Dodging Pirates in Southeast Asia
Sail defensively and keep a cool head.
In the 1990s I spent three years cruising among the thousands of islands of the Philippines and Indonesia. Since then, when I encounter people who haven't sailed in Southeast Asia, they often ask me: 'Why cruise there? Isn’t that a politically unstable, pirate-infested, typhoon-ridden area?'
Contrary to these exaggerated misconceptions, the Philippines and Indonesia, with their friendly people, easy trade-wind sailing, and thousands of closely spaced and seldom visited islands, are by far the most attractive cruising grounds I came across in two voyages around the world. Typhoons in the Philippines can be avoided by moving south during the height of typhoon season. True piracy is actually rare here, limited to a few well-known areas. It seems that the region's sinister reputation, coupled with its remote location in the far western Pacific, has kept these exotic islands unspoiled by oversized charter fleets and hordes of tourists for some time.
Although we did encounter some trouble when passing through a notorious pirate's den around southwestern Mindanao, the rewards of cruising these islands vastly outweighed the risks. We also learned some things that may be useful to those cruisers who follow us. For mutual security we sailed through this area together with our friend Theo, who was single-handing his 28-foot sloop Islander.
We began with a few short hops along the northern coast of Mindanao, followed by an overnight sail to Zamboanga City to take on provisions and clear out of the country with the authorities. Across the channel lay the forbidding outline of Basilan Island, a longtime stronghold for Muslim separatists. At that time, in their latest outrage, Islamic terrorists had not long before thrown a grenade into a crowded ferryboat in Zamboanga because it also carried a few Christian missionaries. We were aware of the dangers, but needed to pass through this area to reach the Moluccas on our way toward Bali Island.
Islander and Atom left Zamboanga City early one morning, sailing close together past an interesting village built on pilings over the waters of Rio Honda. Here the winds fell light and we got careless. Expecting better winds farther offshore, I tacked toward the center of the channel without noticing that Theo was still hugging the coast. Soon Islander was a spot on the horizon and we were struggling against a current that had set us within two miles of Basilan Island. I scanned the shoreline with binoculars and watched apprehensively as a group of men launched a motorized outrigger canoe, called a banca, and headed straight for us at high speed. Suspicious of their intentions, I asked my girlfriend to stay out of sight below while I locked the companionway hatch with our custom-made hatch bars. Then, I placed a loaded flare pistol in the cockpit clearly in view and hung a large diving knife on my belt.
As the banca approached, I called Theo on the VHF radio (the mic cable extended through the hatch bars into the cockpit). There was little Theo could do to help, but I wanted the men in the banca to think that I was in touch with somebody. The banca raced up to Atom's stern and rammed us, pinning our transom between its main hull and outrigger. The man in the bow began climbing over our stern rail while shouting "money, money!" I stepped aft and after a brief struggle, caught the man off balance and threw him back into the canoe as gently as possible while telling him in Tagalog that I had nothing to give him. Seeing that these guys would not easily leave empty-handed, I then offered to buy some fish. They found a couple small fish in the bottom of the canoe and I paid them 10 pesos and then told them firmly that was all they would get. Apparently, these amateur pirates were satisfied and agreed to leave. Before they pulled away, however, one man made a final lunge and nearly got away with my hat. This was the first time during two years in the Philippines that anything like this had happened to us and it was definitely unnerving.
"The man on the bow began climbing over our stern rail shouting "money, money!"
On another day when our boats became separated in Indonesian waters, a larger fishing boat with at least 10 men aboard circled us closely while shouting at me to give them money. I used a similar technique of locking all hatches, ensuring they saw me talking on the radio, and telling them I had nothing to give them. These fisherman's aggressive behavior had me so spooked that I'm thankful I did not have a gun aboard because we would likely have blasted our way through Indonesia leaving a trail of dead fishermen in our wake.
Although I would not suggest fighting over your possessions against armed attackers, you do need to have a plan and keep a cool head. Your best chance is to show them you are not a worthwhile or easy target and to stick close to your buddy boat. Obviously, if your buddy boat is more than a couple miles away you might as well be alone. Unfortunately, since Theo was single-handed and not able to keep a continuous watch, we were not always able to sail as close as we should have.
By day, a yacht is a highly visible target. In these waters I felt safest sailing at night and we were never approached or threatened during our many night passages. Pirates do not normally attack at night, especially if they cannot identify your boat as a yacht. That's why when underway we showed only a deck-level white anchor light such as the small fishing boats use themselves. Theo had a couple similar encounters and he believed taking photos of approaching boats, which could later be used to identify them, proved another deterrent to attack.
When anchored at night, regardless of where you are, the sensible thing is to keep all hatches locked. Most boats have solid, or slightly vented, companionway hatch boards that don't allow much air movement when the boat is locked. When we're not on board our boat, the ports are usually kept closed in case of rain. This makes the boat hot and humid and everything inside soon grows moldy. Dorades and solar vents help, but do not usually provide sufficient airflow in the heat of the tropics.
Aboard Atom I use solid hatch boards, which include one piece of clear acrylic for visibility, when needed at sea. To protect myself from intruders in port, I slip a stainless steel rod grating into the tracks in place of the hatch boards and secure it with a padlock or a barrel bolt that can only be reached from inside. The bars are made of 3/8-inch rod, bent and welded into shape by a stainless steel fabrication shop in Hong Kong. Any metal shop can easily make this if you provide them with the specific dimensions for your hatch.
The bars are constructed in two pieces connected by two small rings so they can fold to permit insertion or removal when the dodger is over the hatch. Folding also makes them easier to store when they’re not in use. A similar one-piece grating locks into the inside of the forward hatch frame. Because it’s mounted inside the frame, it can be used with the forward hatch fully open or cracked slightly open. Air can then move freely, while security is maintained. When it looks like rain, I rig a small awning over the front hatch.
If you find that you’re interested in fashioning a similar device for the hatches on your boat, I recommend that you give some thought to strengthening the companionway hatch frame. On many boats the hatch boards are only held in place by a flimsy strip of wood. Steel bars cannot do much good if the frame can be broken even with a screwdriver. I strengthened this area with stainless steel U-channels mounted within the wooden frame. The hatch bars or boards now slide into this unbreakable frame.
The aforementioned system took care of human intruders, but to keep out insects, I epoxy-glued a strip of Velcro around the entire inside perimeter of the hatches, then cut out a nylon screen to match, and sewed the opposite strip of Velcro onto it. Besides keeping mosquitoes out while you sleep, the screens can keep bees or other nesting insects from building a nest inside your boat while its in storage.
Using hatch bars allows you to easily lock yourself in at night without suffocating from heat, secure in the knowledge that an intruder cannot come below as you sleep. Does this make me seem paranoid? Perhaps, but I suspect that most of us wouldn’t leave the front door to our home wide open all night—so why take a similar risk when you’re out cruising?
Cruising Dangers, Part One—Security on Board by Liza Copeland
The Perils of Piracy by Mark Matthews
Fears of Piracy by Tania Aebi