Guns and cruising


_DSC5308“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.

48 Responses

  1. Well said. Exactly the way we feel also. When we were in Mexico, we always felt safer than in the states. Same with Belize. If you get caught with a single bullet in your possession in Belize, a good chance you will be in Hattieville prison. Never once did we feel personally threatened in Mexico, Belize or Jamaica.

  2. Total agreement – Mexico felt very safe and I did a lot of walking by myself daylight and nighttime. Just like in the US, you stay away from known hot spots. Honestly – how many people in the US let their kids out of the fenced back yard??? Josh’s backyard was all of La Cruz Mexico, and whole atolls in the S Pacific. We didn’t/don’t have guns, never felt like we needed them. We found that if we were friendly, we were treated in a friendly manner. Frankly I worry more about the weather than I do pirates or personal safety while we are cruising. Certainly safer than commuting every day – LOL

  3. “The best way to be shot by a gun is to have one on board” is an absurd statement. It’s simply untrue. That little US domestic statistic comes from drug dealers in illegal possession of firearms shooting one another and being counted as someone who “had a gun in the home” and was shot.

    That said, the clear reason not to have firearms on board is the hassle. It’s simply far too odious to try and cross borders with firearms. Even on expeditions, just use your guides’. It’s far simpler. The world is just too complicated these days.

    1. Right you are gipper. It is always misuse of weapons in the home. Either someone did not teach the children properly, or did not properly secure them, or both. Or someone who could not control their temper misused the weapon, and of course that is the mental defect issue.

    2. We know of one boat and have heard of others (Panama and Caribbean) where the cruisers were shot with their own weapon. The boat we know of the intruders were unarmed but when the caotain went below to get his gun the took it from him and killed him in front of his wife. We carried a gun in year one and then sold it. Have never found the need to have one in almost 24 years.

  4. Amen to your post, Behan. Right on point. I like guns, but would never, ever have them on my boat. Bad, bad idea.

    People need to read the insights of the Bumfuzzle folks.

    I am always shocked at the travelers who bad mouth the very people they are visiting. Fear of the unknown is an excellent reason to stay home. Especially when ignorance is involved. We are all better off if the fearful and distrusting did so.

  5. Great post. It always make us cringe when we tell people that we spent a lot of time cruising South and Central America and they immediately follow with the guns question. While the ever increasing amount of poverty and violence that you might encounter out there is distressing, what bothers us even more is the amount of paranoia that we have encountered back in the States. In the past 11 years the only things we’ve had stolen are a 1/2 quart of oil and a fishing net. We’ve had scary encounters with boats as well, but have all thankfully turned out to be friendly fishermen. Fair winds!

  6. What are the statistics? How many guns do people in the US own? How many get shot there? Compared to other countries with stricter gun laws?
    What happens if you have a gun onboard and you use it and happen to kill someone? In another country than your own? Not only will you be prosecuted, but can you live with that consious, that you have taken someones life, or injured them? What gives you that right?
    I don’t believe in guns anywhere. Violence create violence.

  7. We had to transport our shotguns (we like skeet and trap shooting) in our boat when we moved from the US to Ireland via Canada as the container company would not transport any weapons. In Canada, we had to turn them over to the customs police, who came to our boat after we checked in and took possession. They checked our vessel for any contraband and were very nice about it all. Even admired our guns and told me the value of mine was far higher than I expected. When we were checking out, they drove half way across the country to return our guns to us (they loved the road trip). They saw us off and wished us fair winds. Basically, they made sure we left as we said we were going to.

    BTW, they were also the only ones in all the countries we visited who scanned our cat’s chip.

    When we arrived in Ireland, we had to surrender our guns to the local gun merchant who handles licensing, which is very strict in Ireland. It took months to get them cleared and licensed.

    We would never carry weapons aboard for protection. As a good friend who was an undercover officer and SWAT team member said, “The critical mistake civilians make is first saying ‘stop or I’ll shoot’. That gives the criminals the chance to shoot first.” If you can’t answer the question, “Will I be able to shoot another human being first?” then you shouldn’t carry a weapon.

  8. We Europeans believe that USA is one of the most dangerous places on Earth. Just compare the crime statistic USA vs. Europe. 😉

    1. I tend to agree with you Tobias. I’ve felt more concerned for our everyday safety back here in the USA than just about anywhere we’ve traveled over last 8+ years.

  9. Our extensive experience living and traveling abroad mirrors your own. Carrying guns is not nececessary and asking for trouble. Right on!

    Rob & Carol

  10. Years ago, friends of our heading thru the Gulf of Aden were worried about the threat of pirates. So, rather than arm themselves, they put together what they called “pirate packs”, packages containing sugar, tea, cigarettes and coloured pencils. Then whenever they were approached by a local boat, they would smile, throw them a “pirate pack” wave and sail on. In all cases, this was met by a look of confusion followed by a smile and a wave as the locals opened their package. To this day they do not know if these were pirates or simply fishermen but the simple act of giving rather than guns gave them safe passage.

