Guns and cruising

25 Jan


“What kind of guns do you have on board?” This was the opening question from a new acquaintance at a cocktail party. Loaded with assumptions from someone who doesn’t know us, and who has no intention of traveling the way we do. Walking down the dock the other day, a woman was overheard talking about practicing at the range because they were going to Mexico, and she’d need her gun there. It’s a big scary world out there, gotta protect yourself!

Or…it isn’t, and you just have to ditch the paranoia and think about it a little. The reality of our personal safety risks as cruisers is out of scale with those perceptions. But I guess in the “if it bleeds, it leads” media, a lot of people are lead to believe that the world outside the US borders is a dangerous place. It’s just not right. With only a couple of exceptions, I’ve felt safer outside the USA during our years of travels than I do back at home. The scariest moment in our eight years of cruising came in California and had nothing to do with malicious intent…but that’s another story. What I wish the guy at the cocktail party had asked is “how do you stay safe?” This is something we think about all the time! Besides a healthy appreciation for our own lives, we carry our most precious cargo on board – our three kids. Any impression that we are cavalier about safety is misplaced.

Piracy hotspots are well known and easy to avoid. Our encounters at sea are so minimal they’re almost not worth mentioning. We were scouted in the South China Sea, a definite hotspot, but only for commercial vessels. There was a fishing boat in Sri Lanka that followed us for an entire day. We know it was a bunch of fishermen, and MAYBE it could have spun into something more than that, but that’s pure speculation. When the sun got low and they were still tailing us, we radioed our buddy boat and they basically beelined to our position… the fishermen left. (FWIW, these same guys traded us gorgeous fish!)


Just countries get an unwarranted bad reputation; others simply need to be understood as more complex than just “bad” in general. O on couple of times we’ve chosen to travel in places that were so-called “dangerous” after our research concluded we’d be able to visit with minimal security risks. Papua New Guinea is one of those countries with a terrible reputation. It can be dangerous and has some crazy violent crime, just like the USA. But with a little bit of research, and understanding both where and why crime occurs, we made a plan to avoid problems and spent an unforgettable three months with few concerns. We had basic rules: we mapped locations with positive first-hand reports (I wrote about it here), we avoided places that were trouble hotspots (unique dynamics to PNG with extraction industries for mineral/timber/fish, or population centers), and we always trusted our gut: if a place didn’t feel right, we moved on.

Mexico is a more familiar for most Americans, like the woman down the dock who thought she’d need to arm herself. I chalk this up to lack of understanding and media influence. Staying safe in Mexico mostly comes down to “don’t be stupid” (walk around Tijuana drunk at 2am? Involved in drug trade of any kind?). We paid attention to the coconut telegraph and local reputations (watch your dinghy in Mazatlán, and your outboard in Barra.). Pretty sure most cruisers who have been to Mexico would agree with me: we feel safer there than we do in the US by a wide margin!


Petty theft happens. If you think disguising your outboard to look beat up and old will make it less appealing, think again. It’s an outboard. Our US flag was probably stolen off the back of the boat in Seychelles, but we’re not even positive that was deliberate vs slippery line and knots coming undone. Our horseshoe was taken off the back of the boat in Labuan, Malaysia…probably. I think it was secure? Know the reputation of places you go, what to do or not do, and then be open. We’ve also noticed that folks who assume people are out to get them until proven otherwise are more likely to have problems with petty theft. There’s no statistical significance to the observation, but something demonstrated often enough.

With a return to the Caribbean ahead, we have a lot to learn about staying safe. Once again, it’s an area with risks to learn about and decide how to approach. Should we put bars across the hatches? Are there destinations to rule out? There’s a lot to figure out, but we’ll do our best, and we sure don’t think we’re safer by staying at home.


Back to the question we had at that cocktail party about how many guns are on Totem. Diplomatic me wants to say that guns on board are a personal choice and your choice is fine, but I’m not feeling very diplomatic. Guns aboard are a bad idea for a pile or reasons. Had the German boat recently boarded in the Philippines not had guns aboard, the woman aboard would probably still be alive. So would Sir Peter Blake.

