Securing a boat

As part of the discussion on the “Perfect Passagemaker” (see the Dec 9th blog entry), I started thinking about how to provide a resource for persons buying or refitting a trawler. The goal would not be to provide “answers”, but to provide ideas, system by system, as to the kinds of thoughts they should be thinking.


When I’m not on the boat, there really isn’t much to write about. I’m sure that if I were to write once more that I am upgrading my air conditioning system, all of you will toss me overboard. Therefore, on days when I can’t think of anything better to write, I’m going to pick a system, and try to write what little I know about that system. My hope is that it will stimulate all the readers of my blog to use my ideas as a starting point, and suggest many more ideas. Then, someday when I have time, I’ll try to take the best of what you all wrote, and what I wrote, and summarize it into some form of book. I’ll of course claim all the good ideas are mine… (nah…). Seriously, if this works as I hope, a year from now I’ll have the basis for a book, or document, that anyone buying a trawler could consult to stimulate their thinking.


To start the ball rolling (the discussion), I’m picking the topic “Security”. I picked this topic only because it is something I am thinking about now. I’m trying to decide whether or not there is anything I want to do to my boat before departing on our circumnavigation. We will be in some dicey waters, and I don’t know if there is something I should add to my boat or not. Historically, I have done almost nothing about security on board our boat. The only thing I’ve really done is the “motion sensitive barking dog alarm” that I’ve mentioned a few times. It is possible I will continue to do nothing, and no one should assume from what follows that I am suggesting any of you do anything. My goal with these topics, as I discuss them is only to help identify the palette of options someone might want to consider. My theory is that people make better decisions when they know what all the options are.


Security is a funny topic (an unusual topic) in that only a small percentage of the topic really has to do with tangible things you might carry on your boat. And, some of the things that a boater might want to do to protect themselves may be illegal. For instance, one hot topic, amongst cruisers building a new boat, is whether or not to design a place to hide a firearm. For the purposes of this document, I am ignoring the legality of anything that is discussed. Some of what follows, could suggest doing things that are illegal (like hiding guns on board). If you break the law, in many parts of the world, you can lose your whole boat. I would strongly advise not breaking laws, however, I recognize that there are people who do carry firearms, some of whom do declare them. I’m including a mention of firearms solely for completeness. It is up to you to decide what is, and isn’t, legal, in different parts of the world.


As I mentioned earlier, I’m hoping that what follows is only the first 10% of the discussion, and I hope that some tangible things a cruiser might do to prepare themselves, and their boats, result from the discussion. So, ignore that there isn’t much valuable information here, and help me change that!


-Ken W


Security Systems on Boats (What can be done to minimize risk)


To help make this a complete discussion, you’ll see that I try to structure my thinking, by segmenting the discussion into different cruising situations. For this discussion I try to look at security from a few different perspectives, with a primary goal of identifying boat design issues that might assist with avoiding, or coping with a pirate attack, or robbery. For completeness, I’m including much that has nothing to do with gadgets for your boat, and is simply in the “opinion” category.


First though, I should state a disclaimer. Nothing herein is recommended, endorsed, known to work, or anything else. My only goal is to stimulate discussion on the topic, and to provide a starting point for others who are thinking about security on their own boats.


As a side note: One of the best books on this topic that I’ve read is: Forty Cases of Piracy Today, and what Bluewater Cruisers can do by Klaus Hympendahl. It compares 40 attacks, and allows you to think about “what would I have done?”.


1) The obvious things you can do


Install locks on all hatches. Make sure the hatches are strong enough that the boat cannot easily be entered.

Put the tender back on deck at night. Sitting at anchor with your tender in the water is an invitation to theft, and worse yet: a confrontation that can have “unpredictable consequences”

Install motion sensors, which trigger lights and audio alarms. My boat has an “electronic dog” which sounds very fierce.

Leave tenders at anchor, not on shore, when in town shopping. It’s a pain swimming to shore, but “maybe” your odds of the tender still being there rise.

Don’t leave the keys in the ignition when not on the boat.

Don’t hide the keys in an obvious place when moored at the dock

Keep a log of the serial numbers of all equipment on the boat

There are pressure sensitive mats, which you can use on the exterior, and perhaps interior of your boat, which may be less prone to false alarms than motion sensors

I am a fan of highly visible cameras. If robbers need to pick a boat to attack, they will pick the one that looks like the easiest target. A boat with lots of exterior surveillance cameras and a well lit exterior, is less a target than a boat with no apparent defenses. A large NRA sticker on the windows might not hurt..(I’m saying this only half in jest. I do think stickers from security firms help)

Many radars will allow you to set an alarm that will go off if something enters within a defined circle. In other words, you can set your radar to wake you if anyone comes within a given distance of your boat.

