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From a personal bodyguard for a yacht owner to a photo-seeker trespassing on board, yacht captains deal with an array of security issues. The level of complexity varies by yacht size and type, classification, travel location, flag state and more.
“It’s a very big subject,” a captain said. “It depends…is it the guy in the row boat in St. Maarten that came onboard the yacht? Is it the charter guests getting mugged, a stew getting raped or a vessel getting a painting stolen?”
Security is often a topic in international news, so we invited captains to The Triton monthly From the Bridge luncheon to discuss how it affects the yachting industry.
Individual comments are not attributed to any particular person in order to encourage frank and open discussion. The attending captains are identified in an accompanying photograph.
The conversation began with security incidents that have made the news over the years. They talked about the death of Australian yacht captain, Drew Gollan, by an armed robber in Antigua in 2009; a thief who boarded a yacht and was filmed by the yacht’s camera, and other incidents where crew or guests had been mugged, robbed or raped while off the boat.
“Security is a huge media topic and is definitely something we talk about a lot with the crew,” a captain said. “Officially about four times a year and more depending on which port or marina we’re in, as well.”
“If you’re sitting around Ft. Lauderdale, you have one set of parameters, in Venezuela another set, cruising the China Sea, you’re going to take blokes with you and pay 30 grand for guns, risk assessment, bulletproof windows and security crews at anchor,” another captain said.
The group talked about their experiences, starting with a captain who recalled an unwelcome guest onboard while in a Ft. Lauderdale marina. The yacht was equipped with cameras, footpad sensors in the teak decks and eight crew.
“We always had watch crew. I was home for a weekend and just a couple of stews were on the boat,” he said. “The junior stew was on watch, we had a strict schedule. She was on rounds and when she went in the master stateroom, a homeless man was taking a shower.”
Another captain was working for a high-profile owner and faced overzealous fans.
“People were climbing on the back of the boat until our engineer went after them with a fire axe and they took off,” he said.
“I’ve had people walking onboard and we just shoo them off,” another captain said. “Except once in Venezuela in the marina where they have guards on towers with automatic weapons.”
“They sounded the siren. Everyone runs around, tackles the guy and they take him away,” he said. “It’s more a risk to them if they can survive that.”
Another recalled hearing footsteps on the back deck during one of his first jobs as a captain at age 23.
“I jumped up in my underwear with a pistol,” he said. “They were drunk tourists trying to take a picture, but instead they found a captain in his underwear with a gun.”
After many laughs about photos that might be circulating from that incident, the group moved to the serious discussion of guns onboard.
“That would have been handled very differently today,” he said. “First, I don’t have guns now. I used to carry but I stopped that; the hassle is not worth it, going through customs is not worth it.”
The group had mixed experience with firearms onboard. One had just one gun onboard in 16 years, another had never worked with guns in a 28-year career.
Another captain attributed a theft onboard to the guns onboard. After dusting for fingerprints, only crew and officers were found.
“It was the cops that did it,” he said. “The captain kept pistols and a shotgun, so we got boarded a lot. We came to a conclusion that the guns made us more of a target because it was an excuse to come onboard more often.”
“I haven’t been on one that didn’t have firearms,” a captain said.
“I’m not an advocate for that,” another captain said. “If you carry, if you believe there’s a requirement for firearms of any sort, you should be looking at a professional fire team onboard. Not relying on the captain, chief officer or engineer to expect them to point and shoot someone dead.
“There are few gun owners that could do that. You’re generally asking for problems,” he said.
“We carry, and I feel like they’re a hassle. I can only imagine about 10 percent of the situations where they would be a benefit,” another captain said.
Throughout the discussion, the captains reiterated that security is different from program to program and soon the acronyms of regulation became part of the conversation.
“It is different if a yacht runs ISM or mini-ISM,” a captain said. “It certainly has been recognized by the IMO which is filtered down by MCA and USCG and flag states, that there needs to be some sort of expansion to both training and crew knowledge to security within the industry.”
