Secure at Sea: Before bringing guns aboard, weigh these factors

Sep 6, 2018 by Corey D. Ranslem

Secure @ Sea: by Corey Ranslem

“Small vessel rapidly approaching from the port quarter!” is something no captain or bridge watch stander wants to hear when transiting through a high-risk area. When discussing shipboard security, the topic of carrying guns on board vessels always comes up.  

Each year, I am asked to speak to different maritime organizations, at conferences and trade shows regarding maritime security and risk management. I’ve had the opportunity to write for several publications on various maritime risk management, security and compliance related topics. I always get asked the same two questions: “Why don’t we just put guns on all vessels to protect them from pirates?” or “It’s my boat, why can’t I carry a gun everywhere I go?”

The latter is usually asked more by small pleasure vessel mariners, as they typically treat their vessel like an extension of their primary residence and don’t have an understanding of international laws and regulations.

Piracy and security problems involving vessels wax and wane depending on the time of year, location and political climate. Currently, piracy in the Somali operational region is at an all-time low. Events are still happening, but not at the rate during the peak in 2009-2010. However, incidents off the west coast of Africa near Nigeria and issues throughout the Caribbean are at all-time highs.

Most professional mariners understand that protecting their vessels involve more than just putting weapons on board. There are several considerations when developing a security plan for a vessel, especially when it comes to making the decision to carry weapons or an armed security team.    

A basic security and risk management plan should be in place, regardless of the size or type of vessel, along with a decision matrix on how to deal with high risk situations and the use of weapons and armed security teams. Most large yachts can easily mitigate security and risk management issues without weapons or armed teams, unless they regularly transit through high-risk areas. I always advise crews to consult with security and risk management professionals first before making the decision about weapons or security teams.

If you decide that weapons and/or an armed security team are necessary for the voyage, you have some important considerations before pressing forward with the operation:

  • What is the flag state of the vessel?
  • What countries will be crossed or visited during the transit?
  • What are the crew’s capabilities?

The first and primary consideration is the flag state. There are a number of flag states that do not allow weapons onboard. This is true whether the yacht is commercial or pleasure. It is important to be familiar with what is allowed by the flag state. Most flag states have put forward guidance on carrying weapons and armed security teams.

The common flags within the large yacht community typically allow weapons and security teams, but these regulations do change from time to time. Make sure you check with your insurance company as well. Even though the flag may allow the weapons, there might be restrictions within the vessel insurance policy, and sometimes insurance companies may require an additional policy for weapons or security teams.

The second consideration is the vessel’s transit route and the ports it will visit during the trip. There are several countries within the common transit routes for yachts that don’t allow weapons on board. There are several high-profile cases in the maritime industry of arrests and seizures because of weapons on board a vessel. A country has the right to invoke their laws on any vessel that transits their territorial waters, and sometimes these laws can change on the spot. In most cases, this includes emergencies and force majeure situations.

The last item to consider is crew background and training. Few yacht crew have specific weapons-related training backgrounds. Crew members sign up to be seaman, not gunfighters. Never put weapons in the hands of untrained crew members, as that could be disastrous. If you do bring on an armed security team, make sure they conduct a briefing with the crew on their weapons and how to use them in case of an extreme situation.   

Corey Ranslem, CEO at International Maritime Security Associates (www.imsa.global), has more than 24 years of combined Coast Guard and maritime industry experience. Comments are welcome below.

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