Guns On Board
To arm or not to arm? That is the question.
Should a gun be part of your onboard kit? It is a question many have asked since I first took to the sea in the late 1970s.
There are many factors to consider, practical as well as ethical, and I have spoken to many yachtsmen who fall on opposing sides of this controversial issue.
The primary practical issue is that customs clearance in some countries will mean your weapons will need to be sealed in a lockable cabinet. The seal will be inspected by customs officials on your clearance out of their waters. If the seal is broken, you’ll be arrested with a good chance of your vessel being impounded.
Customs in many other jurisdictions will simply confiscate any firearms at your point of entry and allow you to claim them back on departure. The problem being that your departure may be from a different port, potentially hundreds of miles away. Many customs authorities will also levy hefty storage fees for the period the guns are impounded, as well as delivery charges for their return. The complications of being reunited with your guns can prove to be insurmountable, and of course, you won’t have the guns on board while you’re in that country’s waters.
This leads you to the temptation of not declaring the gun at all at which point you become a gunrunner! A very bad idea.
Many years ago, I sat with a group of eight or so sailors in the port of Kudat in Northern Borneo discussing this very subject over dinner. The debate ranged backwards and forwards until one of the group, a guy called Andy, held up his hands to hush the discussion. He then turned to a yachtswoman next to him, who was pro-gun, and asked her if he was trying to steal her dingy would she kill him? Her eyes dropped, so Andy turned to her husband and asked the same question. He said he would if he thought he was going to be killed, so Andy asked him how he would know if he was going to be the victim of a robbery or a murder? The husband said he would weigh up the situation. Andy told him that in the moment it took for him to deliberate, he’d be dead already. He told the group that unless they were trained to shoot and kill, the best thing they could do was wear a big smile and handover whatever the gunman wanted. It would be a small price to pay for their lives.
It turned out Andy was a special forces officer sent by Australia to Kudat to advise the Malaysian Government on a smuggling outbreak between the southern Philippines and Borneo in a place called the Balabac Straits.
Andy later told me if I entered a quiet anchorage anywhere in the world and there was activity taking place between two ‘fishing’ vessels, to exit immediately and find another anchorage. No smuggler wants to be seen, and certainly not photographed.
Andy’s wise words resonated with me and I have never carried firearms on board.
I have had several incidents over the years that have endorsed his advice, and others that made me doubt it though.
During my maiden voyage of Moonshadow, my Tayana 58, from Hong Kong to Subic, I received many warnings about the possibility of theft, and worse, when in the Philippines. Hong Kong is only 600nm from the Philippines but in many senses, it’s a whole world away.
The voyage over had gone relatively well until I received an early wake-up call from the cockpit telling me to get up on deck pretty quick.
Two miles off I could see a large fishing boat heading straight for us. I told my friend Russ to change course to starboard by 15 degrees and Russ replied he’d already changed course three times and each time the fishing boat had also changed course to come back heads on. Then, as we changed course, sure enough, they changed to a course that would intercept us.
We were closing quickly and I could now see two skiffs running out on either side about 200m from the mothership.
I shouted the whole crew of six up to the deck and told them we had a problem and they must prepare to repel boarders with flares, spearguns and even machetes.
I changed course several times to no avail and as they got closer I could see the crew of the fishing vessel were all wearing black balaclavas. I had no doubt an attack was imminent, but less than 250m of my bow they turned to starboard and as they passed us by the crew were all signalling us to slow down, but I kept going at full throttle.
Once we passed each other, to my horror, I saw them turn round and increase speed to catch us up, although surprisingly following a course that had them off my port side by just 25-30m.
I had my crew popping their heads out of various hatches with different hats or no hats on their heads to make it look like there were more of us than there were.
We prepared for the worst.
They were now level and several of their crew held up…not guns…but tuna, dorado, and lobster! They wanted to trade fish! You can imagine our relief.
We exchanged cold beer and cans of vegetables for the best-tasting fish and lobster we had ever eaten.
As we got deeper into Philippine waters we discovered that all Filipino fisherman wear black balaclavas to keep the heat of the sun off their heads.
After spending more than 18 months sailing around all areas of the Philippines I didn’t suffer one single loss from Moonshadow.
There is no question in my mind that if we had had a gun on board we’d have used it to shoot innocent fishermen.
