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Article by Tor Pinney                                                                                                                                        Back to List of Tor's Tips


1994 Tor Pinney - All Rights Reserved

Crime and the Caribbean Cruiser


For centuries, the Caribbean has lured sailors with its perfect weather, steady trade winds and beautiful islands. Yet from the beginning, there has been a serpent in the garden. It was the pirates of old that first violated the natural serenity of this mariner's paradise. Today, the roving bands of buccaneers are long gone, but there remain a few traces of the old perils. A less glamorous breed of thieves and, in rare instances, cutthroats still ply the waters and harbors of tropical paradise.

With the vast increase in the number of cruising yachts and charter boats, sailors are now visiting these once remote islands in record numbers. Understandably so, because most of the Caribbean is a safe cruising ground most of the time. But boaters there shouldn't let the beauty of the surroundings and the relaxed pace lure them into a naive sense of complete security. Just as in the rest of the modern world, crime does exist there and crimes against yachtsmen, although occasional and sporadic, do occur. Being the victim of a criminal act, be it theft or personal attack, can ruin a cruise.

Good seamanship requires that mariners be aware, alert, and prepared for any eventuality. This applies no less to threats of a human nature. So let's consider what kinds of crime Caribbean sailors might encounter, what's being done about them, how you can protect yourself and what to do if it happens to you.

What's happening?

The cruising world was shaken recently by news of a multiple murder aboard a sailboat in Barbuda, near Antigua in the Leeward Islands. On January 27, 1994, an American couple and two English crewmen were found shot to death aboard the 65-foot racing ketch, "Computacenter Challenger". Local authorities tried their best to keep the incident out of the international headlines, while at the same time calling upon Scotland Yard detectives to assist in the investigation. Within a few weeks, three young Barbudian men were charged with the killings.

The previous November in Prince Rupert Bay, Dominica, an experienced Caribbean single-hander woke one night to find two natives entering his boat's cabin armed with a machete and a knife. In the ensuing scuffle, the skipper was wounded. The intruders then demanded to be sailed to St. Maarten where, 3 days later, the sailor was left adrift off the coast, weak from his injuries and manning a disabled vessel. The hijackers had openly discussed plans to steal another crewed yacht to get them to St. Thomas. Yet although he notified the police in St. Maarten, St. Kits and Dominica, as far as he knows no investigation was conducted, nor any arrests made.

While such violent attacks are extremely rare in the West Indies, these events serve to remind us that crime - even assault and murder - is not just some faraway urban problem. An unwary yacht can become a target.

Piracy is defined as robbery or illegal violence at sea. But in fact, the vast majority of crimes committed against Caribbean yachtsmen occur in port, and - the above tragedies notwithstanding - fall into the category of larceny, mostly petty; sometimes grand.

Probably the most common crime against yachtsmen is the theft of dinghies and outboard motors. A few years ago I spent several months in Puerto La Cruz, Venezuela where sailors shared a morning radio net on the VHF. Reports of dinghies being stolen were so common - sometimes two or three in one night - that they became a normal part of our daily life! Rumor had it that there was an organized ring of thieves operating who were carting the dinghies and outboard motors down to the Amazon region and selling them to gold prospectors there. The police dutifully recorded the complaints, but I never heard of any stolen tenders being recovered. Dinghy theft happens relatively often, and in almost every corner of the Caribbean.

Another problem sailors face is the theft of items off the deck of their yachts while they're ashore or asleep. Natives, some of them children, paddle small skiffs or simply swim through the harbor and swipe anything easily reached and removed. A rash of paddle-by petty thefts like this recently put sailors on their guard in Grenada's downtown yacht harbor, but they can occur almost anywhere.

Much more devastating to the cruising sailor is to come home after an evening ashore to find the companionway broken open, the cabin ransacked, and their valuables stolen. A cruising couple in St. Thomas reported three such break-ins in one evening in the island's crowded downtown anchorage. Apparently, the thieves watched as sailors dinghied ashore, then stole the same tenders to go out to the anchored vessels. The dinghies were later found adrift in the harbor, but the stolen cameras, jewelry, radios, and cash were never recovered.

