Robbed in Utila, Bay Islands, Honduras

The late November afternoon was gorgeous, the village beckoning.   After dropping anchor in the azure water, we dove on our anchor and couldn’t wait to go ashore, get the official paperwork out of the way and explore.  We knew all the common sense rules of cruising, but new anchorage euphoria coupled with the excitement of meeting new friends caused us to violate our own safety rules. (NOTE:  This robbery took place in November 2005, not 2011 as indicated by the date the article was posted – I apologize for any confusion.)

Winterlude, our 1985 Passport 37 cruising home, was robbed while we were ashore in Utila, the westernmost of the Bay Islands of Honduras, enjoying an early dinner with cruising friends.     Statistics show that cruising is much safer than driving, but just like with safety in any large city, there are rules for safety while cruising.

1.   LOCAL KNOWLEDGE IS THE NUMBER ONE CRITICAL ELEMENT! Check with other cruisers, listen to the local SSB nets to gain local knowledge about general safety in the area you’re cruising.

Anchored in Providencia ... A Safe Island

Anchored in Providencia … A Safe Island

Waiting for weather in the Bay Islands of Honduras to sail to Panama, we met cruisers who had been boarded in broad daylight and robbed in San Andres, Colombia – on our cruising route south.   They anchored amongst the fishing fleet on the western side of the harbor and warned us against anchoring there.  But two months later when we entered the anchorage in San Andres, there were no boats anchored on the  supposedly safe side by the hotels/beaches.   Reefs, coral heads and sandbars littered the crystal clear shallow waters.  Looking from the fishing fleet side of the anchorage we couldn’t see any way to get to the “safer” side.  Luckily for us,  a local fishing boat, lead us from the wrong side to the safer side.   But for the fisherman, we probably would have anchored in the wrong area too.  It’s easy to get local knowledge, but it’s critical to utilize it!

2.    RULE NUMBER TWO … never discuss plans on the VHF radio – and we didn’t…. at least the first time.  Our new friends were headed out scuba diving and we made plans to have dinner when the restaurant opened.   This would allow us all be back aboard before dark.  What went wrong?  Plans were delayed and unfortunately, we discussed changing the time to 6 PM over the VHF.    Natives earn their living on the water fishing or diving. VHF radios are commonplace – and used as a party-line telephone.

3.  RULE NUMBER THREE… IF YOU WANT TO KEEP IT, LOCK IT!  Never leave anything open on your boat and always lock anything on deck that you want to keep – including your gas can in your dinghy.  Almost all theft in the islands is opportunity theft.  Keep in mind, the local population has a living standard much different than the lifestyle we left behind in the U.S.  Despite the fact that they live in paradise, we are the “rich” people on our cruising sailboats.

The afternoon was sweltering hot with no breeze.   Glancing around, other boats, departing for shore had left a hatch open for airflow.  The restaurant was less than 100 yards from our boat … what could happen in an hour when it wasn’t even dark?   Making one final mistake,   we left the small hatch over our pullman berth open… a hatch  barely large enough for me to squeeze through as a contortionist.  We didn’t consider that Hondurans are small stature and often make me seem like amazon woman at 5’3”!

Dinner was delicious and we lingered over one more rum drink before returning to the boats about 7:15 PM.    Winterlude’s heavy wooden companionway was locked as normal.  Unlocking and sliding the wooden hatchboards out, I noticed my laptop wasn’t on the navigation table below.   My initial thought was that I didn’t remember putting the laptop in its case before leaving.  Almost simultaneously I realized my digital camera and Honduran cell phone laying on top of the wet locker were also missing along with numerous other articles – mostly electronics, but some cash as well.  The cabin was not rifled and drawers were not left open.  All was orderly and neat.  From the swinging screen on the open hatch over the pullman berth,  we soon determined that they had entered the single hatch we left open for ventilation.  Had it been locked, chances are very good that the thieves would have passed our boat for the next opportunity.

Winterlude's Heavy Companionway Locked

Winterlude’s Heavy Companionway Locked

After the initial shock passed, my first reaction was intense anger – first at whoever invaded our home and took our belongings and then at myself.  We KNEW better than to leave that hatch open … we KNEW better than to revise plans over the VHF and we especially knew better than to be off the boat after dark.

Dazed and not knowing exactly what to do, we dinghied over to the next boat asking them to watch Winterlude while we dinghied into town to report the theft.  Tracking down the correct officials and communicating what happened entirely in Spanish was a challenge, but we persevered. Despite a show of concern, we are convinced that our electronics were long gone – possibly on the 6 AM ferry the following morning.

Nothing was ever returned, despite remaining three long days while the local police, the tourist police and even the mayor’s office assured us they knew which locals would have taken the electronics and that they were confident that they would find the stolen goods and return them.