Our guest on the March Ocean Sailor Podcast was my good friend Rene Tiemessen who sailed both South and North through Pirate Alley from the Red Sea to the Indian Ocean via Eritrea, Yemen, Oman and India. He was threatened by pirates during both voyages. First on his passage south off the coast of Eritrea in 2007 then again on the northerly passage off Oman in 2011. (See Convoy of Fear Feb 2021 Ocean Sailor). Given his severe encounters with pirates, you may think Rene would be an advocate for carrying guns, but the reverse is true. He is adamant that if he had even threatened to use a gun against the AK47- toting mercenaries he, his family, and crew would have been killed instantly.
There is a difference between known and organised piracy and opportunistic robbery.
In Is Piracy on the Rise?, an article in next month’s Ocean Sailor, Dick Durham and I will investigate known piracy areas around the world to discover where the real threat to world sailors exists, and what should be done to minimise any risk.
Notorious areas can be identified and avoided but opportunistic robbery involving theft from a yacht is another story. If there is an argument to carry a weapon it might be to ward off scallywags, or as they are called in Papua New Guinea, ‘raskols’.
In 40 years of world-voyaging, I have never carried a gun on board, and just once in Papua New Guinea did I believe a gun may have been useful…
I had set sail on an extended voyage from Bali to Cairns, via the fantastic Raja Ampat region of Indonesia, then up into Papua Indonesia then Papua New Guinea. I spent three months sailing, diving and fishing as we meandered through this wild and largely uncharted vast sea area. It was the most wonderful place I have ever visited. Untouched and pristine reefs abounded with very friendly people, but it was also the most dangerous place I have ever been, and I didn’t get even close to Port Moresby which is recognised as one of the most dangerous cities in the world.
From the first moment we entered Papua New Guinea dangerous situations arose.
At New Amsterdam on the mainland, a large panga carrying eight men and powered with a large outboard engine tried to board us soon after we passed nearby their village. It was a very hairy situation and we only escaped by clipping an outrigger on their panga, throwing one of their crew into the sea. We went full throttle for the open sea while they recovered their guy back on board.
Luckily the sea offshore was too heavy for their very low topsided panga. In PNG most people were incredibly friendly to us, but we discovered their friendship does not extend to neighbouring villages. They are pretty much permanently at war with the next village along the coast. As in many walks of life, the problem is often with the young men, the ‘raskols’, who are actually also seen as the village’s warriors. After a few weeks in Papua New Guinea I soon learned to ask two important questions to villagers that came out to welcome us: “Is everybody here friendly and are there crocodiles?” Often the answer was: “Yes, we’re all friendly and you’re safe here, but there are some raskols in the other village.”
One day, after an earlier visit from a village on one side of the bay we were anchored in, I discovered the red spiral kill cord from the dingy had been stolen. I explained this to the village chief from the neighbouring village on the other side of the bay who was visiting us at the time. He immediately shouted orders to several of his accompanying warriors and two pangas prepared to set off to the other village. The chief explained they were going to kill the thief! I hurried to the engine room to find a spare kill cord and declared loudly I was mistaken and had now found it!
On another occasion, we dropped anchor in a beautiful fjord-like anchorage called Finschafen. There were villages ashore, but strangely no one came out to visit us, which was very unusual. I then saw two lads paddling by at a distance in an aluminium dinghy (a ‘tinny’ as Aussies call them) with no transom. I waved but received no wave back, which was also very odd.
I felt uneasy so I decided to take a spin around the anchorage. My daughter Laura and I ran around a bend and found a large ferry moored up alongside a quay that we had no idea was even there. I shouted up to the bridge asking the captain if everyone here is friendly and he shouted back: “No, many raskols here, you should come and moor close to us”. I told him it was a bit too narrow and shallow and he asked me how long I would stay. I told him just one night and he replied that we should be “OK”, but added, “they won’t have time to get organized but if anyone comes near just fire some shots over their heads.”
You won’t be surprised to hear we weighed anchored immediately and sailed through the night instead. I must confess I wished I’d had a gun on board then.
We had other instances of potential conflict in Papua New Guinea, but since I’m here to tell the tale I guess the moral of the story is all’s well that ends well.
Don’t even consider carrying weapons unless you’ve been trained in their use.
If you’re thinking about it, look in the mirror and ask yourself if you really would shoot first.
If the answer is no, read Part II and Part III of this three-part series and listen to the last Ocean Sailor Podcasts ‘High Noon on the High Seas ‘ Part I and Part II which is out on the 5th April, and also Piracy, Robbery or Open Invitation’ Out around 22nd April. Listen in and load the dice in your favour and avoid piracy areas and reduce your chances of inviting trouble wherever you are.
Although the events mentioned above are frightening, sailors should understand that most of the world’s oceans and anchorages are free from risk. They are very likely to represent a lower security risk to you and your family than your home city or town. Rest assured that areas which are considered dangerous are well known and documented.