Guns and Boats and Pirates:
Should You Carry
A Weapon Onboard Your Boat?
Remember that story you heard awhile back about the French yacht somewhere in the Bahamas? Drug runners needed an inconspicuous boat in order to haul a big load of mota into Key West. So as the story goes, they chased down an express cruiser a few miles off shore, unceremoniously slit the husband's throat, beat his wife to death, assaulted his 16 year-old daughter and then deep-sixed the three corpses in 100 fathoms of water. Is it a true story? And what about the recent surge of piracy in the waters off Somalia, South Asia, Brazil and Africa?
With such lurid images in mind, some yacht owners who cruise to distant lands or who circumnavigate the globe are heavily armed just in case. In addition, some actually carry a fifth of whiskey laced with poison! The reason is as simple as the sea is salt: If they lose the gun battle, and the bad guys are dancing a jig on their foredeck, they'll still have the last laugh, even if it is from the depths of Davy Jone's locker. And then there are the boat owners who venture nowhere near areas of suspected piracy often succumb to nightmarish notions of potential pillagers behind every cloud on the horizon and although their most far-flung voyages consist of crossing the Gulf Stream choose to carry firearms.
Buccaneers of old wielded cutlasses and muskets. The media-generated Modus Operandi of today's pirates is that they'll rake your deck with machine-gun fire and maybe lob in a mortar round or two for good measure. How would you defend yourself against such cold-blooded tactics? You wonder these things as you and the family plan your vacation cruise to Antigua. Or, how do you fend off a couple of crack heads who show up on your dock packing a rusty .357 Smith & Wesson revolver? Should you carry a gun on board your boat for protection?
The first step in framing an answer is to assess the risk of attack in the areas where you intend to cruise. If your itinerary will take you to Indonesia, you may deem it wise to stow a firearm of some sort aboard. If so you had first better thoroughly check the rules and regulations of doing so with the Indonesian government, and with every other jurisdiction through which you'll pass en route. The truth of the matter is that in many of the places where it might occur to you to carry a gun aboard, you're not allowed to (see sidebar). Moreover, on the bottom line, and despite blood-chilling tales of piracy, the truth is that, statistically just as with flying you're more likely to be harmed driving to the dock than on board your boat. Instead of carrying a gun, why not simply avoid trouble spots? In large cities, do you search out the high-crime areas?
When the goal is pleasure boating, why voyage to a locale where you must stand watch with a firearm? There are plenty of safe havens boasting good harbors, nice beaches and fine dining. It's wonderful to anchor out in fact, far too few people do it these days. But, if you're in some questionable backwater, head for a marina and sleep soundly. Guns can backfire.
Consider the following scenario. It's two a.m. and you're awakened by the sound of footsteps on deck. Groggy, perhaps a little tipsy from a few drinks at the yacht club, you reach under the pillow for your Glock 9mm You see a brute of a man back-lit in the companionway entrance. His tone of voice is angry; he's swearing a blue streak. Safety off. Without warning,the figure seems to lunge toward you. You squeeze the trigger time after time, emptying the magazine. The figure drops to the deck. You walk up to the fallen figure, kick it, check for a pulse and make a horrifying discovery. You've just killed an otherwise harmless drunk who mistakenly stumbled onto the wrong boat.
Or maybe you're making a midnight run to the islands, taking advantage of the calm seas and timing landfall for daybreak so you don't have to enter an unfamiliar port in the dark. Out of the night you hear another boat. It's closing range quickly. A searchlight illuminates your cockpit, burning your visual purple to a crisp. Night vision gone, you see only shadows as the boat pulls alongside. On deck you see men cloaked in black. They're armed with submachineguns and their intent seems hostile. Who are these guys? Heart in your throat, you grab your trusty stainless steel Mini 14 and commence firing. Not surprisingly, they return fire. This is a battle you're destined to loose. The commando-garbed USCG or US Customs team you've engaged is highly trained for this exact situation. By opening fire you've painted yourself as a perpetrator. You, your wife and kids don't stand a chance. Too bad you didn't realize they were the good guys. Too bad they were badge-happy and didn't stand off 100 meters and identify themselves as they should have. Anyway, you lose.
In this final scenario a wild-eyed stranger hops from the dock onto your boat out a long-barreled pistol. It looks like a .44 Magnum, the most powerful handgun in the world (except for the Casul revolver). Hammer cocked, the loon demands all our big-buck electronics gear, or you die. Just like that. Because you have a handgun of your own in the galley drawer, you reach for it. And, somehow, you get off the first shot, although this is highly unlikely. He's lying on the deck,dead. Your first kill. On prime-time TV it doesn't look so bad, but in the real world, killing another human being, no matter what the motive, is tragic and a supremely unsatisfying emotion. Unless you're a sociopath, you're going to need counseling to get through the guilt and depression that are sure to follow. It will cost more than what the electronics were worth. The moral of these stories is that in every situation you would have been better off without a gun. However, if you do decide bring a gun on board, you must be prepared to deal with the legal and emotional repercussions. And if you do decide to include a gun in among your provisions, be sure to seek competent firearms instruction. It's not sufficient that in your youth you fired expert with the M-14 during boot camp. Get current training. In states that issue concealed weapons permits, some sheriffs' departments offer basic handgun instruction, which should include a recital of the litany of legal ramifications that pertain to firing a weapon in self-defense.