While cruising in Mexico, we met a former green beret colonel out cruising with his family. His training is extensive, and his opinion- which I respect- was that the training needed for a gun on board is WAY outside the realm of the typical cruiser. It’s not just about going to the range, and how to handle it, but the microdecisions about when to use it. Even with all of his training, he felt he was safer without a gun on board than with one.

Aside from the fact that the best way to be shot by a gun aboard is to have a gun aboard, it’s a hassle. You have to declare them on entry in a new country. That country will almost certainly take them for you until you clear out, and your port of entry and intended port of clearance could be a long distance apart. Lying and hiding guns? Laws vary of course, but can mean incarceration or death if they’re found! Go ahead, cowboy. If someone is determined to target us and to take our stuff, I’d rather just let them take it than risk greater personal injury to my kids or myself.

This article was syndicated from Sailing Totem


  1. Roz Avel

    interesting article from a former British Policeman here
    As for me, five years live-aboard (but the worst place I’ve ever been was Morocco, not talking about Corsica :) ). I personally know a guy who had a great experience of the Moroccan prisons, just because he “forgot” to tell the custom guys about his weapons. I prefer taking the risk to get in touch with pirates… Ah, just in case, I’m living in Ivory Coast right now, and sailing every weekend among fishermen on the Ebrie Lagoon, near Abidjan. No problem.

  2. Greg G

    The article is insightful and interesting. I am personally a gun advocate and have been extensively trained in their use. I carry one every day without exception and fortunately have never been required to use it. My goal is to do a circumnavigation in a couple of years and I have wrestled with the idea of carrying a weapon aboard. I have not yet made up my mind.

    It is true, that if caught with even one bullet in Mexico (and most likely Mexican waters) that you will spend a long, long time in a Mexican prison and will learn to speak fluent colloquial Spanish in a very short time.

    I don’t believe any discussion or name calling here will persuade anyone one way or another. It’s much nicer to be civil and have a thoughtful discussion.

  3. Jamie Gifford

    Everyone’s entitle to their own opinion, and this is a touchy subject only topped by discussion of the best anchor. But a few of the comments warrant a reply.

    Kevin Quinn – there is a difference between “liberal college” and liberal arts college. Education would teach you this. The college in Connecticut that Behan went to, is the same that “uber” conservative press secretary Sean Spicer went to. A college with diverse alumni, crazy. Cruising and safety is not a political issue.

    Paul Athens – how many countries have you sailed to, to have such insight into safety while cruising? Do you imagine sitting in the cockpit, armed 24/7 to “thwart theft”? Pffff. Now that is naive, or worse!

    Florian75 – You’re saying that only people that experienced some sort of attack have a voice? And so, people that have successfully gone without such drama for years, have nothing of value to offer? That’s like saying only people that have been in car accidents can speak of automobile safety.

    Thomas M. – when we were in the Seychelles, thugs boarded a nearby catamaran looking to steal for drug money. There was an altercation and the crew used a flare gun. It didn’t go well for anyone (fortunately injures were relatively minor). To aim and squeeze the trigger is easy, what happens next may not be – which is the whole point that our green beret friend made. And I’m not saying that I wouldn’t consider a flare gun if boarded, but it’s complicated.

    Regarding the comments about guns and cruising in US. We’ve cruised the west coast from the border with Canada down to the border with Mexico; and most of the east coast (Mass. to Florida) – no guns. We have more safety concerns in the US, than we did in most of the countries we’ve traveled to. We take precautions on Totem and on land. Doesn’t guarantee anything, but neither does a gun.

  4. Rick Dieterich

    For those of us who do want to carry onboard, I would like to see an article about the legalities of this in the US and abroad. The title of this article led me to believe that was what this would be about.

  5. George s.Gallagher

    Bear spray and screech alarms for doors. I have been a retailer for 40 years and a sailor for 30. Held up four times, taken outside at gunpoint twice. Not once would I have wanted a gun. Average length of a holdup 30sec.and only 2% turn violent and many that are armed get shot by their own gun. Several charters in the BVI and Windwards never felt threatened. But the rangers in the Apostle Islands carry Glochs.