It is not only aboard their boats that sailors can encounter trouble. A cruising couple ashore in San Juan, Puerto Rico was startled when a youth ran past them, snatching the woman's gold necklace as he rushed by. The kid vanished in a wink and the jewelry with him.

Perhaps a sailor's greatest nightmare is having his entire boat stolen. The target is most often a vessel that has been left unattended in port for awhile. As any insurance investigator can tell you, yachts are stolen all over the world. That it also happens in the Caribbean is attested to by the presence of "Reward For Information" notices posted on marina bulletin boards throughout the islands.

Why me?

Why do these crooks single out yachts as their targets? In a developing country, a yacht can't help but stand out. To a native who subsists on a thousand dollars a year, a yacht represents unimaginable, unattainable wealth. Little wonder that a thief would be drawn to such an object.

While poverty is a common impetus for theft, greed sometimes spawns more aggressive crimes. There was a general scare among sailors some years ago that smugglers were attacking yachts and then stealing them to transport drugs. Much of this occurred in the Bahamas and near Columbia. In a couple of headline cases, a vessel's crew was killed. This brand of hard-core piracy on the high seas seems to have declined in the face of the U.S. Coast Guard's blockade against water-born drug smuggling in the Caribbean. In fact, the U.S. Coast Guard Public Affairs office claims no reports of piracy in territorial waters in the past 10 years. However, it is commonly agreed that if a yacht accidentally stumbles upon a drug-running transaction in some remote place, the crew could well be in serious danger. Smugglers will sometimes resort to extreme measures to prevent witnesses from reporting them.

More alarming today is the spread of crack cocaine into the West Indies, particularly the Lesser Antilles. Just as it has done in cities around the world, this highly addictive drug has brought with it a huge increase in local robberies. Island authorities are working overtime to stem the flow of this drug and the higher crime rate with varying success. But the problem persists, and some of the stealing is inevitably directed towards the yachts in the harbor and the yachtsmen ashore.

There's another factor contributing to crime in paradise, recognized by everyone but for some reason rarely spoken, and almost never written. On some black West Indian islands, local resentment of tourists takes on racial overtones, and it motivates acts offensive, larcenous and, occasionally, violent. The trend seems to be directly proportional to the amount of tourist traffic with which an island is bombarded. Little wonder, then, that some locals' attitudes in the U.S. Virgin Islands can be a bit of a shock to the first-time visitor.

Like crack cocaine, so-called "reverse racism" probably filtered down islands from the United States. Unlike crack, racism is not strictly illegal and will be much harder to eliminate. The crimes it engenders are more likely to be confrontational and for that reason more dangerous than crimes of need or greed.

Keep in mind that not every theft is committed by natives. The yachting community has a few bad seeds, too. Once in awhile you'll hear of some scroungy cruising boat being caught with someone else's dinghy or a half-dozen stolen outboard motors aboard. However, they tend to find that getting into trouble with the law down there is a fast, long-lasting cure for the common criminal.


What's being done about it?

One Thursday last February, an American doctor and his wife were robbed at gunpoint on an Antiguan beach. They immediately reported it to the police; the thieves were caught within 45 minutes! That Saturday, the suspects were identified in a police line-up, and on Monday they were tried, convicted, and held without bail for sentencing. They could get 20 years. (Oh, if only our own judicial system were so swift and decisive!) Incidentally, the Antiguan authorities wanted it made clear that these thieves were not Antiguans, but had come over from the impoverished island of Dominica, apparently with the intention of robbing someone.