So what do we do differently today?

1.     The other boats with an open hatch had steel bars securing the hatch.

After the robbery, returning to the Rio Dulce, Guatemala to leave Winterlude for hurricane season, we had bars custom fabricated to be easily removed from the inside in case of fire.    See sidebar.

2.     Never, never, never make any plans over the VHF radio.

3.     Local knowledge about safety is best taken very seriously.  When we returned to the Bay Islands the following year, we avoided Utila, which is a shame because it  is a nice anchorage with good snorkeling and mostly nice people in a  fun little village. We’ve since been back and enjoyed it, but we are still more cautious than with other harbors.

Without a doubt, the worst part of being robbed was the distrust and doubt left in its wake.  We no longer look at anyone the same.  While undoubtedly most islanders are hardworking and honest, now no one escaped our scrutiny… was it the two guys in the wooden cayuco drifting by the day before with the smell of marijuana wafting across the anchorage?  Was it a friend of the friendly waiter at the restaurant?   He certainly knew our dinner schedule and could warn his friends prior to our return.   My personal theory is that it was someone known by the salesman that helped me buy the SIM card for my Razr cell phone.  I requested he activate GPRS (a system allowing internet access via the cell phone).  His response was that activating the GPRS would not help … that I needed a special cable to connect the cell phone to a laptop.  My reply – and possibly the fourth and final rule violation – was “no problem, we have the connecting cable”.  The next day the laptop, Razr cell phone and connecting cable were gone.  I was able to use GPRS to access the internet for less than a day before we were robbed.

Anchored in Belize

Anchored in Belize

 

4.  RULE NUMBER FOUR: NEVER MENTION ANYTHING TO ANYONE ABOUT WHAT YOU HAVE ABOARD YOUR BOAT. Even in the context of customer service with the cell phone, we believe this was the most important of our mistakes.

On the other hand, had we not provided the opportunity for the boat to be robbed by leaving the hatch open and conveniently advertising when we’d be gone on the VHF, perhaps the thieves would have found other mischief.

 

 

Comments

  1. Thank you for such interesting and helpful articles about the cruising lifestyle and life on-board. Your blog is excellent and I have been perusing for hours! Your tips are great and useful too. I just finished your robbery story, and am sorry that happened. That is my biggest fear over in that area and we will probably avoid cruising in those parts for that reason. We are still dreamers, but hope to be cruisers in the next year or tow. Soaking all up all useful tips in the meantime, so thanks for sharing.

    • THANKS Laura! I’m happy you enjoy the blog, I’m trying to remember all the things I wondered about when we were still absorbing as much as we could about the cruising lifestyle. Keep in mind, robbery and other crime is not limited to where you hear about it, it can happen anywhere. But it’s not something to be afraid of any more than you wouldn’t visit New York City because of the crime in certain sections of the city – you simply would not walk alone after dark down a dark alley in NYC! Same rules while cruising, before you go, it seems like there’s no way to know everything you need to know. But as you’re cruising, everyone shares information with everyone else. We KNEW before we ever dropped anchor in Utila that it had a crime problem, but we violated the rules and paid the price. So don’t not go to the Bay Islands because there’s crime in places, there’s also great cruising, great anchorages and great friends! THX again for your comment! Cheers! Jan

  2. You may remember me, I was the bass player in the Sweet River Band on the Rio Dulce. I’m sorry to hear about your robbery. I was robbed in Utila in 2007. I too knew better, to return to the boat at sundown, never leave it at night. At the time 4 other boats were robbed during the 3 months I was there. I got complacent, meeting some other musicians and jamming at night two three times a week. Knowing the locals as well as I did I came to feel exempt.

    During the ‘Monday Morning Quarterbacking’ I determined I had someone following me around, letting the robbers know I was still ashore. Enough time to completely ransack my boat. I figure I lost about $8-10 grand worth of stuff.

    I had hoped the robberies were history by now. Reading the date of your post (mid 2011) I guess not. It is a shame Utila has such a bad reputation (i.e. ‘Pirate Bay’). It is a neat little Island with lots of otherwise good people. And now there has been a cruiser murdered at Punta Sal last year and just last week a boarding/armed robbery 3 1/2 mi offshore in the very same area. With Roatan eliminating mooring balls at west end (no anchoring) and requiring all to dock at a marina most Rio cruisers are writing Honduras off as a cruising destination.

    • Mike — Winterlude was actually robbed in Utila in November 2005 – the 2011 date was the post date, not the date of the robbery. I have posted a clarification in the opening of the post to note that this incident was November 2005. I also posted a note on the Rio Dulce Chisme. I apologize for any confusion. I still think it’s a shame, but I do think it was our own fault as I indicated in the article.

