How can you deal with pirates with a small family crew? There still seems to remain a certain romantic idea of pirates, highway men or the mafia possibly created by historical and even modern films. The Volvo ocean race had as a participant called “Pirates of the Caribbean” named after a highly successful film starring Johnny Depp. The reality is very different from what is portrayed in these productions, pirates are murderous thieves that will not hesitate to kill you and your family to steal your possessions or kidnap and ransom you or members of your crew. It is interesting that when this happens on land it is considered heinous, that is to say that there are no modern day romantic kidnapers or murderers but if they happen to be at sea and they are called pirates then this seems to have a more acceptable aspect. My suspicion is that as most land based people will never be confronted with pirates and they will not have to deal with the consequences of these criminals or finding ways to counter them; they consider them as existing in another world either geographically or historically. They are confined to the imagination, except for mariners, fueled by films and are as unreal or unlikely as an encounter with Bengal tiger in major city.
     The reality for a modern day world cruising yacht is that not only pirates exist in several parts of the world but they are extending their zones of action.
     There are three types of groups commonly referred to as Pirates. The first is a military type of operation where a band of heavily armed men with rocket propelled grenades and automatic assault rifles attack vessels including large ships in one or several fast motor boats. These pirates operate around the horn of Africa and as far south as the Seychelles There are others in the Malacca straits close to Singapore. For normal yachtsman there is no effective defense against these people. There are convoys set up to protect shipping and yachts around the horn of Africa but a minimum speed is required to stay within the convoy. The only means to avoid the pirates is not to go to areas that they operated in. The sailing yacht Quest was captured by pirates in this area in January 2011 and all four crew were murdered; the yacht had joined a rally to get to the Mediterranean from the Indian Ocean and was sailing alone when it was attacked. A Danish family was kidnapped a few weeks later in the same area and held to ransom. A French couple sailing from the Mediterranean to Thailand in their catamaran in October 2011 was captured, the skipper was murdered and his wife was taken off their boat, fortunately she was rescued by the Spanish Navy. There is no way for the US and European Navies to effectively police such a vast area of sea, which is greater than the surface area of Europe. Until a solution to this piracy problem is found, which is more likely to be economic rather than military, I would strongly recommend avoiding this area. The alternatives are either to sail around Cape of Good Hope or have the boat shipped from Thailand to Suez in Egypt.
     The second type of pirate is not really a pirate but more of a coastal burglar who will attack boats moored in isolated bays often at night. These incidents are most frequent in places such as the north coast of Venezuela, Colombia and Guatemala.  Whilst we were in Curacao (Dutch Antilles) we heard of a couple that were murdered in Guatemala and had picked up reports of incidents of cruisers being attacked in bays recommended by a Colombian cruising guide that had been recently published on the internet. My advice is not to moor in isolated bays in these regions, if you must go then make sure there are several other boats in the bay and that you keep radio contact with them especially during the hours of darkness. We stayed over sixty miles offshore of the Colombian coast not only to avoid the extensive areas of highly disturbed waves created by the shallow depth but also to stay out of range from small coastal vessels. Friends of ours from an American boat were robbed at knife point in the center of Cartagena, Columbia and what was remarkable was that they rescued by the local police and escorted to a cashpoint where they were asked to pay $300 dollars as a “rescue fee” before returning to their boat.
     The third type of pirate is the most difficult to avoid because he is a part-time pirate and a part-time fisherman. The southern part of the Caribbean, Venezuela and Colombia are areas where incidents have occurred.  In parts of Asia this type of piracy is also possible. There have been instances of yachts being rammed by fishing boats off the Columbian coast and fisherman in small boats approaching foreign yachts for food or to sell their catch turning into pirates once they have sized up the boat. The best defense here is not to allow the “fishermen” to board your boat and this means keep sailing as it is far more difficult to board a moving boat from another moving boat then to board a stationary boat. When we were approached by a fast moving fishing boat west of the Galapagos Islands the first thing they wanted was that I shut down the engine. I explained that we did not have the engine on and that we were sailing. They then shouted at me to drop the sails and stop the boat and whilst I believe that they were fishermen and we had caught a hook in the keel of the boat I had no intention of stopping the boat. The fuel these fishermen had used to pursue us with their large double outboard motors was probably 100 times the value of their “lost hook”. The fact that they were shouting at me with knives in their hands convinced me that it would be a potentially foolish act to stop the boat as they could then decide whether to board the boat. They were not equipped to dive under my boat to recover the hook especially in the 2-3 meter pacific waves and whether these fishermen had other intentions I will never know but reducing their possible courses of action by continuing to sail the boat is a tactic I will certainly try again. We came across a 25 meter fishing vessel between Colombia and Panama that was not fishing; they were slowly motoring and stopped on a course directly ahead of me at a distance of ½ mile. If I had continued on our course we would have passed very close to them which I presume was their intention. They did not show up on our AIS system (automatic identification system) which would give nationality, size of vessel, type of vessel, owner’s name, boat speed and heading. All the large cargo vessels in Panama had AIS systems which help in avoiding needless coastguard controls. I hailed them on VHF Channel 16 in English and Spanish and received no reply. It was starting to get dark and I decided the best course of action was to change course by 90 degrees and head straight into a line of squalls. The advantage of squalls (windy and raining) is that you cannot easily track a boat via radar at night behind a line of squalls as the radar is blocked by the object closest to the antenna being in this case the squall line.