By Dorie Cox
The recent arrest of a yacht owner with an unpermitted gun in New York prompted questions about firearms in yachting. We presented the topic to captains at our From the Bridge lunch, a changing group of captains gathered by The Triton once a month, and we started the conversation with, “Who has guns onboard?”
The answers ranged from “everybody”, “we used to” and “never have” to “depends where we go”.
“People don’t talk about it because a lot of captains have guns that are ‘onboard’ but, they’re ‘not onboard’, if you know what I mean,” a captain said.
Individual comments from the lunch 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 topic of guns on yachts is not often discussed publicly, but every captain had a story, whether his or a colleague’s. And the captains said the topic is complex due to many variables: different owners, travel destinations, types of yachts and number of crew.
One captain said a big challenge of weapons onboard is that it is an inherent part of yachting and travel.
“Each state and each country has its own laws,” he said. “We have to deal with this on a daily basis. It is just a chore.”
There are different opinions as to how captains handle whether to have guns, who can use them, how to train crew and how to adhere to diverse laws.
“I’ve carried guns onboard boats, officially and unofficially,” a captain said. “There are times when you need to have a gun onboard.”
“I have guns and no one knows,” another captain said.
“I would never tell just everybody,” a third captain said. “But I would tell some crew, the engineer and mate, ‘Here it is if you need it’.”
“It’s been this dirty little secret,” a fourth captain said. “Everything we do is regulated and regimented and we’re thought to be procedure-driven people. But there has not been enough of a collective effort to address this issue.”
The captains also talked about the strict laws in several places such as Mexico, France and New York.
“It’s hard,” one captain said. “If you have a gun in Mexico, you end up in a Mexican jail.”
“We don’t want to do anything wrong but at the same time having a firearm onboard does make sense to me,” another captain said. “So, consequently, you are putting law-abiding captains, crew or owners in a situation that is very awkward. People are driven to do the wrong thing.”
“It’s just a zoo,” the first captain said. “It’s a shame we don’t have a structural policy for every country in the treaty to say we’re going to have guns and have training, like STCW.”
“There is serious lack of continuity — in white-list countries, at least — that there is a rule for everything else we do in class and flag,” another captain said. “Why is this a gray area in yachts?”
Caretaking guns onboard
There is a lot more to having guns than just buying one and having it onboard, a captain said.
‘When a gun is out, it gets fired,” he said. “And at the other end, somebody is dead. That’s the purpose of the weapon; it isn’t to scare anybody. If you have taken the gun out of the holster, you need to be mentally prepared not only to fire, but to kill.”
Most of the group has had firearms training. One captain explained how an instructor shared photographs of people who had been shot and killed. He wanted the class to see what they are capable of doing when using a gun.
“Some of the really gruesome photos had people retching,” the captain said. “But it shows that using firearms requires extensive training.”
Several captains have taken their crew to gun ranges for practice to safely and properly use the weapons. Some take all of the crew and some just take officers. But they agreed firearms are not for every crew member.
“Some people won’t be able to pull the trigger,” a captain said. “You don’t want to just give a gun to anybody.”
And that’s not what this industry is about, another captain said.
“People don’t get involved in yachting because they want to be armed and brandish a firearm,” he said. “Not only do you need to be prepared to shoot people, you have to be prepared to be shot at.
“If you visibly show a firearm, you could be shot at, and we’re not trained for that,” this captain said. “We’re not mercenaries. We’re not trained to be soldiers. We’re yacht crew.”
One of the captains who does have guns onboard said his safety meetings and security drills take two days.
“Even a flare gun is a firearm,” he said. “It has characteristics like a gun and fires a projectile. It’s a firearm. And we don’t get enough practice with those.”
A captain said flare guns are on every vessel and can be dangerous if crew don’t know how to use them, but even that training is not easy to accommodate.
“You can’t just go shooting flares; you have to coordinate with the coast guard,” he said. “You can take them to a firing range. You can’t shoot up, but you can shoot straight out and crew can get an idea what it’s like.”
Traveling with a gun onboard a yacht requires captains to decide how they will handle compliance with laws and regulations that vary by state and country. One captain illustrated with his story of clearing customs in Canada years ago.
“I declared a shotgun and it was a big deal; it was very serious,” he said. “Officials tagged it and allowed us through, but then they searched the entire boat. It was a four- or five-hour deal. They tell you that when you clear out, if that tag is removed, you go to jail.”
Some countries remove weapons and hold them in custody until the yacht leaves the country. One captain has learned how to navigate that system with the many guns that belong to the boat.
“So many, in fact, that I keep copies of all the serial numbers, how many rounds of ammunition and use it as a handout when we travel, like in the Bahamas,” he said. “Several times they made me seal the gun locker and they check it when we leave.”
One of the captains said he had declared his weapons in the Bahamas and was glad they had counted his ammunition.
“There was a shooting in town that matched the bullets I declared,” he said. “They came to count my bullets to make sure it wasn’t from my boat.”
When authorities require a yacht to turn in weapons, that affects the yacht’s travel plans.
“If you have to turn them in, then you have to leave by the same port, which we usually don’t do,” a captain said.
Sometimes it is easier to get rid of a gun when entering a new port, according to several captains. They told of instances where they have tossed their guns overboard instead of declaring them to authorities. One yacht owner kept a cheap Sears shotgun onboard, a captain said.
“He said, ‘If we’re pulling in, then we’ll throw it over’,” the captain said. “Then next trip, he comes down the dock with another one. He figured that’s a cheaper way to do it than dealing with fines or going to jail.”