All Caribbean ports of call welcome, and many rely upon, the revenue that tourism generates. A crime against a tourist is a direct strike against the locals' income. If an island or region gets a reputation for having a high crime rate, the tourists will stop coming, and for many of these tiny nations that can spell economic disaster. Therefore, the authorities there are very highly motivated to prevent crime against, and prosecute criminals who attack tourists. The police will often act very quickly to catch these crooks and return stolen property.

By the same token, authorities are not always inclined to talk about the problem. In researching this article, I queried the Ministers of Tourism and the Police Commissioners of St. Thomas, Antigua, St. Lucia and Grenada, by mail and by fax. None of them responded to my requests for information on specific measures being taken to protect yachtsmen in their islands. Whether they preferred to keep a low profile for public relations reasons, or just didn't think the issue was worthy of comment, I can't say. While the police and politicians certainly have ample reason to keep crime at bay, most sailors I've spoken to who have been victims of crime in the Caribbean agree that, in many cases, when you're on a boat, you're on your own.

What can cruisers do about it?

What can the average cruising sailor or charterer do to minimize the risk of becoming a victim of crime in the Caribbean? When we visit foreign ports, we are guests in their country. As such, it is our responsibility to be sensitive to our hosts' customs and temperaments. In developing countries, this includes maintaining an awareness of our apparent wealth and how our presence effects the local people. Leading a poor fisherman or a hungry youngster into temptation by leaving valuable property lying around is unfair to them, and it's asking for trouble.

In marinas as well as at anchor, make it a habit to lock up your boat whenever you leave it. Hatches should be dogged down from the inside and the companionway secured with a stout padlock. An internal lock is even better because it can't be severed by hack saw or bolt cutters. If you're going ashore in the evening, leave a cabin light on, and perhaps the radio playing, to make it look and sound as if someone's home. Clear the decks of all easily removable gear, such as binoculars, cameras, dive gear, etc. and, if an outboard motor is stored on a rail bracket, chain and lock it.

Thieves often come in the night. Most sailors sleep with open hatches in the balmy tropics, but this can serve as an invitation to robbers to search for booty belowdecks, which may lead to a physical confrontation. The unfortunate skipper who was hijacked in Dominica now feels strongly that nocturnal boarders must be barred from entering the cabin. He has made a stainless steel grate that blocks the companionway while he sleeps, and inside metal straps at the overhead hatches that prevent them opening more than 6-inches or so. This system allows ample ventilation on warm nights while letting the crew sleep more securely.

After having his boat ransacked once, one skipper I know replaced his boat's teak companionway trim boards with 1/4" stainless steel flat bar, cut to shape and through bolted with carriage bolts. This made it nearly impossible to break in, even with a crow bar. The companionway lock was recessed, and there was a barrel-bolt inside to secure the companionway while the crew slept. The clincher was a pair of mace canisters fastened at the companionway, triggered by trip cords if the hatch is opened incorrectly while the boat's unattended. One can empties into the face of the intruder; the other is directed into the salon, rendering the cabin uninhabitable for awhile. A bit excessive, you say? That captain's answer is, "You won't think so once you've been robbed!"

On a cruising boat, consider installing an alarm system. This can be done inexpensively by wiring a siren and bright deck and cockpit lights to disconnect switches at all hatches. A pressure sensitive floor mat in the cockpit, wired to an alarm signal, is an excellent warning device.

There's another kind of alarm system that's easier to install - and wags when you return to the boat! A few years ago, I cruised throughout the South and Central American Caribbean with a 90-lb. yellow Labrador Retriever aboard. "Shaolin" was gentle as a lamb but, by virtue of his size, intimidating to behold. He was also trained to bark on command. So whenever we'd enter a small harbor, invariably attracting the attention of the local villagers, I'd take the dog onto the foredeck, sit him down, and order him to bark. Just twice. His deep-throated "Woof!" would echo across the water, informing everyone within earshot that this boat was his territory. Needless to say, no one ever tried to board SPARROW uninvited! For sailors with canine crew aboard, remember that even a small dog will discourage unwanted visitors. Let him be seen and, once in a while, heard. Of course, at night man's best friend is a sailor's best early warning system against intruders.

