Murder in paradise: is cruising dangerous?

A few days ago we learned that a cruising family was attacked on their boat in Guna Yala (aka San Blas), Panama, with the tragic outcome of death aboard. We met the New Zealanders in the Bahamas in 2017: their uncommon boat (a sky-blue trawler) and friendly crew made for memorable anchorage neighbors during a brief overlap at Stocking Island. What happened? The bigger question: what is the risk to personal safety when cruising?

The initial facts are thin, but consistent. The boat was anchored near a small island in a remote area; three men boarded the boat; Al was shot and killed, Derryn and one of their two children aboard were injured; a dinghy and 15hp outboard were stolen. (image at top: our kids at play on idyllic islands near where the attack occurred.)

Jamie and I have given more than 40 seminars so far this year, in four countries, to cruisers spanning from the hopeful to the salty. Several of these sessions dive into common fears about cruising, provide context and reality for those fears, and address how to overcome them. After one event I was taken aside and asked by a nervous parent for help understanding how we keep our family safe as cruisers. Probing to better understand (security fears come in different shades and sources): genuine distress stemmed from being boarded with violent intent, and their children attacked in their beds. Asked what they do to keep their kids from being attacked in their beds at home, I got a puzzled look back. Why is this fear attached to cruising, and not at home? I mentioned that the probability of kids being attacked in their bunks by armed marauders was less likely than getting bitten by a shark after being struck by lightning, but felt the doubt. Why is cruising perceived to carry higher personal risk?

Totem and Aqua Lobo anchored off Stocking Island, Bahamas; May 2017

Is cruising dangerous?

An event like this may prompt some to question their cruising plans. That’s an unfortunate outcome. It’s also not a rational one. Even without clarity on cruiser fatalities (count them on one hand?) consider there are about 10,000 active cruising boats (and nearly 330,000,000 Americans) for a dose of relative perspective. Dying from a car accident is many multiples the risk. My everyday cruising life is much safer than my prior everyday land life: I have no doubt of this.

On land or at sea, we makes decisions about where to go and how to comport ourselves, and most of us—at home or abroad—aren’t wrapping ourselves cotton wool or raising kids in locked-down safe houses. After stepping outside the norm, it’s the norm that scares me more. Yet the very real risks in everyday life on land earn a blind eye when lined up against our life on the water. People are accustomed to allowing the dangers around them to fade into white noise through acceptance of their existence. Cruising not without risk, of course, but feels safer than suburbia to me. A look at hometown rates of property and violent crime might be surprising.

How do you avoid dangerous places?

On land, unsafe areas aren’t hard to avoid. In the cruising life, hotspots for violent crime are also easy to identify, as are those for piracy. On land or at sea, our basic rule is “don’t go there,” and destinations (as well as the routes to reach them) are researched in advance. We occasionally make exceptions to that rule, but it is a choice: to understand the risks, decide they are relevant for us, and mitigate those risks as we see appropriate.

This data visualization is one of many tools for piracy risk evaluation

How do we learn about security concerns for an area? There is no secret handshake for sources to determine risk. Each place is researched independently, and sources may vary by region and security nuance. For example, situation analyses published by security firms providing kidnap & ransom relief services was valuable for researching Indian Ocean piracy and deciding our route. That’s not at all helpful for the Caribbean coast of Panama. There, primary resources we used include:

Screenshot of Caribbean Safety & Security Net‘s spot-check tool, with approximate location

Did Aqua Lobo take unnecessary risks?

Just over a year ago, we – like Aqua Lobo and others – chose to cruise along less traveled stretches of the Guna Yala coast. We anchored near the place they were attacked. Our choice, and theirs, did not involve calculated risks or an exception to our safety standards: it is a safe area with no pattern of violent crime against cruising boats. Zero. There’s occasional petty theft, like anywhere. There are isolated incidents, like anywhere.

There are other places with real risk in the Caribbean. They lie hundreds of miles to the north, offshore from the Honduras/Nicaragua border, or hundreds of miles to the east, off the coast of Venezuela, and elsewhere. This was not one of those places with elevated risk. We tend to skip those.

