Secure at Sea: Yachts tempt thieves, especially in South Florida

Oct 18, 2018 by Corey D. Ranslem

Secure@Sea: by Corey Ranslem

“I can’t believe that happened!”

That’s usually the response you get when you hear about the theft of a yacht. Yachts are tempting targets for thieves.  Florida, and particularly South Florida, continues to hold the top spot on the list of likely locations for vessel thefts, according to the National Insurance Crime Bureau. In 2017, Miami ranked first and Fort Lauderdale ranked third in boat thefts. The recovery rate of stolen vessels in South Florida is usually about 34 percent or less.

There have been a few recent cases of yacht thefts. In 2015, M/Y Change in Latitude was taken from a marina in Dania Beach, Florida, after the thieves spent almost six hours on board trying to get the vessel started. M/Y Mimi was almost stolen from a Miami Beach marina in October 2016. The thief managed to get the vessel started, but couldn’t navigate out of the marina and hit several vessels and piers, causing hundreds of thousands of dollars in damage.

And in August, a man tried to steal M/Y New Atlantic from a Seattle marina. Similar to the Mimi incident, he was able to get the vessel started but unable to successfully navigate the yacht out of the marina. He hit a couple other vessels and a pier before jumping in the water and eventually being caught by police. It is estimated that the incident will cost more than $400,000 in damage and will probably result in multiple lawsuits.

Tens of thousands of vessels of all types are hijacked or stolen around the world each year. The National Insurance Crime Bureau statistics are the best measure of vessel thefts here in the U.S.  Last year in Florida, there were 1,163 reported vessel thefts; most of these thefts were of personal watercraft. Outside the U.S., it is difficult to get any true statistics or breakdown of vessel thefts because many go unreported.

Security and law enforcement experts believe stolen vessels are typically used for crimes, such as drug smuggling, human trafficking, illegal fishing and piracy. Once the vessels are used a couple of times, they are generally abandoned or sunk. In several cases of drug smuggling and human trafficking that I worked on in the U.S. Coast Guard, the vessels were stolen and then abandoned in different international jurisdictions, which made it difficult, if not impossible, for recovery.

There are a several practices that can help make a vessel a hard target for theft, regardless of its size. First, make sure it is moored in a marine facility with full-time security, access control, CCTV coverage and good lighting. As with anything security related, it’s best to push the border out as far as possible.

Second, secure the boat and its toys. Lock doors and hatches, install electronic ignition switches, and put as many barriers in place as possible to prevent someone from coming on board and starting the engine.

Third, look at different electronic security systems for alerts, and make sure they can be accessed remotely. There are several cost-effective solutions available when it comes to onboard CCTV systems, intrusion detection, access control and vessel monitoring.

Fourth, consider tracking devices for the boat, as well as its tenders and other high-value assets on board. Tracking device technology has improved tremendously over the past few years. These devices are much smaller and easier to conceal, and they usually work on both cellphone and satellite networks.

Most stolen vessels are not recovered. The cost of search and recovery is typically expensive, and the success rate isn’t good. However, there are firms in the U.S. and around the world that specialize in vessel recovery. Most employ tactics that may fall into the gray areas of domestic and international law. Before using one of these firms, conduct an extensive background check on the company and its employees to ensure they are reputable.

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

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