High-Tech Security: Wise Precaution or Overkill?

7 January 2010 By Louisa Beckett

The sharp rise in pirate attacks on commercial and even recreational vessels over the past year or so has heightened awareness of security issues among the international superyacht community. Calling this the “Platinum Era of Piracy,” Paul Cook, managing director of International Superyacht Management, says, “It hasn’t happened to a superyacht yet, but it could do today or tomorrow.”

As a result, many superyacht owners are considering adding military-grade security equipment to their boat and even arming the crew.

Cook, who is also a director at Advanced New Technologies (ANT), and Philip Cable, a director and co-founder of Maritime Asset Security and Training (MAST), both providers of security solutions for superyachts, made a sobering presentation on yacht security at Boat International Media’s Superyacht Design Symposium last fall.

The array of high-tech security gear available for installation on yachts today – much of which derives from hard-core military applications – is dazzling. Cable and Cook mentioned night vision and thermal imaging technology, Door Entry Access Control (DEAC) systems, Long Range Acoustic Device (LRAD) hailing and warning units, ballistic protection and Kevlar curtains. But they warned that much of this gee-whiz gear has both pros and cons.

For example, Cable reported that ballistic protection, which can deflect bullets, also has significant weight penalties. “Is it overkill?” he asks.

Cook warned that while many night vision camera systems on the market are excellent, some are no good at all, and still others are inappropriate for marine use. “You can waste your money on something that isn’t designed with your boat in mind,” he said. This is when a company that specializes in yacht security applications and advice, such as ANT and MAST, can provide invaluable insight and support.

Both experts also emphasized the importance of installing a well-thought-out, fully-integrated security system.

“No one bit of equipment will make a boat secure on its own – it all has to tie in together,” Cook says. When his team at ANT helps to make a yacht’s security plan, he says, “We’ll look at the whole picture – the mission, the boat, the owner and personnel.”

Both experts agreed that efficient surveillance and early detection is the name of the game. Nobody wants the crew to have to engage in hand-to-hand combat with pirates.

“Put a wall around your boat,” says Cable, adding that some security devices, such as deck sensors, can be ineffective simply because by the time they alert the crew to an intrusion, it already may be too late.

MAST currently is working to develop an extensive perimeter security system for superyachts that will send a verbal warning to the VHF radio of the on-watch crew when a pre-set area around the boat has been penetrated. The system incorporates a closed-circuit TV camera array that fits neatly into the radar mast and bridge wings. It can be adjusted for use at anchor, alongside the dock and underway. That gives the crew time to “call the cavalry.”

In addition, an automatic DEAC system can allow the captain to lock down the upper decks with the push of a button on the bridge, buying extra time to get the guests and crew to a secure location on board.

Ultimately, however, any yacht security system is only as good as the people who operate it – usually the crew. “The technology does exist, but it’s up to the human element to deploy it,” Cable says.

Both experts stressed that whatever level of security program you ultimately choose for your yacht, crew training is one of the most essential elements. Cook states, “You need to understand your sophisticated equipment and use it to the fullest.” An untrained crewmember can become a weak link in a crisis.

Neither expert endorsed the idea of giving the crew firearms. Not only are guns a legal hot potato in many cruising areas, but they also tend to escalate an already incendiary situation. “If they are holding a weapon and freeze…,” says Cook, “…the pirate is not going to hesitate.”