Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Crime and Piracy Report

Posted by Scot

Today I was chatting with a guy who was working on one of the boats here in the marina.  He was asking me about our trip, and where we had been.  As soon as I mentioned some of the countries we had been to, he started telling me about another boat he had worked on here, where the owner kept a big machine gun on board, in case he was attacked.  “Weren’t you ever scared?” he asked me.  “There are pirates out there, you know.”

Back on the dock, safe from the ravages of piracy (unless you count the cost of staying in this marina!)

This is one of the most commonly asked questions we hear when talking to people about our trip.  And, despite the stereotype of crime-ridden America, it is not just here that we get this question.  The last time I was working in Alberta, I was talking to a doctor there who was telling me that he would love to do a similar trip with his family.  His only question for me: “Aren’t you worried about crime?”  And before we left B.C., I must have heard the same story 20 times, about another local sailor who had been on a boat that had been the victim of an attack and boarding in Venezuela a number of years ago.

So, in the interest of giving the people what they want, here is the official crime report for our trip.  I have been wanting to write this post for a while, but I figured I better wait until we were closer to getting off the boat.  You never know if you are going to be kidnapped by a drug cartel in Mexico. I didn’t want to have to rewrite the official crime report if something like that happened.

Maybe the reason we haven't seen more piracy is the intimidating security staff we have on board.
We have been victims of crime exactly twice on our trip.

The first time came in Cuba.  Because it was so ridiculously cheap, we took our laundry to a local woman to have it all washed and folded.  When it came back, I couldn’t find my white Hurley swim shirt that I had been wearing in the ocean for the past several months.  “Oh well,” I thought.  “If a Cuban person needs my shirt that badly, I guess I can always get another one.”
The deviousness of the criminal in question wasn’t fully clear to me until about a month later.  As I was digging through my clothes looking for another shirt, I found the swim shirt in question, washed and folded and stuck away in my pile of clothes.  Clearly the sneaky Cuban laundry woman, or one of her criminal associates, had snuck on our boat when I wasn’t looking, and slid the shirt back into my closet.

The second instance of crime came when we had our boat hauled at the yard in Guatemala.  While we were there, Sara loaned our winch handle to one of the other cruisers in the yard (I can’t remember what for).  Later, when he gave it back, she set it down under our boat with some other tools. The next day, she remembered leaving it there, but couldn’t find it again.  It was frustrating, because winch handles aren’t cheap.  We figured one of the workers in the yard must have made off with it to make a quick buck.

Again, though, the criminal was sneakier than we gave him credit for.  A week later, we found the winch handle, which had been surreptitiously hidden among the other tools in our tool box.  Clearly, someone had thought better of their criminal ways, and slipped the handle back where he knew we would find it.

I'm sure I left that winch handle down here somewhere.
Obviously, I am joking.  The only real crime in those two incidents was committed by us, in allowing ourselves to fall victim to our prejudices and preconceptions of how people behave in other cultures.  The truth is, in all the time we have spent travelling in countries populated by people much poorer than ourselves, we have never had a reason to be overly concerned about crime.

We haven’t been foolish.  We have taken precautions with our belongings and ourselves that are similar to what we would do in any city in Canada or the U.S.  What we have seen, though, leads me to believe that the vast majority of people everywhere are simply going about their daily business, trying to make an honest living, with no interest in committing crimes against foreign travellers.

Just trying to make an honest living.

I’m not saying that crime against cruisers doesn’t exist.  It does, and I’m sure for those that fall victim to it, it is a horrific event.  The problem is, like the story of the cruiser in Venezuela I was told before I left, when a crime does occur, the story gets told over and over again, multiplying it in our minds.  The stories of all the cruisers that never see any crime never get told, so we are left with a very lopsided and unrealistic estimation of the risk of crime.  I firmly believe that if all the stories, both good and bad, were told in a huge room all at the same time, the sound of the good stories would so outweigh the bad ones that they would be a mere whisper.

It’s not that we haven’t had the opportunity to be scared on our boat.  I’ll never forget being approached by an American military ship in the middle of the night off Guantanamo Bay.  Or being checked out by the silent Jamaican coast guard in the dark.  But both those incidents were perpetrated by the “good guys”, not criminals.

Watching out for things that go bump in the night.
There are plenty of good reasons not to take off on a sail boat for a year.  Maybe you get seasick.  Maybe your spouse won’t let you.  Maybe you can’t afford it (although, after having seen how cheaply it can be done, this is probably not as real a concern as it might be.  That’s another blog post, though).

But if a fear of crime is what is holding you back, let this post serve as at least one voice arguing in the other direction.


  1. Absolutely love this. Six years cruising now, and that would be parallel to our experience too.

  2. Everywhere we go, we are told that our next destination (be it a neighbouring country or the next city down the road) is crime-riddled, and we should be very very careful. I'm throughly convinced that the most dangerous country on our trip was the US, which we left more than a year ago. Still, it's best if everyone else thinks it's dangerous to travel - can you imagine how crowded things would be if no one was being held back by their fears?

  3. Love your way of describing the sudden appearance of "stolen" items. I have had so many encounters of that kind of theft myself :-) Thanks, great post!

    1. Thanks for the feedbcak Lesley, Jane, Behan and Diane, Evan and Maia. It is nice to hear that this experience is as common as I suspected it was, and to add a few more voices to this side of the equation.

  4. Excellent post! We get the same question all the time but have had a similar experience to you in 13 years on the water -- most of our lost items have simply been misplaced or fallen overboard (in fact, theft is usually the last thing we think about). We had our first case over the winter when somebody walked off with our portable generator. Both my husband and I thought the other had moved it and it took us 3 days to realize we'd been robbed. In the end, the joke was on them because the generator (1) didn't work, and (2) was 220v so if they did get it started, they blew up whatever was plugged in.