    1. Interesting! I think it’s naive to think one of these would shift malign intent, but it’s a great way to be a good ambassador on the ocean. I really, really love that aspect. When we’ve had this kind of close encounter, grabbing whatever’s on hand (package of cookies, juice / soda) served. Being prepared for it, sweet!

  11. Agree with the ex Green Beret. If things turn ugly a gun will only raise the stakes for all concerned. Staying safe, as you say, involves not doing foolish things.

  12. Well done Behan. And I think you are completely correct. I really believe in the second amendment but, like your Colonel friend said, it’s not as easy as it seems to know when to employ it. I worry that having a gun is more likely to escalate a situation and people are likely to have a different attitude to a situation if they think they have deadly force available to back them up. Far better to have an attitude immediately built to diffuse a situation. I have to believe that it is extremely rare to encounter someone bent on both theft and murder. And a lot of that risk can be avoided with, as you have described, making yourself aware of the trouble spots.

    I’d also be very concerned about getting in trouble with all the various laws in places you travel (or with officials’ “interpretations” of those laws). No thanks.

    You’re bound to get some negative remarks but I think you are right to speak up on this issue.

    1. Thanks Chuck. I hear you on the second amendment, although I think it needs adapting to the 21st century. Agreed re: someone bent on theft *and* murder. But bring out a gun, and you just put murder into the equation.

      1. I firmly believe, and so does the supreme court for that matter, that the intent of the second amendment was not for the purpose of protection, but rather to insure that the government fears the people and not the people fearing the government. Once you realize the historical importance of that in the context of the founding fathers, it is difficult to argue against their logic as it is applied today.

        1. Jack, for some reason my blog platform decided to classify this comment, and your prior one about searching, as spam – in case you were wondering why they didn’t appear on the site. I’ve only just found them in the spam folder. That said, like Walter, your feedback here isn’t relevant to the topic of the post: US rights aren’t the question, but the practicalities/realities of guns and cruising are.

          1. Yes, but conversation among cruisers mixed Brits and Sepos, is that them Yanks are just gun crazy cowboys…and there is just so much more to the discussion and core difference in thinking and upbringing. At least for those of us from places outside SF. But it is your blog.

  13. My feeling is that I’d rather have a gun and not need it than need one and not have it.

    I believe you’ll find that more cruisers have weapons onboard than you might think and never shared the information with you. I know we didn’t share that info with you. That said, if you didn’t grow-up with guns, I wouldn’t expect someone to suddenly decide that they should carry a weapon aboard their boat. I certainly could not see either you or Jamie stepping on deck with an AK47 and expect to be taken seriously.

      1. The only reason anyone would ever search your boat for weapons is if they had information suggesting they would find them. The most likely source of that information would come from sharing it with other cruisers.

        Loose lips and ships.

  14. No one outside the US can understand why Americans want to own guns. Here in New Zealand, even the police don’t carry them.

    1. I agree with you, Rose, on the external view on guns in the US. Interestingly, anecdotal round-the-cockpit sundowner conversations suggest there are at least as many European boats with guns. No data (who’s telling the truth on that count anyway?).

  15. I’m a huge gun nut, many years spent in the US Marine Corps, but I totally agree with you. For a few simple reasons you mentioned, namely the hassle, but as someone else said other countries are not so forgiving of you shooting someone even if they were illegally boarding. In my experience around Malaysia, the Philippines, and the south Pacific Islands bargaining is a much better option. 99% of the time there is no threat at all, and the other 1% can usually be handled by letting them have a thing or two and be on their way, diesel always seems to be a winner to give away. At home in the States I handle business differently, someone would be in a world of hurt if they wandered into my home looking to take something, but on a 40′ vessel 10,000 miles from that home and friendly laws, I’ll stick with making good plans, and giving up a tank or two of fuel. That being said I won’t be sailing off the coast of Somalia or Yemen, or flashing a Rolex in PNG while buying $500 worth of food.

  16. Awesome insight as always! We cruised a while with a family that was armed and they had to deal with the hassle of reporting it to the port authorities (though it was humurous to see the local police in Luperon walking around with their shotgun). No way is it worth it. And you are spot on about doing research on where you’re headed. The nets and cruiser scuttlebut will have loads of news and opinions to wade through and then go with the ‘gut check’. Loads of people told us to stay away from VZ. Even went to a ‘safety seminar’ at a Grenada cruiser hang out. When the discussion very quickly devolved into guns and how to make molotiv cocktalls we knew we’d never travel with that crowd. So we listened to and studied the positive reports and avoided the very obvious and easy to learn about trouble spots. Would up absolutley loving the parts of VZ we went to. The same can be said for Columbia, Guatemala, the reefs off Nicaragua and Honduras, and on and on!

