As a rule, boaters tend to avoid sailing through areas that are considered dangerous or have a high risk of piracy. But sometimes, in order to get to a port of call, it’s necessary to sail closer than we would like to a high-risk area. We all say that the chances of encountering pirates at sea are extremely slim, but the statistics offer little consolation if your luck ever runs out.
A couple of years back, I was hired to deliver a boat from Cancun to the Pacific coast of Mexico via the Panama Canal. When I sailed out of the harbor, pirates were the last thing on my mind. I knew that the chances of running into trouble were slim, and I planned to stay far enough from the coast of Central America to be beyond their reach. But when headwinds drove me within 50 miles of the Honduras coastline, I found myself followed by an unlit suspicious-looking vessel at sunset.
I changed course, but the strange vessel continued to head straight for me. When I took a closer look through my binoculars, I realized that the boat had about 20 people on board, definitely not a fishing vessel. Then I saw guns. These were pirates!
Fortunately, I was able to avoid getting boarded by the unwelcome guests by short tacking through a shallow area where the pirates would have likely run aground. But what if they had gotten aboard? Upon my arrival in Panama, I learned about the kidnapping and murder of another sailor in the same area just a few days before. I found myself giving much more thought to sailing with weapons for self-defense.
Would sail with a gun have made the difference between life and death? In this article, we will explore the subject of sailing with guns.
Can You Sail With Guns?
The debate on whether to carry firearms or not onboard your boat has raged among cruisers for many decades. Just like in shore-based communities, there are strong opinions on both sides.
Historically, a large percentage of boaters carried firearms for protection, as well as for hunting and sport. But in modern times, with strict governmental regulations, far fewer sailors now choose to carry guns.
In the USA, anyone who is licensed to own a gun can take their firearms with them on the water, as long as they adhere to the firearm and carry laws in their state (or the state they are currently in).
Since laws vary by state, boaters who frequently travel around the country will want to read ahead of time about the specific gun laws for each state or territory that they plan to visit. In certain jurisdictions, there will be restrictions on the type of firearms allowed or how they must be stored.
Can You Carry Guns in International Waters?
Many USA-based cruisers carry firearms, but what about sailing beyond our borders?
In international waters, which are defined as at least 24 miles from any coast, each boat is required to adhere to the laws of the country where the boat is registered. For American boaters, this means that in international waters you are allowed to carry any firearm that is legal under US federal law.
If during the course of your voyage, you cross into waters that are considered the territory of another country, you will be subject to the laws that apply in that country, whether or not you step foot on land or officially clear into that country.
According to international maritime law, all boats in international waters are required to be registered in some country. If you choose to sail an undocumented vessel in open waters, you can be investigated by any ship for contravening international law.
Crimes such as piracy fall under universal jurisdiction, so a vessel from any country can intervene in the act, no matter the geographical location of the incident or the nationality of the pirates.
So what happens if you shoot pirates in international waters?
If you are attacked by pirates on the high seas, the crime is most likely to be prosecuted by the home country of the victims of the attack. So in the event that US sailors defend themselves against pirates with firearms, the act will be almost guaranteed to be considered self-defense under US law. If the pirates survive the attack, they will likely be prosecuted by a United States court of law.
Bringing Guns to a Foreign Port
While it’s not illegal for US sailors to carry firearms in international waters, things get much more complicated when you attempt to bring guns into a foreign country.
Each country has its own laws with regards to firearms, and many popular boating destinations are much stricter than the USA with regards to owning and importing firearms.
Some countries will allow you to keep your guns onboard after declaration and ammo accounting if you have the proper permits.
But most countries will seize your weapons upon entry and only return them to you when you depart – rendering the firearms useless for the duration of your stay.
Let’s take a look at the gun laws with regards to foreign boaters for a few popular boating destinations.
- The Bahamas – If you have a firearm on board, you must declare it with Bahamian customs. Only shotguns and handguns are allowed in Bahamian waters. You must provide the serial number, name of the manufacturer, plus an exact count of ammunition. Weapons must remain under lock and key at all times.
- Barbados – Firearms must be licensed and declared immediately to customs on arrival. They will be kept in custody until departure.
