High Crimes on the High Seas

9 July 2009 By Kelly Sanford
Photo by Eric Pasquier

In early 2009, lit up with a rash of reports (some legitimate and some unsubstantiated) about violent crimes being committed against yachts and their crew down in the Caribbean. As spring rolled around, headlines around the world were focused on the waters off the horn of Africa where Somali pirates threaten to bring commercial shipping to its knees.

In an article recently published on the AP, writer Christopher Torchia remarked, “While Somali pirates top headlines with brazen ship hijackings for ransom, many smaller-scale attacks in the world’s oceans – maritime muggings, essentially – go unreported, depriving mariners of information about possible threats to their safety and vessels.”

The high seas are among the world’s last wild frontiers, and as economies tank on a global level with devastating effects for the poorest nations, crimes against commercial and pleasure vessels alike are expected to be on the rise and we may very well be on the precipice of a brand new age of piracy.

By its definition, piracy is an act of criminal intent committed aboard a ship. Torchia broadens this definition in saying, “Some robbers sneak aboard a berthed or anchored ship or yacht at night and vanish after stealing whatever they can: paint cans, mooring lines and electronic equipment. Such petty theft falls under a broad definition of piracy if the criminals are armed.”

Torchia said, “Industry analysts say some owners and masters…prefer not to report relatively small losses from piracy, or attempted boardings, because they worry about clean records, costly delays in the event of an investigation in the nearest port, jittery clients who might take their business elsewhere, and the likelihood of higher insurance rates if they log an attack.” Not such a minor concern, as the Insurance Daily reported last month that “The cost of insuring ships against piracy has increased one hundred percent since the start of the year.”

Noel Choong, the head of the Maritime Watchdog’s Piracy Reporting Center in Kuala Lumpur, told the AP that they estimate that “more than fifty percent of pirate attacks are not reported, but some experts speculate that the figure is even higher.” The mentality behind the lapse in reporting is that captains figure that if there was no harm done, there is no need for reporting, and they fear that filing a report might lead to a formal investigation, which would delay the vessel and likely lead nowhere. It’s a fairly reasonable conclusion; however, rashes of petty crimes can quickly escalate to high crimes and violence.

Tender theft has been rampant for decades, and insurance professionals say that even the theft of large yachts is again on the rise. And it is not at all uncommon for crew to be mugged ashore. Is it possible that by failing to report what we perceive to be a minor incident that we are turning a blind eye to a potentially dangerous situation?

It’s not hard to imagine a global criminal element feeling emboldened by the stunning multi-million dollar profitability of the Somali pirates. Yes, a number of pirates have been killed by French and American forces patrolling the African coast. However, for the criminally minded in an impoverished nation, the chance of reward might easily outweigh the risk, and that flashy white boat with the rowdy crew would be an awfully tempting target.

Now, before a few of you hop up on your soap box and start accusing this article of being a piece of alarmist propaganda, consider this: the International Maritime Bureau indicated that piracy rose to unprecedented levels in 2008, and the acts of piracy that occurred in the first three months of 2009 is a tenfold increase over last year.

Granted, a majority of incidents have occurred in international cargo lanes near Africa, but make no mistake; pleasure boats have been taken and not just in the Gulf of Aden. Certainly it is worth serious consideration about just how vulnerable you might be before you risk finding out the hard way.

For example, in 2002, a couple in Newport Beach, California, was overpowered at sea by criminals pretending to be yacht buyers who intended to steal the yacht. The couple was tied to the anchor and dropped to the bottom of the ocean off Catalina…alive. In the spring of this year, a British skipper had his throat cut and was thrown in the water off Thailand when he tried to stop thieves intent on stealing his boat’s tender.

Have you noticed an increase in crime against yachts? Should the yachting community have its own central database for reporting crimes committed against yachts and crew? And if such a venue existed, would you use it? Share your thoughts.