Updating Your Vessel Security Plan

29 July 2009 By Jason Knowles, President, Hard Target Security Group
Photo by Suki Finnerty

With the seemingly daily rise in reports of piracy over recent months, now is the time for yacht owners and captains to review and adapt their Vessel Security Plan (VSP) to fit our current environment. Here are some tips to help with the process.

Know the Owners’ Expectations. Captains must be completely aware of what the owners’ expectations are if the vessel and its occupants suddenly find themselves into the midst of danger, so a realistic risk assessment and VSP can be created properly and not merely put together to meet a maritime law, insurance requirement, or industry standards. In addition, the vessel’s owners must be aware of the VSP, so that when action is taken, they will not be caught off guard.

Sometimes, we have found that even before this can take place, the owners must be educated or informed of many of the realities of the open sea and the areas in which they travel. Furthermore, they need to be made aware of the vessel’s and crew’s capabilities.

The captain needs to reach an agreement with the owner as to what actions will be taken in the event of attack, and they need to have permission to purchase the necessary equipment in advance. There is no room for smoke and mirrors here. Honesty is the best policy. Sometimes the best way to get to the point of the matter is to simply ask if the worst case scenario takes place, “Are you (the owner) willing to risk your life and the lives of everyone aboard by negotiating with or appeasing criminals or terrorists?” The answer should be a simple “yes” or “no,” which will provide a good foundation on which to build a solid yet adaptable VSP.

Use Technology to Bolster Your VSP. Many captains use the yacht’s radar to assist them with unwanted boardings by setting the alarm for a certain range and setting the sensitivity to pick up vessels breaking that range. Not a bad start. Some may utilize the radar in conjunction with a night watch schedule – also a good practice if your watch is trustworthy. Hard Target Security Group recommends both of these practices, but with the added modern day technology of thermal imaging.

Norberto Ferretti, chairman of the Ferretti Group, opined years ago that thermal imagery is an accessory that should be on every motor yacht in the very near future. Thermal imagers allow the user to see in complete darkness or daylight, through fog, smoke and even rain. With these capabilities, depending on the sensitivity and specifications of the unit, the user potentially could see a man overboard during the day or night from over a mile away. You also can see debris floating in the water. You can come into port earlier or later to get to your destination sooner, because you can navigate a marina as if it were daylight with no need to rely on the spotlight to assist you. If necessary, you even can navigate completely blacked out to flee from approaching boats.

Most important, with thermal imagery cameras, you can instantly identify the threat level of an approaching boat at a distance at night. This can save you priceless minutes when implementing your VSP, as you need the answers immediately. Is it a passing fishing boat or a boat full of armed pirates? Is it time to pull anchor and run or do you quickly arm yourself and crew? Without thermal imagery giving you this instant feedback, you would likely wait until the boat is close or alongside you. At that point, it is too late to avoid an unwanted boarding. This is usually when appeasing, negotiating and, God forbid, pleading begins.

Jason Knowles is the founder and president of Hard Target Security Group, which provides training for the military, law enforcement agencies and the general public. He is a former United States Marine Corps primary marksmanship instructor, and a M1A1 Abrams tank commander. You can find out more about his company at