  17. I agree with you, we’ve been living aboard our catamaran Makana for over 11 years, cruising from South Africa to Brazil, Caribbean, Cuba, Bahamas and the US east coast, with us considering south Florida to be the most “dangerous” area we’ve encountered. We avoid “hot spots” which we hear about over the coconut wireless. Other than our two flair pistols aboard Makana we don’t carry any guns, we do keep a can of high power wasp and hornet spray inside the entry door as well as pepper spray which I carry when I go on bike rides more so for dogs than people as I’ve been bitten in the past. We’ve found that a positive outlook and respect for others goes much further than a bullet.

  18. Any opinions regarding marine carry exclusively here in the states? As a kid back in the ’60’s cruising with my family down east we carried a couple of .22 Winchesters for plinking (.22 shorts)… lot of fun. Competition was intense trying to hit a mayonnaise jar towing astern… also relieved the monotony of a clock-calm day at sea. Dad was Range Safety Officer and all was conducted under his supervision. Am sure the thought of armed self-defence or any need for it never entered my dad’s mind. Alas, politics & perceptions have changed a tad.

  19. Behan – don’t watch the movie “Dead Calm”… you will want a gun or two after seeing it! Terrifying movie. 🙂

  20. Just for your consideration on the topic:

    Alexander Hamilton said, “The best we can hope for concerning the people at large is that they be properly armed,” adding later, “If the representatives of the people betray their constituents, there is then no recourse left but in the exertion of that original right of self-defense which is paramount to all positive forms of government.” What institution was Hamilton referring to when he said “the representatives of the people”?

    Thomas Jefferson: “What country can preserve its liberties if their rulers are not warned from time to time that their people preserve the spirit of resistance? Let them take arms.” Who are the rulers Jefferson had in mind?

    James Madison, the “Father of the Constitution,” said, “(The Constitution preserves) the advantage of being armed, which the Americans possess over the people of almost every other nation … (where) the governments are afraid to trust the people with arms.”

    George Mason, author of the Virginia Bill of Rights, which served as inspiration for the U.S. Constitution’s Bill of Rights, said, “To disarm the people — that was the best and most effectual way to enslave them,” later saying, “I ask, sir, what is the militia? It is the whole people, except for a few public officials.”

    Richard Henry Lee said, “To preserve liberty, it is essential that the whole body of the people always possess arms, and be taught alike, especially when young, how to use them.”

    Even liberal voices of old, though not as old as Thomas Jefferson, could see the original intent of the language. This quote is from Vice President Hubert Humphrey, who under Lyndon B. Johnson said : “Certainly, one of the chief guarantees of freedom under any government, no matter how popular and respected, is the right of the citizen to keep and bear arms. … The right of the citizen to bear arms is just one guarantee against arbitrary government, one more safeguard against the tyranny which now appears remote in America but which historically has proven to be always possible.”

    1. I always appreciate thoughtful input for consideration, thanks Walter! I do think your input has missed the point of this post. This post is not about the rights for gun ownership/possession in the US, it’s about the practicality of having a gun on a cruising boat.

    2. Right you are, Behan. Walter is correct about the issues within the borders of the United States (or the Republic), but it has no bearing outside those borders. But there is a deeper misunderstanding of the issues in today’s society. If people were willing back then to stand up to their government by bearing arms, they are no longer willing to do that anyway. Even the so-called militias of today have no interest, and indeed no power, to make any changes as implied by the statements of our founding fathers.

      To take something that isn’t even applicable today and apply it outside the borders of its focus is wrong thinking, and this wrong thinking is why there are so many US citizens viewing others as undeserving and not as valuable as themselves, and leads them to think everywhere else is unsafe. And that thought process is only one reason why guns have no business on vessels headed outside US waters.

      People going outside our borders need to practice the old adage “Don’t be certain, be curious”. We have no reference as to what others are thinking, and if anything, we need to be more cognizant of how we are viewed by others in the world. We don’t make friends by starting a standoff with the poor of the world, but by inviting them in for a cool drink and friendship. Anyone who can afford a sailing vessel, can afford a few inexpensive gifts for poor friends. “A soft answer turns away wrath”.

  21. great post, Behan. Back in Alaska, where hunting is a big part of our life, we’re definitely Armed and Liberal. Nine guns, if memory serves. But when we sailed away we thought about bringing one with us for not a second.

    Guns are an intelligence test. And way too many gun owners fail the test.

  22. I agree, living in Delta Junction my house is filled with guns, never leave the house without one… Never even occurred to me to take one on our boat though.

  23. I tend to deflect inquiries such as, …“What kind of guns do you have on board?”…with a somewhat glib response. Especially since it was, as you put it, …Loaded with assumptions from someone who doesn’t know us, and who has no intention of traveling the way we do.
    In this instance I would likely tell the guy: Only one gun sir. It is a 60 caliber machine gun mounted on top of my bimini. Anything that gets within a hundred yards of me, I just blow out of the water. Of course, I do have to be careful to not get carried away and mow my mast in half!
    This either ends the conversation or, we change the subject.
    I have traveled in some dangerous climes, and yet I leave firearms at home.

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