FAQ - Do you worry about pirates?

When we were in the Indian Ocean, David wrote a blog about piracy concerns in the area. Incidents of piracy in the Indian Ocean were all the news, especially after watching Captain Phillips.

We were very aware of potential problems off the Somalian coast. We planned to stay offshore well south of the questionable area. We were not particularly worried, nor did we have any problems, but we were certainly cognizant of the issues and aware of the four Americans aboard the yacht Quest who were pirated and murdered in 2011. When we were heading from the Guianas back into the Caribbean Sea, the questions were posed again. We received several inquiries from friends and readers about piracy in the Caribbean in light of several attacks near Trinidad and the Venezuelan coast, the area in which we would be sailing. This time we were more concerned.

pirate flag

Piracy has been a problem since men started plying the ocean waters. According to Wiki, “the earliest documented instances of piracy were in the 14th century BC” in the Mediterranean and the Aegean Seas. Certainly, Treasure Island and Pirates of the Caribbean has provided lots of piratical entertainment for audiences in a very romanticized way. In truth, however, the pirates who plied the Caribbean waters... and there were many... were known to be excessively barbaric and cruel. In the Golden Age of Piracy (1650-1730), L'Olonnais, Captain Kidd, Blackbeard and countless others wreaked havoc throughout the Caribbean. Some, like Sir Francis Drake and Henry Morgan, were sanctioned by the Crown.

Capture of the Pirate, Blackbeard by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris

Today's pirates of the Caribbean are not sanctioned by any government, but they are just as real and just as ruthless and bear no resemblance to Johnny Depp.

Statistically, piracy attacks are down worldwide, but that makes little difference to the individual yachts that are attacked. Actually, only larger ships are counted in the statistics and most yacht attacks are downplayed in the interest of local tourism.

pirate attack infographic

Just after our passage from the Guianas to Trinidad in December, two yachts were boarded at gunpoint and robbed by pirates. The coast of Venezuela seems to be a particularly troublesome pirate hotspot at the present time.

So what can cruisers do to protect themselves against pirates?

  1. Well, larger yachts hire armed security guards. We are not a larger yacht. We do not carry guns aboard. We figure we'd be outgunned anyway.
  2. Officials say “avoid known pirate areas” (duh!). This makes sense if you're cruising and not passage-making. For sure, anchoring in known pirate areas is inviting problems.
  3. Since we had no choice but to sail through an area known for piracy, we heeded the local advice. Most pirate attacks in the area have been in open boats with big, fast engines, so outrunning them is not a possibility. Instead, we stayed well offshore away from the Venezuelan coastline and away from the usual travel routes.
  4. Traveling at night is recommended … on a multi-day passage this is kind of difficult, but if we were sailing between the islands, it's reasonable and would have done it.
  5. Traveling in company is a recommendation. In our case, there was no one to travel with, so we traveled alone, but there's definitely safety in numbers. Forming a flotilla of boats to make a passage through a high-risk area makes good sense.
  6. Some advocate “sailing dark” and “sailing silent”, ie no running lights, no radio communication. We did not opt to do this, but we've certainly done it on occasions in the past when sailing off the coast of Colombia into Cartagena.
  7. Stay alert. I'm not sure what tactics you might employ to thwart a pirate attack, but you'd perhaps have more time to radio for help.
  8. If you're accosted, don't fight. Your life isn't worth the gear the pirates steal. Easier said than done, perhaps, when you're the one being violated and it's your gear they're walking off with. Still, sage advice to live by.

Though the number of pirate attacks on yachts in the Caribbean seems to be increasing, we sometime wonder if part of the increase is due to the fact that more yachts are filing formal reports. Both the Venezuelan and Trinidadian national coast guards have increased their patrols in the area providing a bit more security, but caution and careful itinerary decisions rule.

We have been boarded while in a marina and while in a boatyard and had things stolen from the boat. Those are security issues, not piracy. The chances of being boarded by pirates, if reasonable common sense is used, are probably pretty slim, something like being car-jacked. Still, I'd say offhand, we're probably lucky. The only pirates we've actually encountered have been tradesmen and vendors who “saw us coming” in boatyards and a few friendly buccaneers in Charleston, South Carolina who politely reserved a boarding time in advance.

pirates in south carolina

Piracy Concerns in the Indian Ocean?

