25 Apr

Someone robbed my boat last night.

I woke up at about 1:30am because I heard noises.  Someone was approaching the V-berth.  I thought one of the girls must be coming to see me – nighttime visits are not unheard of around here.  I registered that whoever it was had a flashlight, which was odd, but not impossible.
“Honey?  Are you okay out there?” I called.
Scuffle, scuffle.
As the intruder turned and started pounding up the companionway, I came fully awake and realized what was happening.  And I started screaming my head off.
“Help!  Help!  There is someone on my boat!  Please help me!”  I jumped out of my hatch and kept screaming as the man raced away down the dock.  The otherwise silent, still dock.

Nobody came.

I called the police.  I stood on deck, trying to make my voice stop shaking, trying to summon French vocabulary that I never use – to steal, to flee.

A neighbour appeared.  He and his wife heard me, and came to help.  They made me tea and sat with me while I waited for the police.  He called the marina security office, and helped me talk to the guard.  And I sat in the cockpit and shook.

I made a list of all of the cards in my wallet.  I called the bank to cancel everything.  I prayed that Skype wouldn’t drop my connection until I was done.

It was 3am when I finished, and I felt like I was never going to sleep again.  But, scared or not, I couldn’t just surf the internet all night.  I had to try to sleep.

Weak batteries be damned, I turned on all the lights before heading back to bed.  As though someone were still hiding in the corner.  And there, lo and behold, was my wallet, abandoned in the middle of the salon table.  All of the cash and change was gone, but everything else remained – credit cards, baby pictures, scrawled notes to myself.  And I started to laugh a little.  Of course, now that I had cancelled everything, the wallet was there all along.

Lights out.  Well, most lights out.  I went to bed with a flashlight in my hand and the 32V light burning above my bed.  Eventually I slept.  Lightly, jumping at every noise.  But it was something.

This morning I went around to talk to my neighbours.  Everyone was shocked and upset.  And 3/4 boats had woken to a noise, but when it didn’t continue, they chalked it up to rowdy people and went back to sleep.  No one else had anything missing.

This is our third brush with crime on our cruising adventure.  The second time, I had my bag stolen at the beach in Cartagena.  And the first event happened only days after we bought Papillon: the outboard motor was stolen off the back deck in Florida.  So.  Although onlookers express the greatest fears for our safety when we visit developing nations, I see that we have only had issues in urban, fairly first world environments.  Interesting.

So let’s talk reactions.  I have lived a very lucky life: this is my first real brush with scary crime.  And you never know how you are going to react to a situation until it happens.

My first reaction is that I am grateful the whole thing went down the way it did.  This… this… I’m having trouble choosing a family-friendly term here, so let’s use “thief” and you can replace that as you like.  This thief didn’t lay a finger on me or my girls.  That is 100% all I care about.  And it is frankly what scares me the most – this thief was on my boat while I was sleeping, walking around my personal space and poking through my stuff.  If things had gone differently, would I have been able to scream long and loud enough for someone to take the noise seriously?  I felt safe in the marina with neighbours a few feet away.  Now I feel like I might as well be on a thousand acres all alone.  But back to gratitude: this was the best possible outcome.  Yes, I lost some money, but nobody got hurt.  Scared, but not hurt.

So what do I do now?  What will I change?  What should I do to be safe?  More accurately, what should I do to feel safe?  Because I think safety is pretty much an illusion.  Yes, you do your best, but sometimes that tweaker is going to grab your cash.  That is the hard reality of life.

Back in the Caribbean, we came across a number of boats with guns aboard.  People hung signs from the companionway like: This boat protected by a .357 Magnum.  Now that I’ve been robbed, now that I’ve had my space violated, I have to say: I still don’t want a gun aboard.  Leaving aside the constant hassle gun owners have with Customs, what would a gun have done for me last night?  When I woke up, I thought it was one of my kids.  To shoot this thief, I would had to have the gun right beside me and ready to go the moment I woke up on spec that something bad was going on.  And if he had had more sinister motives and had snuck up on me instead of rooting through my purse, could I possibly have woken up, fully understood and assessed the situation in that millisecond, put that gun in my hand and used it in time?  No.  I still don’t think guns are worth the risk to my family.

Now I have to take a breath and regroup.  Decide how to balance reasonable protection versus fear.  Choose how best to fulfill my responsibilities to my kids.  Maybe I’ll start with a motion detector hooked up to a light or a siren – something to scare your casual thief away.  I’ve already turned down the offer of a guard dog for a few nights.  And I’ll think about what really needs to be done when my head is clearer.

