Piracy: Romance, Fact and Fiction

’We were chased by pirates’ - much more exciting story than ’We were robbed.’
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The existence of piracy against yachts is a much maligned subject across the world. How to get intelligent information before engaging in a long sailing journey is a difficult task. It is made difficult by a number of factors:


1.There are writers of websites (NOT including Noonsite), which make their living by writing about piracy and selling books about it. There is a conflict of interest here – after all 'no piracy' means 'no story' means 'no income' in this case. So the temptation is to 'beef it up.'

2.The term 'piracy' is an emotive term, and is much abused. There is much blurring of the divide between normal robbery and piracy.

3.There are many places in the world where true piracy is prevalent, but never against yachts, as these are 'professionals' who are after ships and their cargoes, and not into petty theft.

4.Unfortunately, such is the nervousness of many cruisers that whenever they are 'followed' by an unknown vessel, they report it as piracy – we have known cases where it was actually the local Coastguard, wondering why a boat was traveling without lights. There are also many fishermen who like to cadge a cigarette or beer or just water from passing cruisers, and are reported as 'pirates'.

5.Finally, everyone likes to tell a good story, and cruisers are no different, so many stories are exaggerated.

So, what's the answer? How DO you get reliable information about the area that you intend to traverse?

First, let's get clear about what constitutes piracy.

The definition of piracy, according to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea is
'Piracy consists of any of the following acts:

(a) Any illegal acts of violence or detention, or any act of depredation, committed for private ends by the crew or the passengers of a private ship or a private aircraft, and directed:
(i) On the high seas, against another ship or aircraft, or against persons or property on board such ship or air-craft;
(ii) Against a ship, aircraft, persons or property in a place outside the jurisdiction of any State;

(b) Any act of voluntary participation in the operation of a ship or of an aircraft with knowledge of facts making it a pirate ship or aircraft;

(c) Any act of inciting or of intentionally facilitating an act described in subparagraph (a) or (b).'

As Ioannis Michaletos correctly points out in his overview piracy article http://www.analyst-network.com/article.php?art_id=1195!Security_in_the_High_Seas:Piracy

'It has to be noted that in order to legally define 'Piracy' as a crime, it has to be conducted in the International Waters, otherwise it is classified as an 'Armed Robbery' and falls into the jurisdiction of each individual state, whose territory is inflicted by such a crime incident '

It is worth remembering that armed robbery is common throughout the world, and is not to be confused with piracy. This does not mean that it is any less undesirable, but there are precautions that can be taken, just as you would on land wherever armed robbery is likely or even possible.

In order to identify areas of particular danger for independent cruisers, you should also discriminate between merchant marine piracy and yacht piracy. The two issues don’t always overlap geographically. In this article, I try to highlight where sailors of private vessels should be cautious.

If you cruise in developing countries, it is essential to keep in mind that you chose a very 'extreme' way of visiting a place. Cruising independently often takes you to areas very remote, to which no 'normal' tourist would ever go. You could meet people who take advantage of a cruiser stopping by, stealing things from your boat, mugging you or attacking you in other ways. Many piracy incidents are little more than 'average' criminal activities committed by residents of coastal areas.

Beyond that, there are gangs of criminals who specifically target yachts and private vessels – and those who do the same with merchant marine. The latter ones are clearly the nastiest kind of pirates. They often work with high efficiency and use modern technology. Most assaults occur in coastal areas or whilst your boat is anchored.

This is when you should be most cautious. Check with local authorities, whether a particular area is safe to stay at. Check if there are wide-spread drug or alcohol issues. Check if there have been any pirate incidents in the past. Don’t anchor by yourself with no other boats around. The following information for different regions is meant to be a general guideline.

Piracy in Europe, the Mediterranean and Black Sea
Generally, yacht piracy does not occur in European countries. There are occasional exceptions: Albania’s ports don’t offer the same degree of safety than those of neighbouring countries. The coast of Africa and Islands along it could are high-risk areas, too. However, none of the regions mentioned have reported problems with professional pirates.

Assaults on independent sailors occur out of opportunities and they are normally committed by 'general' criminals. This also applies to Eastern European countries and the Black Sea, where piracy in the strict sense of the word is not known. Corruption and high crime-rates in ports, however, make the region a rather risky one.

Piracy in the Caribbean and Latin America
Much more a hot-spot of yacht piracy than the Mediterranean, there are several countries and regions in Latin America that are potentially dangerous for sailors. Brazil is notorious and especially the Amazon River area should be considered to be rather hostile. The degree of danger varies a lot, and it is essential to stay in touch with other cruisers and local authorities to identify areas that need to be avoided.

The situation in Venezuela is even worse, with assaults happening frequently. Corruption and little support from the authorities make this one of the most dangerous countries in the World. Drug-traffic, poverty and a high level of general crime mean, that you should rather stick with the main routes of cruising.

The wide-spread poverty and high crime rates of Central America make countries like Nicaragua and Honduras particularly dangerous. The two countries have not agreed on an official boarder yet, therefore, military or police boats are not very common sights in the area.

Guatemala has high crime rates, too. Especially the 'hurricane hole' of the Rio Dulce, a popular shelter during the hurricane season, can be very dangerous.

Ecuador and Columbia< are generally not very safe. However, the number of pirate attacks and assaults on cruisers varies from year to year and regions of particular danger often 'float'. It is essential to check current reports of local authorities and to stay in touch with other cruisers. For instance, cruisers passing through these two countries in 2007 found the Coastguards very active and there were no reported attacks against yachts. On the contrary, all yachts reported excellent welcome.

Piracy in Asia and Southeast Asia
Generally, piracy in this area is a big problem. The good news is that it targets mostly merchant marine. Criminal organisations with Islamist background sometimes target foreign yachts, muggings and assaults in ports are common even in countries like Malaysia, Indonesia or the Philippines.

Papua New Guinea is considered to be safer. Ports and coastal regions can be dangerous, though, due to widespread poverty and alcohol problems.

Piracy in Africa, Indian Ocean and Middle East
Most countries of Western Africa are considered to be unsafe. This applies mostly to the coastal areas, ports and cities. Many countries are engaged in bloody civil wars and have high crime rates. Cruising in Western Africa is anything but common and should be avoided. If you do cruise there, keep in touch with other cruisers, check with local authorities and try to stay