Evening conversation with Guna paddler, while anchored near Isla Mono

Of course, random crime can still occur; as much as I want to believe the best in everyone, the world isn’t that way. That’s what’s chilling about the attack on Aqua Lobo. For cruisers learning about the event, based on the few facts we have: it is catastrophic event that could happen to any of us. This family should have been safer in that anchorage than if they’d driven out for a night at the movie theater in their home town. I truly hope that their friends, and family, and loved ones at home can appreciate this, and not heap upon their tragedy by suggesting that they chose the wrong place to be. They categorically did not!

Why does everyday cruising life – making informed decisions to follow safe routes – have the taint of risk? I think it’s a mix of bad information (or lack of information), coupled by media hyperbole, sprinkled with a pervasive culture of fear. When we planned to depart Australia for Papua New Guinea, a lot of Aussies thought we were nuts. When we shared plans to sail to Mexico from the US, some reactions were similar. Media sells an extreme view that doesn’t represent the whole story.

Selection of Australian media headlines

Papua New Guinea did have very real safety factors to consider, but we developed an approach based on that country’s situation which we felt mitigated the risk and put us on a safe path. Mexico has very real safety factors too, but they do not impact us as cruisers. I feel safer here in Mexico than I do in the USA. Researching Panama gave us a few ticklers on places to be prepared; nothing unusual.

Back to the question: how dangerous is cruising? I think the presumptive concern that this is a dangerous lifestyle says more about the culture of fear at home. During visits back to the US the last few years, we were startled at how fears are inflated and preyed upon for the purpose of gain (selling advertising in media, crafting click bait headlines, convincing consumers they need ____ to be safe/healthy/whatever). It is everywhere. Let’s be honest: I did it with this post title. Cruising isn’t dangerous. I know the assumption is based ignorance, so I’ll try not to let it bother me that the presumption suggests I’d deliberately raise a family in dangerous circumstances.

Being smart about safety involves more than getting informed on a destination, but the destination is by far the most important factor and it’s the major piece of information we have about Aqua Lobo right now. There’s chatter in cruising circles about growing discord between the “have” and “have nots” of the world; not sure I buy into that here. Details later may help us better understand the dynamics and if they inform new precautions for the area, and if there’s interest I may pursue other aspects of personal safety aboard in a later post. Meanwhile, for further reading: this article about Guns and Cruising which covers similar big picture concerns along with that very specific topic: arms aboard.

It’s going to be a long road for Derryn and the kids. If you’d like to help make it easier for them to face the myriad of challenges ahead without their husband/father, consider a donation to the fundraiser set up for the family: https://www.gofundme.com/help-for-the-culverwell-family-on-aqua-lobo

 

 

24 Responses

  1. Behan,
    Great job pointing out how we as cruisers need to be prudent on where we go and use the resources available to us in making our plans. We, too anchored in that area just a couple miles west of where Aqua Lobo was attacked. Lots of cruisers have stopped there and not had a problem.
    We need to network with others and groups like CSSN to gather current information on areas to avoid. We stayed 150 miles of Nicaragua and had a safe passage. Others have recently gone closer to shore and been boarded and robbed.
    We are soon leaving Utila for Guatamala but taking a northerly route instead of direct shot which would put us within 5 miles of the Honduran mainland. This is no different then picking my route driving through New Orleans, Houston or Boston.
    Thanks for bringing these facts to light..

    1. Well spoken .
      But as to the San blas cruisers face book page this is a biased page run by incorrect monitors.
      Mike on sailing vessel Galina has removed a post after a 70 plus old man was attacked by a 40 year old Spaniard while having lunch on isla tortuga in San blas .After many attempts to post this information we just gave up with Mick page and created other fb sites for the area .We don’t believe in hiding the facts .
      Even if it hurts the area so be it the truth is the truth and needs to be said .
      Thank u

  2. Behan this is why I love your posts- as a wannabe cruiser you always pick apart the fears and place them in reality and it helps me to make informed choices about the cruising lifestyle. This is a difficult topic due to the circumstances and I think you’ve covered it with respect and honesty.

  3. Well said Behan. I feel much safer on Secret Water than I do back on land. Random acts of violence happen, it’s an unfortunate reality we all must face no matter where we are. Two out of five of our crew have been hit by cars, one while riding a bike and the other while standing in a lunch line at school! So yeah, we’ll keep taking our chances out here on the water.

