Cruising is usually a safe adventure, probably less dangerous than driving down an interstate highway. But just like when you visit a big city, there are certain “rules” — don’t walk back streets alone after dark, everyone’s familiar with safety in big city rules. Cruising has safety rules too and with crime on the increase, it’s a good idea to familiarize yourselves with local knowledge by talking to other cruisers when you visit a new cruising location. Here’s an article I wrote with 15 general safety tips – these are common sense, not anything you wouldn’t do on land, so don’t think I’m being an alarmist! We were robbed in Utila, Bay Islands, Honduras — our fault, local knowledge said do NOT go ashore after dark, we knew it, violated our own rule and paid the price. It is important to note, that despite this article, to this day I have never felt unsafe or threatened while cruising!
Savoring fresh mahi mahi with new friends, we soaked up the quirky backpacker atmosphere of the beach town we had not yet begun to explore. Winterlude, our Passport 37 sailing home, bobbed less than 100 yards offshore just out of view. After lingering over one last rum punch, we dinghied home in time to catch the last rays of the sunset over the anchorage. Climbing aboard, I unlocked our companionway and stared, not immediately comprehending the significance of the empty navigation desk. Our laptop computer was missing… and the list grew as we quickly checked the rest of the boat, culminating in the dangling open screen on the Pullman berth hatch.
Fortunately, most theft while cruising is opportunistic. Put the odds in your favor by including the following 15 points in your safety defense plan.
1. If you want to keep it, lock it up! Look over your deck with a critical eye … fishing gear, snorkeling and dive gear are commonly left out. Take it below or store it in a lazarette. Do you have extra gas for the dinghy? Lock the gas cans to the boat.
2. Local knowledge … is there a local VHF or SSB radio net? Listen for local knowledge regarding safety … is there a spot that’s not safe to anchor? Any other safety tips for that particular anchorage? At the very least, find out what VHF frequency other boaters are using just in case. In our experience cruisers in different harbors use frequencies other than 16 to keep traffic to a minimum.
3. Never, never make plans over the VHF. A VHF is like a party telephone line … do not broadcast when your boat will be empty and an easy target! Keep in mind that other cruisers may not be the only people listening. The local fishing fleet and commercial boats are listening as well!
4. When leaving the boat, lock it!
A. Lock all hatches.
B. Lock the companionway – evaluate your companionway, is it sturdy enough to resist a hard kick? Will your lock succumb to a pair of common cable snips?
5. Remove valuables from visible locations. Before we leave the boat, we secure electronics by removing them from easily visible locations. My laptop goes in a drybag and is hidden, the cameras, cell phone, camcorder, IPod and cash are all relocated out of sight. (TIP: Be sure to put your stuff in the same spot each time, or you might end up losing things, as I did initially!)
6. Leave a light on inside, as if someone is reading aboard and also leave a radio playing for a bit of noise. Keep in mind, if it is opportunity theft, the more questions you can leave in a prospective thief’s mind, the less chance your boat will be targeted!
7. Don’t forget to leave your anchor light on! We leave a Mega-Light on the the cockpit as well. Some cruisers use a motion detector alarm in the cockpit and one even mounted a flashing red light by the companionway as a deterrent to theft. The light was not connected to anything, but it looked like an alarm to a would-be thief.
8. Tell a nearby boat when you will be gone and when you expect to return, especially if you are gone for more than just a provisions run.
9. Dinghy safety … again, if you want to keep it, lock it!
a. Lock your gas can in the dinghy making sure not to run the cable or chain through anything on the dinghy that can be easily cut.
b. Lock your dinghy at the dock and take the ignition cord with you!
c. Take your handheld VHF in the dinghy. Check to make sure the batteries are working!
d. Take a small flashlight … you never know when you might be gone longer than anticipated.
e. We always hang our dinghy at night. Not having davits, we made a three point bridle and hang the dinghy from the main halyard on the side. After the dinghy is hoisted, we lock it to the boat. Some boaters choose to take the outboard off and lock it on the rail nightly. We leave it on the dinghy but make sure it is secured with a Master Bar lock and hung out of reach.
10. Don’t discuss in public which boat is your home… you never know who might be listening!
11. Ashore, dress conservatively and act responsibly … no flashy jewelry, or large amounts of cash … no different than in any large city.
12. Consider using a single credit card. We use a VISA that is only used while cruising… if there are credit card theft issues, they are isolated to one card and not tied to any other finances. An added advantage is that the credit card is usually with us, not left in the boat, at risk in case of theft.
13. Internet café safety … when you finish financial business in an internet cafe, follow a three step process. First, log out of that website, then access “History” – different locations on different browsers, but usually listed somewhere on top, highlight the financial URL’s you used in the History list and press delete. After you delete the websites from History, the final step is to close the browser (i.e. Internet Explorer, or Firefox).
14. Back aboard, do not forget to hang your dinghy, pull up your swim ladder (no use providing easy access) and lock the companionway behind you. Because our inside companionway lock is flimsy, we also use a wooden dowel similar to what is commonly used in a sliding glass door track.
15. If you are uncomfortable about leaving hatches open, consider using bars. We debated long and hard about adding bars to our hatches. Fire is a much more likely hazard than crime. After WInterlude was robbed, we had stainless steel bars custom fabricated to be easily removable from inside in case of fire.
By incorporating the 15 Points listed above into your security planning, you may discourage opportunistic theft aboard your floating home.
Share your safety tips in the comments section below!