  6. Don Richards

    To carry a gun or not on a sailboat while cruising is a difficult question and is really up to the sailor. I have heard that in an emergency one has an average of four seconds to get their gun and have it ready, on a boat not sure if this applies; an average means some have no time at all and others have ample time. Having a gun on board and when to use it is a difficult question because you don’t know the circumstances yet. Some people just should not carry a gun because they would be a danger to themselves and other innocent people. I grew up hunting and fishing with guns around all the time, but I have never felt it necessary to carry a gun even on a boat. I worked with a guy years ago that would come in most Monday mornings all beat up because of the bars he hung out in; he needed to select his bars more carefully; likewise, smart decisions while cruising would eliminate most if not all threats. As much as I am for defending yourself and your stuff, I definitely see the merit to selecting when and where you go while cruising as opposed to carrying a gun and creating unneeded danger for yourself and others. I definitely believe in the Second Amendment and the right to bear arms but it might be better to be smart than armed, every situation is different and you may be damned if you do and damned if you don’t, God only knows…. Say your prayers and be as careful as you can, and enjoy your cruise. Don

  7. Bil

    Having lived for 20 years in the US Virgin Islands and now living in the PNW I have a few thoughts about this subject. I have been trained and carried a weapon for many decades while employed. In all my boating experience I have never felt the need for a gun or wished I had one with me.

    When asked about guns by non-law enforcement my usual reply is that once you fire the bullet there is no way to bring it back. And 99% of people DO NOT have the training to make the right decision in the heat of the moment. Is anything on your boat worth killing or gettingBill killed for? Yes they have no right to steal from you and yes it pissess you off, but is it worth a life? Even a worthless life? Be sure you can live with the results of your decision, whatever it is.

  8. Buzz Mitchell

    I launched my 43′ tri Mantra in 1971 and have had several years of sailing. This is a question that has always been asked. I have carried a rifle aboard on some trips not as much for protection from bandits as for putting a person out of their misery if seriously injured by a shark, dismasting or what ever. I agree with this gals article and feel that the media are always the ones that make it seem dangerous because they focus on stories people will read about unfortunately. We had all our sails and line stolen the first night in Ecuador( slept thru that) and a dingy kipped in Costa Rica but for the most part no problems. I feel that if you don’t anchor by borders you are in a better position. Don’t let fear prevent you from cruising.and enjoying the company of people from other countries. I don’t think I will carry a gun in the future but as one person commented a flare gun or maybe a spear gun could help with your concerns. I believe the threat is not about injuring you as much as taking your stuff so they can sell it and live a better life.

  9. Bob H

    I understand the article but as for me, I would rather have a gun on board to defend my self than be at the mercy of some bad actors !

  10. R. Raimond Corman

    After active duty was a civilian advisor in several 3rd world hotspots, and absolutely agree with the Green Beret Col. (Ret.) cited in the article. Firearms might well be a force multiplier, but their presence is a proven escalator- just check your state when speaking to one of the paramilitary American cops v. a British Bobby, for example. The mere presence of firearms causes tension best avoided. I also liked the flare gun idea, except that smart criminals will evacuate onto your vessel… probably should flame them at a distance, but then you might torch innocent people who you just “thought” were threatening. That said, I’m preparing to retire to blue water travel after years of powerboating the inland waters of the US and Mississippi Gulf Coast, and I was wondering about the regs with respect to line guns. I have a stainless Mossberg which has served me well a couple of times on Superior. When that line absolutely positively has to make it the very first try, a line gun might be the difference between life and death. Thoughts?

  11. Paul Athens

    I think Gifford is naïve at best, relying on her instincts and the reciprocation of her good will (to thwart theft). But I agree, there are enough con’s to carrying a gun abroad to make it not worth the trouble. Although, if I had been followed by a fishing boat in Sri Lanka for an entire day, I’d be glad I had a gun on board.

    Perhaps, with US territorial waters being so much more dangerous than abroad, and with the relatively lax gun laws here, she will considering keeping a gun onboard should she cruise locally.

  12. David Goldberg

    Agree with all your points.
    Have cruised for years aboard my 34 Tartan Deja’vu with my wife,including Mexico and Panama Kuna (Guna now( islands.
    Always a smile,courteous greetings,friendly attitude are your best weapons.
    Will hate be involved on a wild west shoot out taking cover behind a one inch thick fiberglass hull.

