We have been sailing Avant in Mexico and Central America for six years now, and one of the most common questions we get is “Do you feel safe?”
Yes, we do. We have not suffered a loss, seen a crime committed, or otherwise been bothered by crime. Ever. We do know of other cruisers that have suffered losses, though:
- Dinghy theft. (Really, it’s outboard motor theft. By far the most common loss suffered by cruisers.)
- Casual theft (thieves sneak aboard, usually when no one is aboard, and grab any valuables they can and dash off. Most common at a dock).
- Pick pockets (in Guaymas, a cruiser had her wallet stolen from her purse in the grocery store – but that could have happened anywhere in the world).
Not to say it doesn’t happen, it does. But the violent crimes that make the news in Canada and the USA do not seem to happen on the coast or where the cruising community congregates. Most if not all of the murders are gang related, and mostly gang on gang events. We take normal 21st Century precautions; we don’t walk in strange neighbourhoods at night, we don’t flash wads of cash, we don’t wear expensive jewelry or watches, etc. and we have not had a problem.
There are, however, security concerns and we have taken some simple steps to protect ourselves.
You don’t need to make it impossible to be a victim, you don’t need to make it impossible for someone to steal from you. You just need to make it harder. You just need to make your boat a less inviting target than the one next door. If you have locked your boat and hoisted your dinghy and outboard out of the water, cleared valuables from the cockpit, and a neighbouring boat has all their hatches open and their dinghy floating beside their boat tied on with a rope painter, guess who is more likely to be a victim? It’s like the old joke about bears, you don’t need to be able to outrun a bear, you just need to outrun the person you’re with.
The strategy we have employed for our personal security is pretty simple and pretty unobtrusive. It doesn’t impact our day to day lives by much, and we aren’t working hard to stay safe.
- Lock the boat, and tidy up. Simple. Free. Easy. When we’re away from the boat for a while, whether at the dock or at anchor, we lock the boat. Close and latch the hatches. Even if we haven’t seen another human being for days. We also have the means to lock ourselves in the boat, in the event we feel threatened and think that’s the safest option (boats with the hatches locked by padlocks may not have the means to do this, but it’s pretty easy to add an internal barrel bolt or similar lock). We changed out our lovely louvered wooden companionway boards for a simple sheet of plexiglass, far more resistant to being kicked in or carved open with a knife or chisel. We don’t stow anything within reach of the portlights we usually leave open. We stow winch handles and other deck gear below as appropriate when anchored or at the dock, and don’t leave things sitting around on deck or in the cockpit. We also lock the computer at the navigation station to the boat with a computer cable lock.
- Hide stuff. In the event someone does get aboard, we have some of our valuables and some spare cash hidden. We use a variety of means, including ‘diversion safes’ (food cans, boxes or jars, varnish or paint cans or bottles, hollowed out books, etc., that disguise a secret compartment to stash valuables in). These can be purchased or home made (paint the inside of an old mayonnaise jar white, and there you go!). More than one is a good idea, in various places around the boat. The downside is they can be taken as they are portable. Don’t use a WD-40 can as a diversion safe in your tool bag, as they may take the whole bag!
- Secret compartments/ hidey-holes. False drawer or locker bottoms, behind velcroed-on cabinet fronts or vinyl trim, envelopes taped behind or under drawers, the inside of the paper towel roller, shower curtain rod or toilet paper roller, false electric sockets, the inside of hollow closet rods, and other strategies can be employed.
- Use decoys. We have a ‘muggers wallet’ prepared and left in plain sight on the navigation station, next to the companionway. A muggers wallet is a decoy wallet, an old, used one filled with expired credit cards and identification, receipts and small denomination bills of assorted currencies. The hope is a sneak thief will come aboard, see and seize the wallet and dash off, satisfied they have ‘scored’, while truly valuable goods remain unmolested.
- Have backups. We have backup credit and ATM cards, connected to a separate bank account at a different bank from our primaries, safely stashed aboard. If our primary cards are lost, compromised or stolen, or if our primary bank has a bad hair day in the computer department, we can dig out the backups and be good to go until replacements can be sourced or the accounts reactivated.
- Know what’s there. We take pictures of our passports and the contents of our wallets and the interior of the boat and email them to ourselves so we have a record that we can access from any computer on the internet if they are lost.
- Be ready with active deterrents. In the extremely unlikely event we meet serious thieves intent on a face to face encounter and committing a violent crime against us, we are ready to meet the threat (at least with bravado). We have:
- Heavy flashlights (3 cell D battery Maglites) mounted in clips next to the companionway and our berth. As well as being handy, blinding flashlights, these make great clubs.
- Fire extinguishers will discharge a large cloud of fine white dust that can disorient and confuse bad guys.
- Machetes. We have a couple of machetes aboard, stored in a locker where they can be reached quickly and waved around to make a show of resistance. Easily seen from a distance, waving machetes is a distinctly unwelcoming gesture in every culture. Machetes are inexpensive and readily available in hardware stores. They can also be used to open coconuts.
- Baseball bat. We also have a t-ball bat (mini baseball bat), which doubles as a fish bonker.
- Flares. We have a white handheld flare mounted in clips in the companionway. In the event we are intercepted at sea or boarded at anchor, we can light it and toss it in an attacker’s boat. We don’t have a flare gun  aboard, but one might be useful. Be aware that the flare shot from a flare gun will not light until the flare has burned for a while (they are designed to light in the air, not as they are discharged). They are not particularly powerful, and the flares with their propellant tend to bounce off what they hit. The muzzle energy of a 12g flare gun is less than that of a 22 caliber rifle and it is unlikely to penetrate just about anything due to its wide nosed projectile. Any damage it may cause will be due to the flare itself burning. Flare guns may also be illegal in certain jurisdictions (and if used in an offensive or defensive manner as a weapon, are considered weapons or firearms under the laws of many countries).
- We have Bear Spray aboard, too (while wasp spray is often suggested as a deterrent, apparently it is largely ineffective).
- (Note: In most countries south of the USA, Mace, Dog and Bear Sprays are illegal, but we’re living on the edge).
- We keep our VHF on 24/7, and keep a handheld next to our berth, so we can raise an alarm with other cruisers (or heed their call) if we feel unsafe.
All of these strategies are designed around the idea that you don’t have to make it impossible to be attacked, you just have to make it unpleasant for would-be attackers, encouraging them to look elsewhere or take the rest of the day or night off.
Dinghy Outboard Theft
This is, by far, the most common loss suffered by cruisers. An outboard is a very valuable item in a fishing community, and all coastal villages are fishing communities. A simple 8-10 hp outboard can increase a fisherman’s ability to feed his family tenfold by allowing him to get further offshore when fishing. We always hip-hoist our dinghy at night, and do so with a wire cable harness with legs long enough to be far above reach, where they are attached to the halyard snap shackle, even when standing on deck (so a would-be thief can’t simply release the shackle and drop the dinghy). We lock the outboard to the dinghy’s transom with a heavy stainless lock, and use the same lock to lock the motor to the rail mount when it is stored aboard. We employ locals (usually children or the proprietors of beachfront restaurants) as watch keepers whenever possible when leaving the dinghy ashore, and use a long stainless cable to secure the dinghy ashore when it’s in an isolated or unsupervised location.
We don’t really notice that we’re doing these things on a day to day basis, they are just ‘habits or ‘housekeeping’. But we feel that these measures collectively decrease our chance of being victims (and losses if we are), as well as increase our ability to bounce back should we be targeted.
“Ready Aye Ready” is the motto of the Canadian Navy. It implies that the Canadian Navy is always “ready”.