The Offshore Voyaging Reference Site

Security Tips For Cruising In Risky Places

As a young guy learning to sail in the pirate-free (harbourmasters apart) waters of southwest England, I liked nothing better than to sleep in the cockpit of my small cruising boat whenever the weather would allow. Having grown up exploring the wilds with only the most basic of camping kit, this was nothing out of the ordinary for me; I just liked to smell the night air, feel the boat moving beneath me and wake to the wonder of the dawn chorus.

Since those distant days, Louise and I have travelled far and wide on Pèlerin in much more bearable climes than rainy old Britain, but I’ve only slept in the cockpit a very few times. Why? Partly age, no doubt, coupled with a dislike of being bitten by the bugs that abound in tropical places.

But at heart the real reason has to do with security. For it is undeniably true that in many parts of the world it would no longer be wise to sleep in the cockpit, or with the companionway open, in case an intruder were to come aboard.

As we don’t want this to spoil our enjoyment of the cruising life, Louise and I have thought long and hard about security, and we’ve have had to accept that some level of risk exists, and also that it’s up to us to reduce the level of threat to what we deem to be acceptable levels.

In light of this we have developed our own set of thoughts and actions to prevent or defend ourselves from theft or attack. Of course, we can’t actually say that these strategies have worked since we have never been attacked; maybe we’ve simply been lucky. But we’d like to think that they have worked for us, and we offer them here for others to consider while they formulate their own safety parameters for cruising.

Reality vs Gossip

The first thing we do is consider as objectively as possible what the risks actually are in any country we plan to visit. We do our homework thoroughly well in advance, looking for any patterns of crime or particular places that have a bad record of theft or attacks.

We recognize that it is important to consider just how localized the risks are; countries and islands often have an acceptable level of safety overall except for certain individual sites, while in others the risks are more general and inclusive.

If a place has a reputation for petty crime, we’ll look out for evidence of theft becoming more regular or developing into actual boarding of boats. Crime has a way of escalating as the perpetrators become bolder if they are not caught early on. So petty theft can become boarding, which will almost inevitably degenerate further with the potential to develop into physical confrontation, which seldom ends well.

Hopefully the criminals get caught before it does, but expecting a great deal of help from overstretched police forces or local people who (often with good reason) fear reprisals is in many cases wishful thinking.

If a particular place has a bad reputation, but we’d still like to (or have to) visit, then we’ll try and find out whether that reputation is fair or current. On several occasions, when we have dug a little deeper into the gossip, we’ve learned that there might well have been ulterior motives for attacks on people and property that the basic reports didn’t allow for. In other cases, the attacks had taken place some years before and the perpetrators had been caught and locked up.

We don’t necessarily accept these potentially mitigating factors as gospel on first hearing, and will always seek further confirmation from other sources if possible but, if we feel that the circumstances indicate that the risks are in fact lower than the chat room suggests, then we may consider that, for us, the risks are acceptable.

Learn From The Locals

Once we arrive at a new place, we often ask local people about security—after all, they should know where is safe and where less so. We’ve often found that locals will go out of their way to alert us to potential risks.

On one occasion up a small tributary of a big river in Brazil, we anchored for lunch alongside an island that was a very attractive nature reserve. Just as we were clearing up, two men paddled by in a really battered small pirogue before turning back and coming alongside, obviously wishing to speak.

As we shared absolutely no language, the exchange that followed was minimalistic, to say the least, but by the end of it they had made me very much aware that (a) there were bad men in the village across the big river and that (b) we should under no circumstances stay overnight in this place. The final, slow, drawing of the finger across the throat was all the convincing we needed.

And we have had similar, though less graphic, experiences in Morocco, Senegal and the Cape Verdes, as well as other parts of Brazil and the Caribbean. People are generally good, mean well and, if you’ll give them the chance, will be immensely helpful to you as travellers.

We had heard bad things about all the places mentioned above and, whilst we didn’t dismiss them, we did take care to do our homework diligently before deciding to go there, and are very glad that we did.

Our Golden Rule

We have a rule that if one of us in unhappy in an anchorage, or if we can’t agree that we’ll be safe enough, we simply go elsewhere. After one night in Wallilabou Bay on St Vincent, Louise was feeling very uncomfortable and asked that we should leave, and I couldn’t disagree as the mood of the place was far from relaxing.

Sticking to our rule, we moved on, and thought no more of it until we heard of this year’s tragic occurrence, when a German sailor was shot dead and another wounded during a late night boarding. Such a ghastly scenario—it could so easily have been us.

So after two years in the Caribbean, we ended up avoiding the islands of St Vincent and St Lucia altogether, after dubious experiences in both popular cruising destinations, including an attack on a boat near us.