“Do you worry about pirates?” is probably one of the most frequently asked questions we hear. People are even more conscious of the pirate situation in light of the film Captain Phillips. The Indian Ocean, especially off the coast of Somalia and areas close to the Red Sea, are indeed hotspots for piracy. We were certainly aware of the four Americans aboard the yacht Quest who were murdered by pirates in February 2011. For sure, we take the matter seriously.  

pirate incidents


For the record, we've never experienced anything close to piracy in the last 14 years. We know of several people who have been boarded and robbed and in some cases, beaten or even killed. The coasts of Venezuela and Colombia in the Carib are known areas to avoid and we did. We know of cruising friends who were boarded while anchored for the night in a usually safe Ecuadorian harbor. Other friends were boarded and held at knife point in a remote anchorage in Papua New Guinea. Piracy is real and it's frightening.

We do our best to avoid areas known for piracy, but some of the incidents I've mentioned were not in areas considered high risk. I guess like any other crime, it can be random and not specific to a certain area. In many places, yachties are considered to be rich and have lots of “stuff” that seems appealing to those who have little. We're prime targets for the have-nots.

So … back to the question at hand. Are we nervous about pirates while crossing the Indian Ocean. The answer: We're always wary, but not worried. Mostly because we'll be considerably south from the areas in which piracy attacks have been recorded. That's not to say we couldn't have problems in other areas, but the chances are less likely. More and more people are choosing to round the Cape of Good Hope rather than risk life and ship to piracy going through the Red Sea. Some folks opt to ship their yachts through the Red Sea on large yacht-carrying transport ships at high cost ($40K+) and meet them in the Med. Other cruisers have formed large flotillas that sail in close company and share the cost of heavily armed guards.


yacht transport ship


As for us, our plan has always been to head to South Africa … to avoid pirates, yes, and, of course, to complete our circumnavigation when we arrive in Cape Town.

Talk Like a Pirate Day - Arrr!


Ahoy, mateys, it's September 19th and this is Talk Like a Pirate Day. Though we're on land at the moment, it doesn't prevent us from reminiscing about Pirate Days past. Actually, I suppose lots of land folk dress up like pirates and say “Aye-aye” and “shiver me timbers” today. It's a good occasion for a party and the Talk Like a Pirate website can help with the activities … including lots of good pirate pick-up lines (really?). Who needs a pickup line if you're a real sailor?




Pirates are not, however, and never have been, fun-loving kind of people. We've romanticized them. They were usually cutthroats, reprobates or profiteers/privateers, men licensed by the Crown to pillage and sink foreign enemies' ships (in which case they were not called pirates, but actually were).


jack sparrow


During the so-called Golden Years of Piracy (1690-1730), the seas were not safe. There was Captain Kidd, Blackbeard, Black Sam, Black Caesar and Black Bart among others. Black Bart, by the way, was considered the most successful at his trade, having captured 470 vessels in his three years of active piracy. These guys were primarily British, but the rest of Europe had their representatives, like Benito Bonito and Jean Lafitte. And piracy wasn't limited to males either. Consider Irish Anne Bonny, probably the most famous (or infamous) female pirate in history who successfully teamed up with Calico Jack and Mary Read until they were captured and supposedly hung. And then, of course, there's Captain Jack Sparrow aka Johnny Depp.


charleston tall ship


We've often been asked if we've ever met any real pirates. The answer, thank goodness, is no. We were boarded while on the hard in Uruguay by a petty thief who was near apoplectic when a naked David rose out of the cockpit with a machete. He got away, but probably turned away from his life of crime after the incident. We were boarded by a band of pirates in Charleston during the 2007 Tall Ships Fest. They were quite friendly, very careful about not hurting the varnish and called in advance to schedule the boarding.

Piracy is still very real on the world oceans … some places more than others. Cruisers stay in close touch and reports of boardings and piracy spread like wildfire. We work hard to avoid known areas of piracy like the Red Sea, east coast of northern Africa, the Caribbean coast of Venezuela and Colombia, and parts of the Philippines. We've known several people who have been boarded and hurt and also some who have been murdered. The stories are horrendous. This blog post is in no way meant to minimize the dangers nor the atrocities committed nor make light of a serious world problem on the high seas.