      • P.S.S. — I do remember you from the Sweet River Band — one of my favorites! We had many enjoyable evenings listening to the band at Marios! THANKS!

  3. Thanks so much for posting such helpful information! While we won’t start cruising until next year, we won’t forget these great tips!

    I don’t know that we would have thought to avoid making plans on the VHF! Also, I’ve often thought about installing bars on the hatch … will have to make that happen too! Knowing that they can be removed in a fire and give us some ventilation and security will ease my nerves a bit!

  4. Mario Jimenez says:

    Hello everyone, I am writing from Roatan, Bay Islands, HND… As I was reading your story I was astonished at what happened to you and to others, specially since Utila is such a nice little place. I wish stuff like that wouldn´t happen as it gives us a bad name…. the good news is that yesturday a band of 4 people were arrested by the Hondurean navy right after they had commited an act of piracy against a small yacht, reportedly this people had been wanted for years for doing such an act…..as a matter of fact , the authorities had to take them off Utila and brought to Roatan ASAP as the local population was getting ready to linch them because they felt that because of this people the island has gotten a bad reputation in the yatching community….. am glad they finally caught them… by the way no one was harmed….
    Also, I would highly invite anyone that wants to come to Roatan and spend a real nice time to do so … I work for a Maritime agency… you can come into the island, call us before you get here, we would do your immigration paperwork, port captain and when you leave we would do your Zarpe, immigration and customs clearing, of course, we can also take you on a island tour, the same that the crewship people do while they come and visit here with the great exception that your tour can last a couple of days so you can do many different activities that we have here in this island….. if interested just email me at agencianavierafino@yahoo.es my name is Mario ….. and ask any questions you may have… you will have a great time , if you´re a diver you must dive Roatan !!!!!!!!!!!!

    • Mario — we couldn’t agree more… we still feel that our unpleasant experience in Utila was our own fault — opportunity theft. And Roatan is one of our favorite cruising locales that we’ve ever visited! If you’re inclined to visit Roatan, do NOT miss the wall dives/snorkels — we’re snorkelers and especially enjoyed the West End and anywhere off French Harbor and Port Royal. Barbaretta is also a great find, the Pigeon Cayes rank right up there world class. AND if you want to take a side trip, be sure to moor in the National Park at the Cayos Cochinos. Halfway between the mainland and the Bay Islands, it’s fabulous snorkeling, hiking up to the lighthouse, exploring the little out islands & beaches, all well worth doing. ENJOY! Jan

  5. Rose Alderson says:

    Jan thanks for the great detail and tips. Like many of the others who have commented, we will be leaving to go cruising in a year-16 months….from British Columbia. We are learning as much as possible, kitting out our boat and dreaming daily. We hope to spend 2 years sailing to Australia, and your experiences, good and bad, will surely better prepare us for our travels. I love the idea for the bars that can be removed. I too have worried about all the “what if’s” and hope that lots of research and planning will circumvent most of the issues we could encounter. Counting down the days! Looking forward to buying the Boat Galley cookbook. Particularly keen to learn how to cook things via thermos….as our tankage for fuel is small and anything that assists a “greener” lifestyle, makes me happy! Fair winds.

  6. Human nature in other people doesn’t change because you’re you and you are having a good time.
    The thieves are organized; so why don’t you.
    Holy crap!

  7. Have a purpose build safe hidden in a good spot to put most of your cash, passport copies, jewelry and valuables. A lot of folks have something that goes bang in this same spot. I have traveled all over the world, many were lets just say less than desirable places, a few things.
    1. Keep your mouth closed about everything other than your 1st name.
    2. Use your head, i.e. common sense, seek local knowledge (if it can be trusted, many times it can’t be), lock things up, watch your back and what is going on around you etc..
    3. Have a plan for robberies, acts of piracy while underway and on anchor, medical emergencies etc.
    4. Be smart, have a good time living and don’t worry about the things you cannot control, just be good at controlling the things you can.

  8. Mike Beck says:

    I think the safe and hatch grates are great Ideas… I would add to that, an audible alarm, Internet camera(requires a wifi modem and a 5kw repeater. you don’t have to be hooked up to any cable for it to work, but better range when you can hook to internet..) AMCREST makes an indoor and outdoor models both under $100 they have night vision, two way audio, it scans, motion detection and is controllable from your phone. put the outdoor camera and repeater up on the mast should give you the best range and visibility. lights and music work wonders too… Saw one guy who had a mannequin he he kept in the salon when he was gone….

  9. Mike Beck says:

    Oh, also. we all have cheesy locks on our entrances. a locking bar(s) would be a nice addition. and for sure lock the dingy and motor on the boat and when ashore….

Speak Your Mind

*