There are some fairly inexpensive motion sensitive systems you can install INSIDE your boat. These can be set to email or phone you when someone enters your boat (I’m saying this in reference to when you have left your boat at the marina and aren’t on it). Some systems will even email you a picture of who is visiting the boat. If you are expecting technicians to be aboard, then you ignore the call. If not, you can call the marina office…

Should your boat ever be stolen (which rarely happens), it doesn’t hurt to have a system that transmits periodically the position.


2) Avoid places where there is danger


If you pay attention to this one, all the others may be irrelevant. 99.9% of avoiding piracy, or robbery, is simple – don’t go where there are pirates, and don’t present yourself as an attractive target.


There are websites, such as which track piracy. I mentioned another in last week’s blog:


To be fair, in virtually all of the places that appear to have a piracy problem, there are some great cruising grounds. Imagine looking at a map of the United States, with little flags showing where the crimes occur. By this definition, no one would want to live in, or visit, any major city.


You will be safer if you avoid:


Traveling alone in waters known for piracy. There is safety in numbers

Anchoring close to shore where there is a lot of poverty

Flashy displays of wealth (which is easy to do in places where anyone earning over $5 a week is rich)

Anchoring alone in places with poverty or crime problems

Leaving doors and windows open at night


Of course, one way to traverse dangerous territory is to minimize the chances the pirates will know you are there. I’ve heard many techniques for this, and have no idea if any of them work. I’m reproducing them here, for completeness.


Turn off your AIS

Broadcast a misleading message on your AIS (claiming to be a warship might work)

Carry on faked chats, via the vhf radio, with the Coast Guard (using two different voices)

Run farther off shore when in doubt




 I’ve known boaters that deliberately run with their spotlights on, pointing away from the boat. This makes your boat invisible to others (you are in effect hidden by the light).


3) If bad guys seem to be approaching your boat


It can be unnerving to see an unlit boat approaching you, while running in a third world country. Often it is just a sailboat running without lights. Or, it might just be military trying to sneak up on you, to see if you are drug smugglers. Or, it could be a problem.


One of the toughest decisions you may ever need to make is whether or not to respond to a distress call, or a dubious call by an unmarked military boat to stop for boarding. In third world countries, the differences between the military, the police, and the bad guys, are not always apparent (and, unfortunately, do not always exist). Most of the time, if you hear a mayday, or a military boat demanding you prepare for boarding, you should respond accordingly. But, there have been incidents of faked calls. During a recent trip to Mexico, I heard what I am 80% certain was a pirate pretending to be Mexican military. I made the command decision not to respond, and still feel this was the right move. Unfortunately, in these times of piracy, in some parts of the world, blindly rushing to assist a mayday may not always be the right answer.


So… what do you do if you notice a ship coming your direction, that is unlit, or behaving in a suspicious manner?


There is no right answer. All you can do is to watch and hope that it leaves you alone. That said, if at some point it does become obvious you have a problem, I’ve heard suggestions of doing things, like:


Alter course, towards a heavily populated area, or other boats

Head straight out to sea. As a trawler, you can run further offshore than most other boats

Contact the target boat, and ask them to identify themselves

Hit the DSC button (call for help).It’s like calling a Mayday, and not to be used unless sinking. If it turns out to be nothing more than an unlit sailboat on your tail, you are going to be horribly embarrassed, and possibly in legal trouble. If on the other hands, it is pirates, you’ll be happy you called for help when you did.

Blind the pursuers with your spotlight. They won’t know if you are armed, or how large your boat is.

Call the coast guard, on vhf

Use your sat phone to call the local authorities, or the US coast guard, and ask their advice. Report your position, and the nature of your concern.

AIS and radar may give useful information. I heard of one incident where a boat was professing to be military, but it’s AIS said something completely different.


3) Keeping bad guys out of the boat


If at anchor:


Use an audible motion sensitive alarm, and perhaps add motion sensitive lighting

Much of the time they just want your tender.. put it back on deck at night if in a risky area

Don’t leave the boarding ladder down

Don’t sleep with the doors open


If at sea:


It’s just my opinion, but keeping the bad guys off the boat is priority #1. That said, these guys tend to have fast boats, and automatic weapons. A trawler running at 7.5 knots is not going to outrun the pirates. I’ve heard few strategies for dealing with this situation.

The best I can think of is to point your nose to deep water, put out a mayday, secure the boat, and head to the engine room, locking the door behind you.

I believe there was an article in Passagemaker, that looked at whether or not bullets will penetrate the hull of a trawler. Being deep in the hull of the boat while not stopping, may provide some safety. I do not know.


4) Carrying Firearms aboard the vessel


Firearms need to be declared in every country visited. This can mean having your firearm ceased, fined, etc.


I have also heard of attempts to work around this limitation.


Flaregun cartridges that convert your flare gun to a weapon

Tear gas, tasers and other devices might allow you to answer honestly that you have no weapons on board, yet have some ability to defend yourself if attacked. Here’s a link to one such device: It sounds to me like a really bad idea (dangerous and probably illegal), but form your own opinion.


