Weapons on Board: Worth the Risk?

12 January 2010 By Janine Ketterer

Today’s yachts are globetrotting during the dawn of a new age of piracy. When Somali pirates can obtain weapons easier than shoes, guests and crew need protection. But is brandishing weapons and arming crew really the answer?

At the 2009 Fort Lauderdale Boat Show, a seminar on Piracy, Firearms and the Law provoked a lively discussion.

“Piracy is a terrorist attack and you have the right to defend yourself,” said Will Ferrugia of Global Sea Security, which offers marine escorts and trains mariners in firearm operations, concealed weapons and personal safety. “There are various solutions to protect yourself and your vessel from these instances,” he continued.

Global Sea Security maintains that people have an intrinsic right to defend themselves and they believe every vessel should have lethal and nonlethal systems on board to ensure the best possible chance in dangerous situations.

But in carrying weapons, there are subsequent issues involving flag and port states, training and insurance.

Since flag states govern the yacht, if carrying firearms is illegal in your flag state – say your vessel is flagged out of the UK – it is not legal to carry firearms on board either. However, you also must obey the laws of the ports in which the vessel cruises, as one captain found out in 2009 when he was jailed in Mexico. Officials boarded his vessel to search for drugs and found several firearms that belonged to the owner. The captain was arrested for “introducing guns to Mexico.” The captain thought he had followed the proper procedure as he did declare the weapons to Customs, but he did not obtain a permit from the Ministry of Defense and Ministry of Economy before he entered Mexico. He spent four months in prison.

Capt. Herb Magney, who used to carry a gun and knows how to use them, is not an advocate for firearms on board yachts. “In general, when you come to an area and you declare your guns, you either have to lock them up or give them to the local officials; chances of getting them back tend to be slim, and then you are looked at suspiciously for bringing guns into a new country.”

Maritime lawyer Michael Moore, also present at the seminar, stated, “Your vessel will be in so much entanglement if you do not understand the principles and laws [of carrying or using weapons on board].”

Veteran captain Ted Sputh said, “It’s very simple, I am an advocate of guns and trained people to use them on board yachts. [However] the overriding factor is we travel into too many different countries with too many different laws concerning firearms. It is too dangerous legally to have weapons aboard. I do not and have not carried weapons on board for about fifteen years. Given terrorism, criminals and piracy, nations should make vessels exempt from local laws. Permits should be issued with proper training. [But,] this is unlike to happen, I think.”

Another issue is insurance. Many insurance companies will not cover intentional acts of breaking the law, meaning if it is illegal for you to carry a gun, something happens and firearms are found on board, you’re out of luck with insurance.

But will firearms truly help against a pirate attack? According to Ferrugia, there is documented evidence that proves if pirates know you have weapons, they will not bother you. However, how will the pirates know if you are packing heat? If they do board and crew are not properly trained with the weapons, the situation could quickly escalate.

“It’s a matter of deciding what your intent is. Is it to scare pirates? A big flare is going to do that more than a few bullets. Also, are you willing to kill someone? Chances are you’re going to run into pirates with guns and they’re going to have nothing to lose. So are you going to have big enough caliber guns to disable their engine from two hundred meters? And what happens when you run out of ammo? Now all you’ve done is pissed off the assailants more,” says Magney.

What happens if the weapons fall into the wrong hands on board? “The owners of M/Y Lucky Seven are out of yachting after what happened on their boat,” Magney cautioned, recalling the story of a disturbed stew who obtained the firearm on board and threatened the lives of her fellow crewmembers.

More and more captains and owners are looking to nonlethal weapons to protect themselves. However, Moore cautioned that nonlethal weapons could get you in just as much trouble as lethal weapons. For instance, in the UK a Taser is considered a firearm so you must be certain of your flag state’s laws before introducing any weapons, lethal or not, onto the yacht.

In terms of nonlethal weapons, Ferrugia suggested several options such as audible weapons, visual defenses and Mr. Itchy, a substance that will create an itching sensation that will overpower a person, just to name a few. There is also the option of a shadow boat or temporary security personnel who can join the boat for the duration of a transit in a high-risk zone.

Capt. Magney recommends using your flares. “A ball of fire will deter someone more. Shoot one up, then out. It will indicate to people you’re in distress as well and anyone can shoot a flare gun. Plus, they’re legal.”

There are many websites that will keep you up-to-date on high-risk zones around the world., and are all good resources.

This is a different world that we are traveling around; one of the Somali pirates even has a Facebook page. The weapons of our past may not be the best suited to combat these modern-day pirates, but if you do choose to use them, “Remember the old saying,” says Magney. “If you pull a gun, you’re on your own.”