A pity, because we liked them both as places, met some great local people and, in any other circumstances, would love to visit them again. But our antennae are now very finely tuned as to the actual risks and we had to agree, reluctantly, that they were now outside our comfort zone.

Safety In Numbers…or Not

Louise and I would have no trouble agreeing that cities offer far more risks than the wilds, although inexperienced people often find this hard to comprehend. Yet if we ask them whether they think they would be safer on a dark street at midnight in the bowels of their own capital city or in a tiny village on a remote coast, they seldom choose the city.

When we arrived recently in Nassau to leave Pèlerin for a few weeks while we travelled for work, we chose a busy downtown marina that seemed as safe a place as any. Yet within five minutes of arrival, our charming next-door neighbours told us that they had been boarded the night before and had all of their cash stolen.

And over the next few days there were at least two more yachts boarded in the adjacent anchorage, all of these attacks seemingly carried out by a lone swimmer. Yet we’d just spent six weeks anchored out in the Exumas and never had a moment’s concern.

We knew that we’d have to watch ourselves when we arrived in the major Brazilian city of Salvador, as the place has a long and colourful reputation, afloat or ashore. Yet we had to clear in after crossing the Atlantic and re-stock before exploring the magnificent Bahia de Todos os Santos.

We were aware that several boats at anchor right off the city marina in the main downtown business area had been subjected to armed robbery in the months preceding our arrival, and people had been mugged in the street outside our marina at eight o’clock in the morning! Yet we enjoyed several weeks of really enjoyable cruising up the estuaries in the area and farther south towards Rio, often well off the beaten track up rivers, without any incidents.

Keeping Our Guard Up

However, we never drop our guard completely. As we made the jump from Trinidad to Grenada in 2013, even though our crossing took place some considerable time after the previous boardings in that area, we sailed overnight when the wind was up, with our navigation lights out as insurance against possible boarding.

Was it a wise move? We’ll never know, but two more recent incidents suggest that it wasn’t just misplaced nerves on our part. Which is a reminder to us as much as anyone else that, even after long spells of safe passagemaking, dormant problems can recur.

Lock Up

When anchored or alongside we always keep our deck hatches locked in the ajar position, except for the forehatch, which is generally open to allow air into the forecabin. But we usually lash our inflatable dinghy upside down over it, which makes it very difficult to enter without making a lot of noise; by which time I should be wide awake and have locked the hatch. The companionway hatch is locked shut at all times—just as we would lock our front door at home in Falmouth!

As we have good-sized dorade vents, we are usually still able to divert sufficient cool air into the cabins to make sleep comfortable, and we have quiet, low current-draw fans in all cabins to keep the air circulating.

At some stage we intend to have a robust security gate made to fit the companionway door, and perhaps some hatch guards, too, that should allow us to leave at least some of the hatches open at night to achieve better air exchange.

There are some hatch bars on the market such as the Swi-Tec units, but without question the best companionway gates I’ve seen have all been custom fabricated.

We keep all lockers firmly secured with decent padlocks, and the engine, dinghy and fuel tank combination chained and padlocked to the boat. Until recently our dinghy was an ancient Avon with a well-abused Mercury outboard, and I’ve never thought that was a bad idea from a theft perspective. Most of the locals had better kit than us!

More Tips

We close all gates in the guard wires (lifelines) at night, to make life more difficult for anyone trying to board the boat from alongside—any extra warning we have from noise is welcome.

We have a very powerful deck light that we can switch on and a powerful foghorn to alert any boats or security staff around us, although we obviously don’t place much store by this and we establish in advance whether there is a local VHF channel that we can call for assistance on. Grenada, for example, has a repeater on Channel 66 that has proved useful in some incidents.

When in lonely locations we do all of the above as well as the following:

  • We tend to explore by day, pick an anchorage and then keep going, only returning in the evening to anchor for the night.
  • We don’t stay too long in any one place—usually only one or two nights.
  • We’re very alert to passing boats that appear to be taking too much interest.
  • We’re very careful around over-inquisitive people afloat or ashore and are alert for unwelcome questions at all times.
  • We keep a careful eye on flashily-dressed youths with expensive-looking boats where everyone else is wearing shorts and paddling a dugout.
  • We never leave expensive items lying around in plain sight, such as laptops, cameras, smartphones, etc., and are doubly careful with such items ashore.
  • If we invite people aboard, we do so ‘by appointment’, so that we have time to stow valuables away from sight.

Managing The Risk

Louise and I accept that risk is part of what we do, but take the management of that risk seriously, and review our thinking regularly and objectively. We’d recommend that others do so, too. That way you’ll be as safe as you can be and enjoy places, people and experiences that might otherwise remain off limits. There’s still a wonderful world out there to explore, despite the risks. Don’t miss out on it!

Further Reading


What do you do to keep safe from the earth’s most dangerous predator? Please leave a comment.

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