Piracy Issues: To Carry Guns On Yachts, Or not?

pirate alley map pirates in africaThis headline, “Piracy in Africa down, but not out!…” in an article in the Cruising Outpost Newsletter grabbed my attention. With the gun debate so hot on the news right now, I thought it a good time to discuss carrying guns on boats.

Our Experience with Piracy In The Red Sea

Piracy in the Red Sea (one of the hotspots) is still a problem. It has been a peril, long before we sailed up the Red Sea in 1993. Yachtsmen remain an easy target for attacks as they are considered low risk to “pirates” and are now perceived to be able to attract high ransoms as hostages. Most attacks on pleasure craft, however, are opportunistic piracy by fisherman and they are usually not heavily armed…not that it is any less threatening. But yachtsman can usually deal with this kind of pirate by travelling with one or more “buddy boats”, maintaining radio silence, and not using navigation lights while in a high risk area.

Our trip up the Red Sea took us through the gulf of Aden to Djibuti, Yemen, Eritrea, Sudan and Egypt and in spite of the conflicts, civil wars, and piracy, we had a good trip. We never felt threatened when on shore. But we had some concerns on the stretch around the horn of Africa off Somalia into the Gulf of Aden. There’s a 100-mile long danger zone where Somali and Yemeni pirates prey on passing ships and yachts (as illustrated in this picture from yachtpals). We wanted to get through this as quickly as possible.

The Red Sea with its notoriously bad weather, sand storms (or haboob as it is known around those areas), semi-submerged oil rigs, and the Suez Canal was a milestone achievement for us. It was possibly one of the most interesting experiences of our voyage. We teamed up with a “buddy boat” to make a radio silent passage through “pirate alley” and we reached our destination without incident. However, our “buddy boat” friends were not so lucky and were buzzed one moonless night as they approached our anchorage off the Yemeni coast. We were already anchored when we received a radio communication from them letting us know that they may have a possible piracy incident in the making. They were very uncomfortable and felt threatened by this boat trying to come alongside as they steered away trying to avoid the pirates.

They had no weapons on board but knew that we did and that we could defend them and ourselves if need be. We could see them and the pirate boat approaching on radar and instructed them to get to us as quickly as possible. We turned our deck spot lights on to guide our friends into the anchorage and to put the pirates on notice that our friends were not alone and not easy prey. As soon as the pirates realized that they were not alone, they left very quickly and we all felt considerable relief and calmed the nerves with a wee dram of whiskey.

To Carry Weapons On Board Or Not

This incident could have turned out much differently, however, and that begs the question: to carry weapons on board or not? This is a much-debated subject. Many people cruise without guns for moral or practical reasons. They either don’t like the idea of taking a life or simply don’t want the responsibility to secure and declare it. Our friends fall into this category and therefore did not carry any weapons on board but they did not object to us having weapons and were totally comfortable seeking our protection. Since sailing yachts are so slow and vulnerable at sea, we decided early on not to leave our safety to chance and we placed some firearms on board along with a sealable safe to secure them. Having been in the military, Stephen is well trained in weapons and combat techniques and we felt comfortable using it if necessary. We would rather not have to use a gun and truthfully, we have never felt threatened enough to use a gun anywhere. The fact is that the majority of cruisers who have guns on board never use them, much the same as a life raft and any other “worst case scenario” equipment.

We have heard every argument for and against carrying weapons on board and we have possibly heard more objections than not. The most notable argument against carrying weapons: IT IS DIFFICULT AND CUMBERSOME TO DECLARE. That could be true but since guns are considered ship’s equipment it can usually be declared while doing your formalities with customs and immigration without a problem. We have a sealable bonded locker on our boat and in our experience, most countries accept that as adequate as long as they can seal and inspect it themselves. Other countries like Australia will insist on having the gun in their custody while in their waters and logistically, that could make checking out of the country problematic as one doesn’t usually check in and out in the same port. As I understand it, firearms may be detained in safe storage for transhipment to your intended port of departure in Australia but I am not sure about the exact circumstances. Clearly, every country has its own laws regarding guns. We have traveled through more than 45 countries and have declared our weapons in most of them and we did not have any difficulty…perhaps some inconvenience. Overall, it comes down to a personal decision.

Choice Of Weapon For A Yacht

Before you make a choice when buying a gun for your boat equipment consider this: it’s good to keep in mind that police and the military generally don’t like to be outgunned and arming yourself to the teeth with paramilitary styled tactical weapons like an AK-47 may not be the best idea. In some countries, carrying military ammunition is frowned upon, if not totally illegal, but not so with hunting ammunition such as a 12-gauge pump action shotgun. So choose your weapons wisely. Reliability is another issue to consider. Remember, we are living in a harsh environment and the salty air can be hard on stainless parts. So generally, the less complex the gun, the easier to maintain and the fewer problems you’ll have. But every gun will require maintenance of some kind so the simpler the better.

We have sailed in many parts of the world and have yet to encounter anything life threatening besides erupting volcanoes, hurricanes, and rogue waves. The truth is, most people do not mean you harm. But don’t be naive and remain alert for there is always the exception.

Check out the Piracy Pages on Practical security tips for you and your yacht


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3 thoughts on “Piracy Issues: To Carry Guns On Yachts, Or not?”

  1. I definitely fall into the category of thinking that it’s better to be armed and do what’s necessary regarding formalities in each country than to leave your safety (and the safety of loved ones) to chance. In addition to a pump action shotgun, I also plan to carry a handgun. Is there anything else you recommend, ie, hunting rifle?

  2. Sad to hear a American couple was thrown possible over board while vacationing on their beautiful yacht. Perhaps, if they had weapons to protect them selves they might to be alive with a fighting chance. On the other hand as a African American female it’s important to point out, that many wealthy or middle
    class white Americans are completely in denial concerning the correlation, between violent poverty and social disorder. This problem exist not just in the ghetto areas of America. Yet, also in the poor areas of the Caribbean, but also in the coast lines of different African undeveloped nation states. As long as serious poverty, lack of basic resources , high unemployment, corruption, lack of democracy, climate change, crime will continue to rise!!!!!! To ignore this is dangerous!

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