When traveling to far-off places in a small sailing boat, is it wise to carry a gun? Would Peter Blake be alive now if he hadn’t possessed a gun? Should the boats heading for the Red Sea now, in the migratory season, have a gun on board? Whoever you ask, you get a different answer, so we decided to ask some people who have been there – some piracy survivors, one year after an attack that could have cost their lives.
Carol and Jay
Jay is what you might call an archetypal American guy in the best most traditional sense of the description – clean-cut handsome looks, big boned, laconic in movement and word. Not prone to exaggerate, kind to a fault. His partner Carol seems an ideal match. Tall slim and good looking with a ready smile, Carol gave up her medical practice to accompany Jay on a world circumnavigation in their sleek 47ft steel beauty Gandalf. They both laugh easily, and seem eminently sensible enough to handle any crisis. This was tested sorely in March 2005, when they were attacked by pirates in what must be the most vicious attack in yachting memory. Characteristically, when asked - as piracy survivors - if they would talk about their current attitude to carrying a gun Jay grinned. 'Survivors?' he said, We're not just survivors - we won!'
With their buddy boat Mahdi they were transversing the pirate area of the Arabian Gulf on their way to Europe via the Red sea. They had been somewhat delayed by the attempt to assist some other boats who had technical problems, and were therefore doing the transverse in daylight. Both boats are fast and the crews very experienced ocean sailors.
The story is well known. Suddenly, they were approached at speed by two fast speedboats firing at the cockpit and dodger of the boat. Gandalf was unarmed, but Mahdi was armed and successfully fired at the pirates while Gandalf rammed them. With this quick retaliatory action, they survived the attack - later they found fourteen bullet holes in Gandalf, five of them through the dodger.. News of the attack soon flashed across the world, with all major news streams picking up the story including CNN and BBC World.
Six months later Gandalf has been repaired – the bullet holes gone, the ramming damage on the bow disappeared, the dinghy patched, and the crew of Gandalf have switched their attention to happier subjects than piracy as they gamely continue their world voyage. Sail World caught up with Jay and Carol last week, and we asked them what they feel now about carrying a gun on board a sailing boat.
Here’s Jay’s reply:
Well, we’ve naturally given it a lot of thought. With this kind of attack, the obvious question you have to ask is: are they trying to rob you? - or kill you? Should cruisers carry a gun? Should we have been carrying a gun? What would have happened if Mahdi had not returned fire?
I would like to keep my discussion to “ At Sea” attacks - the true definition of piracy. The inshore or at anchor incidences are really more akin to robbery that can find you anywhere. In these attacks, when the bad guys get onboard, even if you are armed, you have already lost. There are always more of them than you. They are not asleep in bed. They have a plan and you are the target. Their guns are up and ready. How ready are you?
At sea the situation is very different. Assuming you are keeping a very good watch, on the water it will take a little time for all the players to manoeuvre. In this case you just might have time to prepare.
Would you consider shooting to kill?
If you do even consider carrying a weapon, the next question is: Are you willing to shoot to kill someone? Well, I now know that it is very easy to do just that when you are under a hail of bullets! Any pretense to the “Gentleman Pirate”, for those whose first weapon is intimidation, is gone. To fight, how ever abhorrent that might sound to you, is the only option you have left.
Which weapon, and how much skill in marksmanship?
So if you have decided that you are willing, the next two related issues are choice of weapon to carry aboard and skill in marksmanship. A pistol is useless at distance and from the deck of a yacht at sea. My choice now would be a twelve gauge shot gun loaded with “OO buck”. It is a very formidable weapon from the deck of a sailboat. Having chosen the weapon, one still has to acquire a sufficient degree of marksmanship to make it an effective device. However, of the hundred other skills you had to learn in order to sail beyond land, the reality is that this is one of the easier to pick up. There are no easy answers to this issue..
Where will you need the weapon?
After twenty five thousand miles of cruising through 53 countries, my estimate is that you might consider the need for a gun for three to four hundred sea miles in the world. This mostly refers to the most active pirate zones. These almost always seem to be found in the area of “failed or failing states”. Somalia, Sudan and Yemen. To be sure there are other places - recently attacks have happened on the rhumb line from Galapagos to the Marquesas. However, these seem to be isolated incidents and not a thriving industry. This leg and the Gulf of Aden are the two main areas of the world where you can expect trouble.
How do you sail these areas?
I think convoy sailing provides people with a false sense of security. My reason for this is that when we were attacked, our friend’s boat returned fire. The pirates simply abandoned that attack and motored over to us, the unarmed yacht! But they didn’t know whether we had a weapon or not. As reported in news stories of the attack, our friend bravely stood his ground and protected our backs while I rammed the other attacker. Both pirate boats were dead in the water as we made best speed to Aden. What would they have done to any passive group? With yachts brought together for sailing, not for armed battle, what would be the reactions of the group under pressure? Which of the group would stand and fight? Who would radio for help? (Help would not be there in time anyway). They would still be helpless as the pirates attacked one boat after another. With others under attack, who would just turn and run? The only practical convoy would be one with some sort of armed escort. I wonder why a private company has not stepped up. A big enough group of yachts should be able to pressure some government into organising some action. As independent as we yachties think we are, this would be when organisation and numbers could count.
Where can you go with guns?
Some countries and governments are antagonistic to every type of gun on foreign boats. Some are more tolerant of some types of weapon, like a shotgun – as this is considered more as a defensive, rather than an attack weapon. But make no mistake, wherever you sail, carrying a gun as far as formalities are concerned will be a huge inconvenience in terms of additional time and paperwork in order to declare it. This is a fact in even some of the countries where everyone carries a gun, including the children!
From my perspective, I grew up with guns. From the age of four, I “played” with guns - first BB guns, then bigger guns as I grew and demonstrated more responsibility. Later in life, I was a successful hunter and have won some minor prizes. So guns are something I am very aware of, and I hold much respect for what they are and what they can do. I think of a gun as a tool like so many other things in life. With proper training and respect, I feel guns are safe and useful. . I understand this is not an option that everyone is comfortable with.
So, after all these experiences and after all this time, what do I think now?
If I were to do the Gulf of Aden passage again, I would be carrying a shotgun.
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