While in port, lock up the life raft. When away from the boat for any length of time, disable (disconnect) the main engine's starter. In general, look at your boat from the point of view of the thief; then do everything you can to make it hard for him.

Below decks, hide valuables, especially jewelry, cameras and cash. Most third world thieves are looking for recognizable items that are easy to take and easy to sell. Don't keep your entire cruising kitty aboard in cash. Use a Visa card to draw funds from a bank. If you must carry more than the week's money aboard, buy traveler's checks. Some sailors choose to leave a little cash, $20 or so, out where it can be easily found so that a thief might grab it and leave feeling satisfied without doing further damage.

In harbors with a reputation for theft, try to raft up with another boat and stagger your shore leaves to ensure that someone is aboard at least one of the boats at all times.

Always secure the dinghy to the dock or a tree trunk with chain and lock. Overnight, chain it to the mothership or, better still, hoist it out of the water on davits or with a halyard. Lock the outboard to the tender, and lock oars to the dink's seat. Don't leave anything of value (like a flashlight or sunglasses) lying around on seats or floorboards. Remember, heavy chain is harder to cut than cable; a hefty padlock won't yield to a hammer-blow as easily as a small one.

When tied up at a dinghy dock, a tender bearing the mothership's name is an advertisement that your vessel is probably unattended. Better to identify your dink with her own name, complimentary to, but different from, the ship. Indicating your radio call sign may help someone return the skiff if it's ever lost and found.

Avoid wearing jewelry while ashore in third world countries. It attracts snatch-&-run thieves and muggers, particularly in Latin American cities. Ask the local police where and when it is or isn't safe to roam, and beware of being led to a remote place by a seemingly helpful local.

Since the troublemakers are just a handful of individuals, the trouble spots sometimes change. A port that was perfectly safe last season may not be so today, and vice versa. To keep abreast of which ports are currently troublesome, ask other cruising sailors you meet along your route. Charterers and cruisers alike will find local charter company managers very up-to-date on the subject. Check SSCA (Seven Seas Cruising Association) bulletins for cruising members' reports, and tune in VHF, SSB and Ham radio nets for the latest scuttlebutt. Remember, forewarned is forearmed.

Speaking of forearmed, keeping firearms aboard for protection may not be permitted in some countries you visit. In these countries, government authorities will remove ship's weapons to be locked up ashore and returned when you clear out. Whether or not a gun is a good thing to have aboard is a personal decision; there are pros and cons and sailors with differing opinions will argue the point and never agree. But if you choose to arm your vessel, keep weapons in a discreet, locked locker (at least during the day) and instruct crewmembers in their safe operation. Always declare firearms when clearing into a new country. The consequences of being caught for not doing this can be severe.

What should you do if you're a victim?

If you are ever the victim of a crime while cruising, notify the local authorities immediately. Request a copy of the police report for your insurance company, whom you should also notify as soon as possible if your policy covers the damages incurred. If you're bare-boating, contact the charter company office. Log the event in the ship's log; this may be a useful legal document later. If the situation warrants it, warn your neighbors in the harbor or marina so that they may protect themselves against a similar mishap. Depending on the nature of the crime and the general circumstances, it may be prudent to move your vessel to a safer haven.

What's the bottom line?

The Caribbean is truly one of the beautiful places, and features some of the most pleasat cruising, in the world. Anyone who has spent time there knows that most West Indians and Latin Americans are friendly, honest folks. If this article seems to paint a dismal picture, remember that it spotlights a handful of bad guys. The vast majority of natives, like the vast majority of people everywhere, are kind, friendly and generous. We'd be foolish to ignore the existence of crime against cruisers in the Caribbean, but we'd be more foolish still to think it's any worse or more dangerous than most other places in this crazy world. A snake in the garden doesn't ruin the garden. It only requires that you enter with open eyes and watch where you step.

~ End ~

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