But right now, I just want some sleep.


  1. Guy Madison

    Interesting… some people on the HR forum have electrified their lifelines, for $100 you can buy a 12v cattle fence. Its powered by 12v.. the output is much more electrifying.

  2. Ben Watson

    Perhaps something as simple as a mosquito mesh cover over the companion way. Connect the cover by magnet to a light switch, therefore when the cover is removed/disturbed the light(s)/ alarm would turn on. Could probably be jerry rigged in a few minutes using parts on the boat and a magnetic reed switch.

  3. Amy Schaefer

    Andy, we’ve thought about putting bars in – so practical, because it means you still get the wind through the boat. Of course, it always fell down the priority list. And lights are always a good plan.

    My favorite suggestion so far has been to keep an air horn beside the bed. People might ignore my yells, but an air horn is going to be harder to dismiss as background noise.

  4. Andy

    That’s awful! So sorry! I once saw a boat cruising the Caribbean that had fabricated some simple burglar bars for their companionway, it unlatched easily from the inside. Weapons and flares might be handy but it would be best to keep the bad guys out in the first place!

    safe travels

  5. Amy Schaefer

    Thanks, everyone. I’ve had a good night’s sleep now, and am feeling better about the whole thing. The neighbours put me to bed with a VHF in my hand, two lights on deck, and an alarm rigged up. They may not have heard me right away when the thief was here, but cruisers do care.

    Chris, I like your idea of solar lights. I’ll see where I can find something like that around here.

    JB, you aren’t the only one who suggested a trap of that sort. Other popular ideas were wine bottles and pots – anything that would make a clatter. My only hesitation with the teak & tacks is that I wonder what I would do if there were a fire or we had to make any other sort of emergency exit in the night. But I can certainly see the appeal.

  6. JB

    Glad to read that everything ended well and that your priorities are straight, “things are things” and can be replaced.

    Like you, the issue for me isn’t the response once the trespass has begun and the thief is aboard the boat, but the fact that you didm’t realize it until it was too late, until they were feet from you while you slept. Personally, I like Joshua Slocum’s and have adapted a little. Instead of laying tacks out on deck at night, I have a remnant of Lonseal teak and holly flooring with long tacks pushed through it. At night, I simply unroll it across the deck of my cockpit; in the morning I roll it back up and sheath the barbs safely inside. I also like the idea of stringing fishhooks along the rails…

    Either trick would, hopefully, wake me and allow me to grab a laser flare, a spotlight, and/or air horn. Instead of a gun or any other weapon, always keep a fire extinguisher handy. I will let you use your own imagination on that one, but I am sure a face full of high-pressured chemicals, followed up with a steel tube rammed north of the knees would go a long way in asking an intruder to kindly egress the boat.

    Best of everything!

  7. Michael Smith

    Scary story. Glad it turned out as well as it did. But I’m with you on the firearm issue; more risk than value. Hope you can sleep soon (and get the credit cards re-sorted.)

  8. Chris Burnham

    Things like this can help to remind you of what is really important. Stuff is just stuff, and family are people and cannot be replaced. I think you are right on about the gun issue, as it takes a few seconds to really wake up and you are very likely to make bad decisions when you are half asleep. Firearms mixed with bad decisions is one sure recipe for disaster.I’m not sure if a motion detector would work well on a boat but there are alarm systems that work on laser beams and such, and these are a whole lot cheaper than you’d think nowadays. My suggestion would be for more light at night. A lit boat is going to be less of a target than a dark one regardless of where it is berthed. They make standalone solar powered lights that would work well without killing your battery bank, and some of these even have motion detectors controlling them. Again, not too sure how well that would work in your application but you could try it and see. Dogs command some real respect from criminals but come with their own set of problems, like finding a vet when you need one. Only you really know your boat, family, situation, and inclinations, so only you can decide what it right for you. I hope you find a solution that works for you.

  9. Behan - s/v Totem

    Amy, that’s horrible. I’m so glad you and your girls are OK- that really is 100% the main thing. You’re good to focus on the outcome, but the almost total lack of help is more disturbing to me than the petty theft. You’re head out of your hatch, in a marina full of liveaboards (right?), screaming your head off, and… finally someone person came? I’ve got words just as choice for them as I do for your thief.

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