  13. Jean Francois Mc Dermott Jr.

    Having sailed primarily in the Med, & South Atlantic – but also knowing the waters of Tahiti, Sumatra and the Persian Gulf ( Bahrain to Dubai ) I agree with everything stated by the Mrs. Gifford. The paranoia that has approached mass hysteria in our country is the sad product of years of exposure to political observations that have little basis in reality.Having lived, worked and played among the peoples of all these lands I can assuredly state that having a gun of any kind on board will be a liability with the most sever consequences. Using common sense, reading the monthly updated consular security advisories and staying on the beaten path – sailing within a group when possible and having on-board satellite coms are worth far more than the most daunting automatic weapons.

  14. Kevin Quinn

    Home town girl goes to a liberal college in Connecticut turns into a Uber Liberal and then write anti gun articles using liberal talking points like ” the best way to be shot by a gun aboard is to have a gun aboard” Who would have ever guessed that.

  15. Bob Walton

    I would like to hear Behan Gifford’s opinion on this subject regarding cruising in the US. I imagine her opinion would be the same even though the US is much more dangerous.

  16. Florian75

    The voices that matter on this subject are those sailors that have dealt with pirates and criminals intent on uninvited boarding, theft, robbery, rape, ransom, or murder. Not much credibility or “dispelled myths” in remotely tangential anecdotal stories and virtue signaling name calling.

  17. Thomas Malhiot

    The Best Defense if you really believe you need one is a Flare Gun, White practice Flares. If you land one on their boat they have less than 30 seconds to get it off, cant look at it with the Naked Eye, cant pick it up without proper gloves……

  18. Daniel N Pearson

    I live in the U.S. and very pro-gun. Now that being said had ng a gun on board and in foriwn countries is a problem. You declare a weapon and the take it you most likely will not have it returned, especially in Mexico. They have the strictest gun laws and have for years but the gun crime is out over the top and yes because of drugs. Hand guns will not stop mist of the pirates types. If you do not declare a weapon and it found by authorities you will find your self in a gray bar hotel much worse than in the in U.S. You boat may be also confiscated. Near African the pirates use fully automatic AK-47’s. So you will not have resources against those. If this bothers you stay home and to not go to Chicago with all the gangs and with strictest gun laws in the country and police refuses to do anything. As far as the Philippine kidnapping those people would have been taken any way and killed even without having a gun as they terrorists intent on making a point and get ransom money. It totally illogical and asine to believe other wise. I do understand you are anti-gun as it shows up and n your article. You are the type that say allow them to come in you boat or house and take what they will, rape and kill you. This type of people have no values or remorse.

  19. Antonio Carneiro da Cunha

    Living and sailing in Angra dos Reis – Brazil. Sailling a 35′ French sailboatoast. Planning for the first time, on 2019, sail the world. Really appreciate your thoughts, that are the same of mine. Many times, also questined from those catastrophe midia freaks. Living and sailing a “risk” area for more then a half century, with no complications – but also no guns on board. Can say that my wife and kids, students in the city of Rio de Janeiro, never heard a single firearm stampede.

  20. firstlast

    Not a cruiser currently, but have owned and sailed a variety..up to 45ft. I currently am retired and live in Mexico in the state capitol of one of the three states in the Yucatan peninsula. I take walks for up to 2 hours beginning 0000 to 0100 (No sun and less humidity) I feel free to walk anywhere. I have never felt threatened. My voting address is Las Vegas. I am very constrained as to where to walk in Vegas and occasionally am stopped by the police to explain my presence as such an early hour.

  21. Andy

    I would prefer to have a gun aboard but other than some of the Caribbean it sounds like it would be a big problem in most countries. I dont know how that lady planned to get her gun into Mexico, she might want to look that up before she finds herself on that show “Locked Up Abroad”!

  22. Tom Meshew

    Folks such as your cocktail party acquaintance may have to learn the hard way about Mexico’s policies when finding a weapon (or even a single bullet) aboard.

    Thanks for dispelling some of the myths propogated by xenophobes.

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