International Maritime Organization (IMO) is the United Nations branch which has implemented the International Safety Management Code (ISM). Regulations have been adopted by the Maritime and Coast Guard Agency (MCA), the United Kingdom agency and the U.S. Coast Guard (USCG) in reference to security.
“That’s important with STCW (International Convention on Standards of Training, Certification and Watchkeeping) with new security, with new implications, where crew at junior level take part in basic security courses,” he said. “Obviously people are aware. But is it enough? It’s a one day course, with youngsters it’s in and out their ears.”
It comes down to senior crew to be able to both instruct and pass on experience and knowledge of the code requirements, he said.
“Certain vessels don’t have a requirement because of size, but there is responsibility for every member onboard, regardless of rank, to enable the security of the vessel,” he said. “Remember, it isn’t always monetary, it could be meterological.”
“Thank goodness for these classes, five years ago I didn’t know about some of these issues and the classes make all the difference,” another captain said.
Sometimes security comes with the yacht owner.
“I’ve had programs where security is over the top,” another captain said. “Based on the owner, the charter, to charter clients that that come with bodyguards, bulletproof cars and fly in by helicopter. Security is definitely a priority.”
Sometimes that filters down to crew. There is exterior security and then there are crew issues, a captain said.
“The owner doesn’t want anyone in his business. We’re very conscious about security, we have cameras everywhere, even in crew areas,” he said. “Crew weren’t happy about that.”
“Our owner wants to know who’s working,” another captain said.
“I suspected a crew member of stealing but it was never proven,” a captain said.
“I’ve had crew steal pain killer drugs from the medical kits,” another captain said.
But most of the captains said the owners leave it to them to make decisions on security.
“I’ve worked for owners with their own security and then owners that don’t comprehend it,” a captain said. “The majority think, ‘ “I’m on a boat, I’m bulletproof, the whole ocean is mine.” ‘
“It’s part of the ownership of boats.”
“It’s a false sense of security of safety and that’s where you, as master, have to step up and say we should think about this,” another captain said.
Do the captains brief the guests and owners of security concerns or procedures? Several run through medical topics, but most don’t discuss security.
“Only if we’re going to a port and have wild passengers,” a captain said. “Guests are never by themselves, there is always someone there, even if they’re not in front of them.” We never say, “Goodnight, lock up when you’re done.”
A captain said they often have guests go to the casino in the middle of the night in search of a good time.
“I think that happens quite a lot with charter, they are there to party. But you can’t babysit everybody, they’re adults.”
“That still comes under your responsibility,” another captain said. “The crew and guests are your responsibility, you’re 100-percent responsible if any of your crew get arrested in another country.”
A captain described a hypothetical scenario.
“A guy ends up in sketchy place of ill-repute, an incident happens and a local dies. The charter client is accused and the police are involved. They find out he’s from the vessel. You can’t negate your responsibility just because he’s off the vessel. You brought him into the country.”
All in attendance agreed that prevention is the priority.
“Every boat, even small boats, have cameras,” a captain said and each captain nodded in agreement.
“I think 30 percent don’t work or record,” a captain said. “All my boats have cameras, but I don’t know how to find that recording.”
“The camera might be there, but for someone staring at the screen?,” another captain asked.
Several captains said the owner or the captain use camera footage for monitoring of crew.
“When I’ve got a suspect crew member, I say, “Come up and I’ll show you what you did,” a captain said.
Most of the group monitor cameras from the bridge, their cabin, or their computer or phone. One of the yachts was docked behind a house and the captain checked in by his phone.
“I did check remotely often because no one lived onboard,” he said. “I could see storms coming, also. When I had the ability, I checked it more often than I thought I would.”
One captain said several boats he worked with had the equipment, but the boss didn’t pay for remote monitoring or fix the camera to enable playback viewing.
“The owner didn’t do the last step,” he said.
“But it still looks like a deterrent,” another captain said.
One captain makes sure the vessel is well lit and has crew making hourly rounds.