  4. Respectfully, I fear you paint a too-rosy picture here. Historic patterns of crime against cruisers may no longer be reliable predictors of where is safe and where is not. Central America in general is facing economic calamity. The San Blas are inundated with disrespectful cruisers and other tourists who seem to view the islands as their playground and the native inhabitants (who themselves resist rule from the Panamanian government) as curiosities rather than humans whose lives and livelihoods should be respected. It is inevitable that the more western “civilization” infects the San Blas, the more crime there will be. Add in the northbound drug route through the islands and along the Panamanian coast and it’s just going to be the case that what used to be safe is now less so, and IMO going to get worse. We cruised there in 2016 and as beautiful as it was, we left feeling ashamed of what we saw from fellow tourists, and even part of the problem ourselves. It’s just not an area that can support its newfound popularity, and there will be a backlash. A true shame for all sides.

  5. Enjoyed the write up. Pretty spot on. Tragic about the attack. They have three in custody already. Let’s hope justice is served. My heart goes out to the family. Since becoming live-aboards I’m starting to understand the disconnect from the city. The conservation of water and energy alone has changed our world views. 27’Moody doesn’t leave room for much, but it’s home. It’s far safer than any City apartment. So many dreamers living on the hard have no idea what it’s truly like. Fair winds. S/V Lonely Bull ~Brian

  6. I hoped you would have an entry on this event.
    I needed to hear through your prizm what it looked like to you.

    Thanks for emphasizing the positive. It’s so easy to let the horror of crime drag everyone into the pit. It seems from my reading on other forums, sadly, folks are assigning blame to the family. Such a shame, and all too often the case. Violent crime has common parameters, but the nature of it is unlimited.

    Cruising is risky.
    So is life.

    E

  7. Great write up Behan! Here is how I see it, 12 years in to full time cruising.

    Crime happens everywhere for sure. I often meet well travelled people out here that refuse to travel to the US…”Too dangerous” they say…”I watch and hear American news, and people are getting killed, bombed, and raped too often.. I rather stay here and be safe!” So very true about the US…but because nobody in my family has ever been affected by this, I feel like the risk is minimized for me personally, when I travel back to my family in the US. I feel like my family lives in a safe area and stays away from the bad areas. But I suppose every town and neighborhood is safe until one day, something happens.
    I am a bit scared here in South Africa to be certain. I’m not even entirely sure exactly where here I need to stay away from, and I haven’t come to understand exactly where and who to be afraid of. Not go walking in the beautiful lake side greenbelts? Not walk on busy highways in broad daylight? At home in the USA I would know where not to go, how dark of an alley in each particular alley was too dark to walk down. My senses would be keen, and my intuition would be fairly spot on about where I am safe or not safe, short of an ourright surprise. But in this strange land, my senses are dulled, and I must learn, hopefully not the hard way.

    It is without doubt, prudent to do our research as we travel around. But As Cruisers, we face this lack of true knowledge, awareness and intuition because we are in a strange area to us. Sure, we gain a bit as we go, but it can never be quite as sharp as where we spent the first 20, 30, rep years of our life honing that sense and knowledge. All we can do as cruisers is stick to where violence and crime against cruisers before us has not happened. Use our dulled intuition and awareness to guide us. Pray that karma and luck is on our side, dress down, act poor, and try not to cause resentment of our “richness” as we go. Don’t hand things out and perpetuate that people on boats have lots of money (and hence possessions) to spare. We are operating a “treasure ship” here. Our predecessors have willingly handed out an abundance of used clothes and household items…it’s no wonder we are viewed as such.How unfair that they have worked hard their whole lives too and not have this abundance to give away!

    For sure, We have to madly research, and be aware of where the hot spots are, and give them a wide berth. But those hot spots are sure to spread as time goes on, just as crime in the US or other areas previously safe are sure to spread. The world is NOT getting safer over time. . As Cruisers, the difference on the water is that we, with a boat of 40 feet “look” rich and are hence targets. There are only 5,10 or 100 of us “rich” yachties to choose from in each given area. Back in the US, we blend in more, are not one of 5,10 or 100 and don’t look “rich” to the majority of people around us. And in the US, we aren’t in a place where we are alone for miles around, as that “rich” person. Rich people who do live in the boonies, far from anyone in the US have to boost their security measures because they stand out. So, as Cruisers the odds are greater, and our True knowledge of our neighbors in any one given anchorage is less known because we are the new guys on the block. We are “strolling through the ghettos”, which we wouldn’t do at home, but we may not even always be aware of in new locations we visit in the world, because it all looks “poor” to us in many countries!