One of the most important lessons is to never aim a gun at anyone you don't intend to shoot, and never shoot unless you intend to kill. Also, invest in a trigger lock. If, for some reason, you can't be dissuaded from having a gun aboard your boat, what's the best firearm to have: a pistol, a shotgun or a rifle?
Some experts say a flare launcher is plenty (they don't call them guns anymore). It's entirely legal (in fact required in certain circumstances) and relatively non-threatening to law enforcement and customs types. But is it effective weaponry, or merely a placebo? As a last ditch weapon it might do some good. Its only real value would be at a range close enough to fire the burning wad of hell into a bad guy's belly. But if he's armed, he's not going to entertain such a movie-goer's fantasy. If you fire a flare gun, er, a launcher, the bad guy's response will likely be bullets from a real gun. If this is your choice, however, consider the larger-bore 25-mm models.
They pack more wallop for self-defense and they also shoot flares higher if you're ever in need of rescue. We're back to square one: Firearms and threat assessment. Most people carry weapons because they have some image of mayhem that they want to protect themselves against regardless of how far-fetched that image may be. Just how do you envision yourself doing battle? At a distance, or up close and personal as a boarding party is legging it over the rail?
Incidentally, the best defense is always avoidance. If you believe you are in danger of attack, get on the radio. Transmit a Mayday. Fire off a flurry of distress flares. Open the throttle wide. Steer a straight course. In a chase, a handgun's range is too short to be effective. In port, its bullets are likely to pass clean through a bulkhead and inadvertently kill or wound an innocent soul in the next boat. A shotgun is also worthless at sea, except against a boarding party where a blast of double-ought buckshot will wreak havoc.In port, bird shot will stop an intruder while minimizing your chances of harming a slip mate.
If you return fire with a bolt-action rifle, figure on an effective range of 500- to 1,000-meters depending on its caliber and sights. Then again, you're on a bobbing deck and aiming at another craft that's also pitching and rolling. When range closes to 100 to 200 yards they'll be easier to hit, but so will you. When under attack, aim for command and control: The helm station. If that's not effective, try to knock out the engines. When they're dead in the water they're much easier to outrun. Don't forget to consider windage and elevation.
Ultimately, you'd be better off with a semi-automatic rifle, sometimes mistakenly called an assault rifle. Semi-automatic AK-47s are readily available and relatively cheap. But magazine changes are clumsy even with dry hands, and its reliability under adverse conditions is far from stellar. In the AK-47's defense, the cartridge is effective against pirates and inanimate objects. The M-16, much improved since Vietnam, is reliable and magazine changes are easy. The problem for marine use is its puny .22-caliber bullet. Effective on human targets, the 55 grain bullet is not at up to the task of disabling a marine engine. Superior to both are semi-automatic battle rifles like the Belgian FAL or the CETME/G1 variations. Chambered in 7.62 NATO/.308 Winchester these weapons are particularly effective at long range and can really chew up an engine block, especially when the magazine is loaded with armor-piercing bullets. The 7.62 cartridge is the same round fired in the M-60 machine-gun.
Even better than yet an AK47 or an FAL would be the Barret semiautomatic or bolt gun. Both models are chambered for the .50 caliber Browning machine-gun cartridge with a 5000 yard effective range. That's more than a mile. FBI SWAT teams and US Navy Seals use these potent weapons to knock down concrete walls in order to expose snipers hiding behind them. Odds are good that firing a .50 BMG round smack through the helm station might cause pirates to retreat.
The ultimate in Q-boat weaponry would be a 25-mm deck mount. This chain-drive cannon is quite literally powerful enough to shoot down a MiG fighter. You'll need a destructive-device permit from the ATF. Predictably, ammo is expensive. The deck must be reinforced to stand up to the strain of recoil. On cored decks it's important to seal the mounting holes so water doesn't migrate and cause de-lamination.
Yes, we're joking. Obviously, a 25-mm cannon or even a .50 caliber machinegun has no place on a pleasurecraft. The silliness is meant to illustrate a point. It's easy to get in an arm's race with a nonexistent threat. Better than a weapon for security is a good alarm system and a bright light. 100 years ago Joshua Slocum put tacks on deck. As veteran cruiser Bruce Van Sant, a cruiser/liveaboard for more than 20 years, says in The Thornless Path to Windward, that an impulsive resort to a firearm is invitation to tragedy. Probably yours. For most of us, the biggest danger we face on the water is the and incompetent boater dragging anchor or running our own boat aground.
Timothy Banse has published boating articles in Popular Mechanics, Motor Boating, Yachting, Mar y Vela and many other magazines and newspapers from around the world.