eBook ‘All I Ask is a Tall Ship’ – Self Defence for Yachts

Excerpt from All I Ask is a Tall Ship by Graham Lascelles

Chapter Thirty Two: Self-defence For Yachts


So, there are two schools of thought when it comes to the question of whether to carry weapons on yachts.

The first considers attackers as being like bees and maintains that if you don’t upset them or offer any resistance your robbers will behave as gentlemen, take a few dollars and leave without causing any damage, only pausing to wish you a good evening as they slip over the guardrail. But that if you anger them by resisting, you will get stung.

The second thinks of intruders as hungry lions. It maintains that it does not matter whether the lion likes you or not, you are still the main course. Your only chance of survival is to use sufficient physical force to change its mind. It is probable that the first theory is correct on the majority of occasions. However, can you afford to take that chance? Once in control, intruders can do just about anything they want. At least if your vessel carries arms you have a choice of action.

All commanders, from Genghis Khan onward, have recognised that “you don’t fight a battle you can’t win.” At one end of the spectrum a naval destroyer coming up against two unarmed persons in a speed boat will have a better chance of victory than an elderly couple on a small yacht coming up against 20 insurgents armed with rocket-propelled grenades. Most situations lie somewhere between.

I am neither a psychologist nor a terrorism expert. I offer my views, based only on my experience sailing a 20-metre yacht with six millimetre steel hull plating, 1.5 metres of freeboard, 900 mm guard rails, and a crew of six. It remains your responsibility to adjust my advice for your circumstances. What I have to suggest may be absolutely correct in one situation and the worst possible advice in another. You are the skipper and you have to make your own choices. The difficulty is that your decision can only be seen as correct in hindsight and depends entirely on what is in the mind of someone else.

* Avoid high-risk areas altogether.

* Prepare a plan on what to do if forced to enter a risky area. Discuss the potential dangers with the crew: they have a right to know. It is no use convening a committee meeting and arguing over action when danger is imminent. If anyone can’t agree then they should get off the boat and fly to the next destination.

* Avoid sailing within sight of a potentially hostile coast. Most pirates are fair weather sailors; the rougher the seas the better your protection. Rough weather could keep them ashore; and even if they ventured out, might make their boarding more difficult.

* Sail in company if possible, keep in busy areas, and avoid anchoring in apparently deserted bays.

* Keep someone ashore apprised of your daily position, a satellite phone is good means of communication for this.

* Try not to give your position out on the VHF or short-wave radios, or, in particular, via an automatic identification system (AIS). The small vessel that intercepted us in the Caribbean may have been listening to our daily reports by Ham radio on the maritime net. Approaching the Red Sea we were in daily contact with an American yacht we had met in the Seychelles. Before we set off we agreed that when we exchanged positions they would be exactly 20 miles to the north and 20 miles to the east of where we actually were. When agreeing what offset to use make sure that it will always give a position at sea, rather than half way up a mountain, and that one vessel will never be in the position that the second is giving.

* In daytime looking out every five minutes is not good enough; a near continuous sweep of the horizon is required, particularly in large waves that can hide small craft. Double the lookouts or halve the watch durations. You need to see any approaching vessel at maximum range to to give you the time to assess the situation, prepare, and if possible communicate with others.

* If a suspicious vessel is approaching then do not be afraid to call up other shipping on the VHF if within range, advise them of your position and suspicions. Ask them to contact the authorities if you don’t maintain contact. Some pirates carry VHF and the fact that you have reported their activities to others may deter them. Off Somalia, I even considered, in the absence of any other contact, pretending a two-way conversation on the VHF with an imaginary warship that was over the horizon but would say that it was steaming to my aid if necessary.


* In high-risk areas be prepared to darken ship at night, with no navigation or cabin lights. You have to balance the increased risk of collision against the risk of being detected. Keep a constant visual lookout and also use the radar to spot any other small vessels. In the Gulf of Aden we sailed unlit among the big ships, in the centre of the shipping lanes. We were never challenged for being unlit; they knew what we were doing. The ships, on the other hand, that had the advantage of higher sides and a larger crew. were rigged with floodlights down each side, shining on the water. They could then see any approaching small craft and repel potential borders with high pressure hoses. If possible, transit the highest risk areas on rough, overcast and moonless nights.

* Avoiding any contact is your first priority, if you see, or more importantly if any suspicious craft see you, then you have to shift to a second line of defence. This could be described as passive aggression. Nations have spent billions and occupied millions of man-centuries on deterrence and it is well worth trying some bluff of your own.

* If you see a fast craft on an interception course try a substantial turn. If it still follows you, then you know that you are the object of interest. At this stage, and for obvious reasons, forget feminism and get all bikini-clad females off the deck and get them modestly dressed. If you cannot outrun the opposition then consider the following, particularly if they are approaching from ahead: start the engine, increase speed and aim your vessel directly at their stern. It is not a collision course because their motion will always take them clear, but it is a disconcerting surprise for the approaching group. They may ask themselves what you know that they don’t: perhaps you are also heavily armed and not a victim to be chased but an aggressor about to arrest them? It also denies them room to open fire from a distance, or turn about to come alongside.

If our friends in the Caribbean (see the narrative of our voyage) had evil intent then they made the basic mistake of approaching us too closely while facing in the opposite direction.




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