    I certainly am feeling more at risk these days than I did in the beginning, and I seek new ways all the time to TRY to be safer both on the boat and when exploring the beautiful places we go. Nothing I have done hence far really makes me much safer though, I’m afraid. The fact remains… My risk as a “rich” person out here is 1 in 10,000 … My risk back home is more like 1 in 330,000,000. If the odds for two lotteries were this, which would you play?
    It’s a risk though, that I continue to choose to live with, for the tradeoff of seeing the world, and living each day fully. Hopefully I can keep my head low, blend in, and stay off the radar. Hopefully I can keep having fun, staying healthy and living my little life unharmed.
    But every day I am very aware that I am much more a minority target on my “treasure ship” than I am in my house in suburbia with thousands of similar people as my potential but not guaranteed buffers.
    Hopefully I die having an adventure rather than in the monotony of the white noise.

    1. “Don’t hand things out and perpetuate that people on boats have lots of money (and hence possessions) to spare. We are operating a “treasure ship” here. Our predecessors have willingly handed out an abundance of used clothes and household items…it’s no wonder we are viewed as such.How unfair that they have worked hard their whole lives too and not have this abundance to give away!”

      While I agree with the main point of your comment, the part about not knowing what areas to avoid etc, I have to completely disagree with your “treasure ship” view. Because predecessors have handed out clothing and household items, this has not perpetuated crime against cruisers. While in the San Blas we have wholeheartedly supported the Kuna community, made donations and enthusiastically purchased their wares and trinkets. This in no way has supported or induced the horrible crime that recently occurred. Our willingness to part with some money and donated items has helped some Kuna people to put food on the table for their family. Trading to the visitors is a huge part of their economy.

      In Dominica after hurricane Maria devastated the island in September of 2017 leaving 90% of the islanders without a roof, the cruising community in Grenada organized supplies and transportation to those in need. Some vessels sailed the supplies to the island while others purchased and packed things like tarps and food for transport. I have never been more proud of the cruising community than at this time. The cruising community was among the first to respond to the people of Dominica. I don’t think the victims of the hurricane viewed the yachties as “treasure ships” but rather people who cared about them in their time of need.

      You comment, emphasized with an exclamation point, sounds a little bit resentful of people who have worked hard their entire lives and do have an abundance. I hope it wasn’t intended this way. Just because some people, even those with an abundance, are willing to share and be charitable doesn’t make them responsible for the evil actions of others.

      Mark
      sv Cream Puff

  8. Thank you for such a well written article about such a tragic event. I consider myself some what street smart, especially after living 30 years in Mexico, and having lived that time in the country with no fear and zero bad experiences. Having said that, you could not get me to sail into the Tobago Cayes (near Grenada) without other boats going along and strength in numbers. More than 30 years ago, when the world was still ‘safe’ we were boarded at mid-night in the lone anchorage between the two or three small uninhabited islands. Had we not had weapons there is no question in my mind the six aboard would have been killed by the boarding party of three (their two boats were from ‘Trinidad’). It was face to face with them and two of us had spear guns pointed which stopped the boarding process. We gave up bareboating in the Caribbean at that point after many wonderful cruises, however did then go to the South Pacific and did so without any fear. Regarding guns, ‘yes’ there’s a very possible downside with them aboard and I would just carry several hand spear guns, flares and similar ‘legal’ means of protection.

  9. Great article, thank you for encouraging discussion. Condolences to the family. I am a sailing enthusiast but live on land…a little different perspective. I agree that there is a thriving fear-based culture on land. And when tragedy strikes people are often quick to blame the victims for their lifestyle choices. It seems like a tricky situation with sailing, as a few have pointed out…from land the boat is obvious, those aboard clearly have some means, and those means are often visible and right there (ie. to try to take). For someone who is desperate, a boat can be an obvious target. Things get more complicated with children aboard, I would imagine. I know that at a certain point you have to just accept risks, try to minimize the big ones, but then move on and live life. Obviously there’s no one solution, so it’s worth discussing.

