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.
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 Andreas, Columbia – 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 Andreas, 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.
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.
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.