“People either lie that they don’t have them or they declare them, either way it’s such a hassle,” another captain said.
When guns are onboard, they need a safe place to be stored. Several captains said they use a gun safe or locker and most are hidden or at least not visible to guests.
“It also has to have a method to seal it,” a captain said. “A lot of countries require you be able to seal it according to their requirements.”
Such diverse laws add a layer of complexity to a trip and several captains said they usually secure help.
“A good agent is important, they are good with how to keep up, how to know current laws,” a captain said.
“Our DPA [designated person ashore] has a complete setup to brief us, and our security company keeps us informed,” another captain said. “Plus you can go online with the State Department for details.”
Even when guns are onboard for reasons other than security, there are issues. A captain illustrated with a story of an owner who wanted to fish.
“The owner comes out of the salon with shotgun and I said, ‘What are you doing?’ ” the captain said. The owner explained he would shoot large fish when they were reeled in.
“So we’re drifting, the wife is falling asleep, he starts to fall asleep and I’m watching,” the captain said. “All of a sudden there’s an explosion.”
The owner had fallen asleep and accidentally pulled the trigger on the shotgun.
“He blew a hole right through the transom,” the captain said.
Another captain worked on a yacht with a skeet shooter, a recreational shotgun to shoot clay targets. The guests and crew would practice off the stern when out at sea.
“One day, a nearby sailor thought we were shooting at him,” he said. “The coast guard came to check us and followed me all the way back to port.”
One captain who chooses not to have guns onboard said increased communication, tracking, security companies and other technologies preclude the need to carry guns onboard.
“Today there is no more advantage to have them,” he said. “If you have an armed aggressor onboard, why escalate the situation?”
The captain said the idea is to get through a situation without anyone getting hurt.
“In my opinion, de-escalating is the way to do that, keeping the aggressor as calm as possible,” he said. “It sounds like a passifict’s attitude. I would feel like blowing their heads off, but that’s not a way to save crew.”
Most every captain nodded and said that guns or not, they have set up their crew with non-lethal options.
“Piracy drills are the norm these days,” a captain said. “We teach everyone how to use Mag lites, how to be aware, what to look for, and we carry pepper spray and stun guns onboard.”
“Our policy is to present overwhelming force, all crew with all the lights and stun guns,” another captain said. “Everyone always has their radio on and all the guys muster with lights.”
But training is still most important, they all said.
“Awareness is your first line of defense,” a captain said. “If you teach crew to recognize the threat long before it becomes a threat, you don’t need that weapon.”
All of the group agreed.
Put that in writing
To break down the details of regulations, several captains clarified that firearms are regulated in several ways, such as in yacht charter and crew contracts.
“It is in the MYBA contract; it states no contraband at all,” a captain said. “You have authority as captain to terminate a charter and put the people ashore if they bring guns. They forfeit the charter.”
Despite rules against guests bringing firearms on a charter, half of the captains at the table have had that scenario happen to them, but they have secured the weapons or had them removed.
“We had people bring guns, but the charter was not cancelled because of the way we handled it.”
Weapons are also addressed in crew contracts.
“It says no guns, weapons, knives, clubs and things like that,” a captain said. “I may let someone have something like that, but I want to know about it.”
One captain said he had a crew member that came onboard with a big sword he bought in Singapore.
“Did you ever think I might not allow that onboard,” the captain asked the crew member. The crew member had not considered the crew contract. The captain made the choice to wrap up, tape and lock away the weapon until it could be removed.
Some firearms are the captain’s personal guns, some stay on the yacht and some belong to the owner.
“I used to carry weapons because as a U.S. citizen, it’s common sense and prudent when traveling internationally and on the high seas,” a captain said. “But onboard in the past, they were not my own.”
“We don’t have guns now, but when we have, they are always the owner’s,” another captain said.
And then there is the issue of whether the guns are legal, as in the case of the yacht owner jailed in New York.
“I have to make sure they are all permitted,” a captain said.
But there are still gray areas in reference to each yacht’s specific operating procedures. Some captains clearly define the yacht’s rules and others do not.
“I have a policy that designates who’s able to use the firearm, that they’ve gone through some kind of training we have mandated, and it designates where they are,” a captain said. “Only certain people have access to that cabinet, and no guests are allowed to bring weapons.”
Yet, that isn’t so simple either.
“I don’t have a written policy because I don’t want to contradict myself,” another captain said. “Hey, you guys aren’t allowed to do this, but there’s an AR-15 in my room.”
Another captain said he does not have a written policy because most of his security problems don’t warrant a gun.
“We’ve had intruders come onboard in different places,” he said. “Usually they’re drunks with liquid courage. They want to be on the back deck and take pictures.
“I just ask, ‘Can I have your address? I want to come look in your window’,” he said. “People don’t think of a yacht as a person’s home.”
All of the captains agreed that having, managing and regulating firearms onboard comes with a lot of variables.
“I love my country, but we’re probably the worst for miscommunication in the industry,” an American captain said. “Customs does one thing in Miami and another in Maine. It’s always something different.”
One captain said he would like to see, “captains take time to write a letter and try to rectify this weapon situation”.
“Maybe it would just stay the way it is,” he said. “But someone ought to be smart enough to have a situational plan and say this is how we should do it. I don’t have an answer, but it needs to be controlled.”
“And if we do, we create policy and make it uniform.”
Dorie Cox is 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. Email us for an invitation to our monthly From the Bridge lunch.