  10. Police cannot protect you from crime. You must protect yourself such as locked doors and alarms in homes. It is difficult to secure a boat that needs ventilation in tropical climates. We had pressure mats in the cockpit and microphone sensors on the companionway ladder. The alarm sounded in our condo bedroom in Florida at 3 am with the boat alongside the condo dock. The two teenagers fled before the police arrived but were caught some weeks later. You must take steps to secure your vessel particularly when you’re aboard. We carried weapons legally in the Bahamas. Any cruising boat represents great wealth in the third world. It should be capable of being defended with weapons secreted below even in jurisdictions that prohibit it.

  11. Behan, good post. People in general aren’t good at making rational decisions about risk; they are much more likely to make those decisions based on emotion.

    The numbers don’t lie. I’m at greater risk of being killed on the highway than cruising.

    Another thing about cruising is that many iof the risks controllable. It’s generally easier for me to move my boat if the neighborhood goes bad than it would be to move my land dwelling. It’s easier for me to wait for a good weather window for a passage than it is for me to reduce my risk of being run into by somebody on the highway.

  12. Excellent write up , thank you. The sad fact is : even when you do everything right , sometimes S#%t happens. I’m always more concerned for my safety in any large and some not so large cities . Fredb

  13. Possibly the size and type of boat was a contributing factor. I believe there have been 3-4 cruisers murdered in the San Blas in last 15 years. I would think this makes it statistically very dangerous, but don’t have the data. Especially considering how relatively less visited San Blas is.

    Would also be good to see a clear account of the encounter. Ironically the kiwi press was comparing it to Sir Blake which was a botched rifle defense on Blake’s part.

    In 2005 we were strongly warned not to be E of Isla Pinos. Somewhat east of where the murder was. It’s seems like currently cruisers are having pretty close to Provenir at least those that are rationalizing by telling themselves this was location related.

  14. Hi Behan
    Well considered article and comments by your readers. That said, the world is perhaps a more dangerous place than when you and your family first left the US a decade ago. Not far from the safe environs of Puerto Vallarta 20-30,000 people are murdered every year by the Cartels fighting over a share of the endless market for drugs in the US. The USA maintains 800 overseas military bases and engages in continual wars while our “enemies” have at most one or two offshore outposts. Our global military empire doesn’t add to your security as cruisers— indeed it creates resentment.

    Almost all crimes against cruisers are crimes of opportunity, so the safest option is to not present an opportunity. But apart from staying home in a locked marina that isn’t always possible. There are simple actions one can take to become an uninviting target. A locked grate at the companionway lets in as much air as an open door, but ensures that one will not wake up with an intruder wielding a knife in your face. When you land at the Jackson Hole airport you will encounter a kiosk offering bear spray for rent. Properly used it will stop a charging grizzly in it’s tracks. I’d go further and plumb a hose into the cockpit that enables it to be flooded with bear spray from a safe point inside the boat . A flare gun is a useful weapon in certain circumstances. If used against an armed intruder it will simply result in one becoming a Peter Blake, but it certainly will provide a convincing deterrent against a midnight dingy thief. So it should be stored alongside the companionway, not in the ditch bag in the lazerette.

    “Trust but prepare”

    1. RDE your feedback will be stored in my files for if and when I make it as a cruiser. Have thought many times how I would prevent an intruder and keep myself and family safe just in case. These suggestions seem very feasible and should act as a very good deterrent to avoid getting into a gun or knife fight. Thanks for the suggestions!

  15. Statistically, the world is safer today than at any time in history, with strong and enduring trends towards reduced violence and crime. It is the reporting (If it bleeds, it leads) that makes the world seem for dangerous than it is.

    1. David,
      Statistically the USA is the wealthiest country on the face of the earth. The average net worth of all U.S. families is $692,100. Yet the median family net worth is only $97,000 (or if you are under 35, $11,000). Icelanders–the most prosperous citizens on earth, are 3 1/2 times as wealthy as Americans. (Funny how a few hundred Gates and Bezos statistically distort the real economic status of Americans. And more to the point, 51% of Americans live from pay check to paycheck with so little reserves that a $500 medical bill threatens to tip them over the edge onto the road to homelessness.

      Medical bankruptcy is a common and uniquely American product, shared with no other advanced country.

      I’d rather be a citizen of the oceans, prepared to go to sea than statistically safe in a locked marina in California.

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