Generally speaking, I am not an advocate of guns. Many pirates are carrying AK-47s. You may be more likely to get yourself, or your family killed, than if you hand over the valuables, and hope the pirates go away happy.


4) Coping with bad guys who are in the boat


Once intruders are in your boat, your options are essentially non-existent. Ideas:


You may want to have two safes; one which has things you would like to give to the intruders, and another with things you wouldn’t. For example, you may want to have a few hundred dollars in one safe, and the rest in another. If it is possible to have “backup” copies of your passports, it might help the intruders believe they have found the real safe. This said, when confronted with armed intruders, my personal advice would be to give them anything they ask for, and anything else you can think of.

Having multiple places on the boat where you can call for help may be worthwhile—for instance, if you hide in the engine room, think about what you might want in the engine room. A way to run the boat? I kill switch to kill the boat? A way to make phone calls? A way to trigger an audible alarms? A way to send out a mayday? A way to render the boat uninhabitable (smoke bomb, tear gas)? A recording you can play that convinces the intruders that help is on the way? Firearms? A way to cut all power on the boat?

I have heard of “sound cannons” that the cruise ships use. They make the boat uninhabitable. Perhaps a solution might be to put on earmuffs, trigger an alarm that clobbers ear drums, and hopefully the intruders will be busier leaving than worrying about shooting you.


Good luck, and safe travels!


-Ken W


8 Responses

  1. Greetings Steven!

    Pulling the chillers from my boat is going to require major surgery. They are tucked into the port forward corner of my lazarette. Getting to them will require removing the generator (which has to come out anyhow), the kabola, the hydraulic pump for the passarelle, almost certainly the water makers, and perhaps parts of the Atlas. The hatches in the cockpit are fairly big, and I don’t “think” it will be a problem (fingers crossed). The work is being done at Delta, which is an amazing shipyard. I have no doubt they’ll make it look easy.

    I spoke with Jeff (who is the project manager on all of this) earlier today, and he was feeling good about how this will all finish. He is confident that we will be able to reorganize the equipment in the engine room such that everything will be much more maintainable. We spoke for a while about the batteries, which will also require major surgery to replace (I think I can cut the space required by the batteries in half while keeping the majority of the bank capacity).

    A lot of work, but overall not so bad.

    -Ken W

  2. Hi Ken,

    Far from being bored about u keeping us updated, i would like you to continue doing so. For example, how difficult is it going to be removing your chillers & 16kw genset through the cockpit hatches…..i am guessing this is the only access they would have to do this.

    As for updating to Navnet 3, i am sure you will be happy with it, the only possible query is the availability of electronic charts for your cruising areas.

  3. Ken, dispite what you may think about not posting an update due to not being on the boat, some of us have fallen into the daily routine of checking your website just like the evening news. Keep them coming as they serve as a nice escape from the daily routine of work and commuting 100 miles each way. Yes, some are more fortunate then others, so count your blessings and don’t take anything for granted. Even an update on your house improvement in Cabo may be a short escape for some in the deep north fighting snow and sleet. I manage to send out short updates to a select few coworkers regarding part time life aboard 4061 in San Diego as some scrape ice of thier car windows in the northeast or spend time at parent / teacher meetings. They enjoy them. Keep up the discussions, it will help gt all us all through the winter.

  4. KF: Just for you… Here’s today’s “discussion” with the techies about my air conditioning…A chilled water a/c system is really quite simple. I have compressors that chill water running through a big loop, that runs around the boat. In each room there is an “air handler”. An air handler is somewhat like an old fashioned radiator, with a fan. If the air handler senses that the room should be cooler, it opens a valve allowing the cold water to flow into the air handler, and then starts a fan to blow air across the cold piping into the room. We’re all 99% certain that I can swap my chillers without swapping the air handlers, or anything to do with the chilled water loop. So.. I’ll have Cruisair air handlers working with a Technicold compressor. I think it will work.. but, who knows?

    Now aren’t you sorry you asked?

    -Ken W

  5. Sam: This isn’t an issue for me. I’m an absolute coward. If there is any cruising terrain where I would even remotely think about hiring security, I will not go there. The biggest example I can think of is the Gulf of Aden and Somalia. I figure it will be four or five years before we get there, and a lot can change, but if I were there now, I absolutely guarantee you I would not be taking my boat through. I “might” hire a delivery crew, and send them through, although I doubt it. It’s not my style to ask someone to do something I wouldn’t do myself. My guess is that I’d head around africa, or more likely ship the boat. In the worst case, I’d backtrack to the US — but, I would not move the boat into a territory that I do not feel is safe.

    On a semi-related topic, I’m not sure that security guards are anything more than a placebo. The professional pirates are not intimidated by a single security guard with a gun. I’m trying to examine the topic from a perspective that isn’t biased against any particular solution, but that doesn’t mean that I personally can’t be biased — and, I am. If it is dangerous — I won’t do it.

    -Ken W

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