- Bermuda – All firearms and ammunition must be declared upon arrival in Bermuda. They will be either impounded or kept in a locked location until departure.
- Canada – Firearms are strictly controlled. Visitors bringing firearms into Canada are required to declare the firearms using the non-resident firearm declaration form. Fully automatic, converted automatics, and assault-type guns are not allowed. Non-restricted firearms may be imported for purposes such as hunting, wilderness protection, and gun shows. An authorization to transport is required for all restricted firearms.
- Colombia – Tourists are prohibited from bringing firearms into Colombia. The penalty for illegal importation is 3 to 10 years in prison.
- French Polynesia – Firearms and ammunition must be declared. If staying longer than 3 days, they will be bonded by authorities until departure.
Will Guns Actually Keep You Safe?
Although firearms have millions of passionate advocates here in the United States, when you look at the hard data, it’s debatable whether they actually improve your chances of survival in a dangerous situation.
Often the introduction of guns into an already hostile situation makes things worse, and can lead to an otherwise avoidable death. Most often, pirates are looking for money or valuables, and don’t want to complicate the situation by killing their victims, which would likely bring in law enforcement and/or the military.
In 2001, the world-famous sailor Sir Peter Blake was shot and killed by pirates on the Amazon River when he pulled a rifle on the intruders in an attempt to protect his vessel and crew.
Blake had shot one of the eight pirates in the hand before his rifle malfunctioned when he was fatally shot in the back. The other crew members who were unarmed survived.
The only valuables seized by the attackers were an outboard motor and some watches. The survivors later testified that had he not produced the rifle, Blake would probably still be alive.
There are countless examples of similar situations happening to boaters around the world. Usually, pirates board in groups that would be almost impossible to stop with a gun, unless there is numerous trained security personnel present.
On the other hand, the most crew who allow the pirates to take what they want and leave survive. Guns are great for hunting and sport, but when it comes to safety on boats, their effectiveness is questionable.
Alternatives to Guns for Onboard Safety
If you choose to sail without guns, there are many other things that you can do to improve your chances of avoiding a dangerous confrontation. Below we will list some of the best alternatives to carrying a gun on your boat for personal safety.
- The most important thing you can do is avoid sailing through high-risk areas. Usually, you can change your route to avoid places where a dangerous incident is likely to occur. If you must pass through a dangerous region (such as the Red Sea on the way to the Suez Canal), consider traveling in a flotilla that sails in a close group and maintains radio contact.
- Larger vessels sailing a dangerous route should consider hiring professional security specifically to deter threats.
- Don’t tempt potential intruders by flaunting your wealth. Dress modestly, avoid expensive jewelry or watches, and hoist your dinghy and outboard engine on deck at night.
- Keep regular contact with friends and family ashore, and have a way to immediately notify the authorities if you feel that you are at risk.
- If you are pursued by a suspicious vessel, alter course and consider any other tactic that may deter them, such as sailing towards other vessels or beyond the reach of their boat.
- If you are ever boarded, allow the pirates to take what they want and avoid violent confrontation unless absolutely necessary to protect the life of a crew member.
- As a last resort, you can carry personal defense items, like mace, bear spray, or a taser. If none of these items are available, you can use almost anything as a makeshift weapon, like knives, tools, or flares.
Personally, I choose to sail without firearms 99 percent of the time, despite having experienced encounters with pirates and thieves in foreign waters. For me, the hassle of importing guns into each new port, only to have them confiscated makes it not worth my time.
Since guns usually only exacerbate an already dangerous situation, I know that they won’t likely help when it comes to keeping my loved ones safe, and often could put them at further risk. Instead, I carefully prepare for each potential risk before every voyage, and find other ways to avoid confrontation or deal with dangerous people.
That said, there are a few instances where I would choose to carry a gun. For example, when sailing into the high Arctic where polar bears pose a serious risk to my crew, I choose to carry a high-power rifle as a last resort if someone was ever attacked. Unlike most other animals, polar bears have been known to intentionally stalk humans, so I know they can pose an even greater potential threat than pirates.
There are also other times when I might choose to carry a gun for hunting on a long wilderness voyage, especially in US waters. Ultimately, it’s a personal choice for each boater.