“If someone comes onboard, they will be seen,” the captain said. “If a pro is waiting to come onboard, they will see crew in uniform, professionals who know what they’re doing. And with any luck, that person who’s keeping eye on this boat will move down three boats to the dark boat with crew in flip-flops or where the crew just left, instead.”
Other deterrents include turning music on the aft deck and leaving the tv on in the salon, another said.
“There are things facilities are doing, like a gate at the end of dock, the security guard, and the dock itself has cameras,” a captain said. “Cameras in marinas are the best.”
“I think MARSEC (U.S. Coast Guard Maritime Security system) and procedures are just papers on the desk,” a captain said. “Nothing can replace eyeballs on the deck, lights that turn on automatically, alarm systems, things that slow people down or push people away to find easier targets. Help crimes of opportunity go somewhere else.”
“Bright lights and people around are the best, making noise on boat, a magnetic switch that goes to a car horn,” a captain said. “If you cut the cable, this magnet falls off and the thing goes nuts. I’d like to add a strobe to give them a heart attack.”
But a professional criminal can test all of these methods of prevention, a captain said.
“Criminals in a lot of ways are as smart as you about these things, in many ways smarter than us, and ones with serious intentions know how to get through alarms or whatever,” a captain said.
What do captains do when there is a security issue onboard?
“Use a distress call, that is endangerment and possible endangerment of life. I have no hesitation to issue a distress call,’ a captain said. “If you get the right agencies involved immediately, they ain’t going far. Even with Bahamian response time which isn’t the best, the U.S. Coast Guard is close.”
The Bahamian government takes an active role in yachting in their waters and they push for protection, the worst press is a crime, another captain said.
“That knackers the whole industry,” he said.
“Do you let them steal it?,” a captain asked.
“I would let them steal whatever, it’s all insured,” another captain said.
“If you see something happening, make some noise, set the attack engineer on them,” a captain said. “It’s not worth a crewmember’s life, that’s what it’s all about.”
The captains were interested in each other’s procedures for security and at the same time concerned about publicizing those details.
“What we use onboard, whether it’s cameras, drones, and other systems, we don’t want to advertise what we have,” a captain said. “Being unknown to the public, that we’re a soft target, is our best asset.”
“Security is important, we’re dealing with expensive toys with expensive stuff onboard,” another captain said. “The industry has been fortunate to not have more frequent or more serious incidents.”
One recommends the mini-ISM as a good introduction to security. And next are written procedures onboard.
“Do the chief security officers course and study the ISPS (International Ship and Port Facility Security Code) so you know what to do in different ports, that’s a way to get an education,” a captain said.
“We talk through scenarios of what we should and shouldn’t do,” a captain said. “We have drills, they are very important.
“Usually in the master’s orders you have a whole section on security,” a second captain said.
“I have a binder, it’s part of the 30-day crew initiation,” the first captain said.
“You hit them with that?,” another captain laughed.
“They have to get through the entire binder and not get fired,” the first captain said as he showed the size of the binder, more than three inches deep. How much of the binder covers security? The entire thing, he said.
No matter the program or the training, the captains said they are responsible for security. And they learn from others and their own experience.
“Anytime you have an incident is when you learn,” another captain said. “That’s when laws are made, it’s always been that way. It might take my boat getting robbed before I say we need more security. With all issues of security, this is policed by the master on the boat as to how much training and how it is structured. Also how much time you have to fit that in.”
“That’s the problem, there is so much gray area as a captain, there are so many things to be responsible for,” another captain said.
“The thing I’ve noticed is it’s about your own personal experience. You just had a boat on fire and sunk, I guarantee you will be doing more abandon ship and fire drill training,” a captain said.
“If you had a security issue on a boat you ran, you would have security training. You would pull into port and want to know what is the MARSEC level,” another captain said. “Really, your security procedures will be defined because of your past experience.”
Dorie Cox is associate editor of The Triton. Comments on this story are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org. Captains who make their living running someone else’s yacht are welcome to join in the conversation. E-mail us for an invitation to our monthly From the Bridge luncheon.