website, also show that piracy, suspicious incidents, robbery and burglary are on the rise in the Caribbean.

The 18 reports in 2014 soared to 27 in 2015. There are already more than 20 listed for 2016.

Image copyright Gemma Handy
Image caption Some of the world's largest and most luxurious super yachts dock in Antigua

In March, a German sailor was murdered and the yacht's captain seriously injured when masked pirates armed with guns boarded their vessel anchored in St Vincent's Wallilabou Bay, where Pirates of the Caribbean was filmed.

Vincentian police told the BBC no one had been charged but the matter remained under investigation. Officials in Germany have since begun their own inquiry.

Kim White, executive editor of CSSN - considered the authority on Caribbean boating security incidents - describes prosecution rates on the most serious crimes as "rather dismal".

She believes sailors' transient status may be one reason why efforts to apprehend perpetrators appear sparse.

"If arrests and prosecutions are not made promptly, the cases seem to fall into obscurity," she explains.

"While total numbers of incidents may not have changed dramatically, the nature of them seems to have changed - we are seeing more violent crimes, weapons are involved more often, and there are more assaults, piracy and attempted piracy."

'Have a plan!'

Ms White says awareness is crucial. "We hope everyone who reads our reports thinks about what they would do if that happened to them so they have a thought-out plan if it does. That makes more difference to the outcome than anything else cruisers can do.

Image copyright Alex Andre Rhodes
Image caption The Antigua defence force says it carries out regular patrols to keep sailors safe

"These events can profoundly change people's lives. Some lose their loved ones, others give up cruising and sell their boats. It's tragic."

Ms White added that efficient patrols both on sea and around marinas had been shown to have an impact in some areas.

In Antigua & Barbuda, Major Alando Michael said the country's defence force had executed a "robust patrolling system" in the international sailing hub since the 1990s.

"Boat attacks are not much of an issue here," he said. "We have a presence on the water as much as possible."

Two incidents of armed pirates attacking boats in the water between Trinidad and Grenada in December 2015 prompted a series of measures including increased patrols, according to Ocean Cruising Club port officer Jesse James.

"This is an extreme high priority issue," he said. "All efforts are being made to secure our borders."

For many, the beauty of yachting is the solitude. And for the thousands visiting the Caribbean each year, an encounter with modern-day marauders remains unlikely.

Chris Doyle, an administrator of the "Grenada Cruisers Information" Facebook group, believes while the wealth of online forums has boosted communication resources, it has "increased paranoia" too.

"Now everyone can print their bad news," he rues. "I have an alarm that wakes me up if something happens. In the 3,000 nights since I installed it, it's never once gone off."

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