As some of the world’s wealthiest individuals relax on the decks of their hundred-million-dollar yachts, the approach of pirate vessels bearing vicious brigands who will have no compunction about taking hostages and holding them for ransom, has become an all too real nightmare. As a result, security against pirates has become a prime consideration for captains, crews, owners, and passengers aboard luxury yachts.
The first security precaution may seem obvious—avoid the Gulf of Aden. Despite the current focus on Somali pirates, there have also been pirates active in the Caribbean, Malacca Strait, South China Sea, Mediterranean, and other venues. With the World Cup in South Africa in 2010, some wealthy individuals may plan to sail along the African Coast. Many luxury yachts will transit from one part of the world to another as seasons change, which may expose them to pirates during transit as well. To a greater or lesser extent, security has become a much greater concern aboard luxury yachts.
For some yacht owners, high-tech solutions have great appeal. One yacht valued at between 300 and 400 million dollars incorporates a submarine that will allow the owner and his guests to dive and avoid a pirate attack. This same yacht incorporates radar to identify incoming rockets and a hardened main cabin with armor plating and bullet-resistant windows.
Other luxury yachts have installed systems that allow electric current to be passed through a grid (electric fence) on the hull to prevent boarding. I had a discussion with one friend who consults on yacht security about incorporating the armor that protects Stryker vehicles in Iraq to counter RPG (Rocket Propelled Grenade) attacks, since many pirates off the African coast threaten the ships with RPG-7s. We both concluded that very few owners of sleek luxury yachts want their pride and joy to resemble a building covered with scaffolding.
A more assertive defense is the LRAD (Long Range Acoustic Device). The American Technology Corporation LRAD weighs only 45 pounds, which allows it to be readily mounted aboard even on a smaller yacht. The device emits a tone of nearly 150 decibels (dBs) at close range, which is above the normal human pain threshold. However, at longer range, the tone is less than 90 dBs, which is within human tolerance level. Since the LRAD has been successfully used against Somali pirates, they are aware of it and may realize that earplugs or earmuffs can substantially lesson the effect of the LRAD.
Because of the threat of RPG attack, keeping the pirate ship or ships at a distance is quite important. US Army studies have found the likelihood of hits by a static operator of an RPG-7 firing at a moving target is as high as 96% at 100 meters, but drops to 51% at 200 meters, and 22% at 300 meters. These percentages assume an operator with average skills. Somali pirates will likely not have fired many, if any, practice rounds and will be firing from a moving deck, hence their hit likelihood will be degraded. Still, tactically, a yacht security team will want to keep the pirate vessel at 300 meters or more.
A standard tactic used by captains who feel they are in danger from pirates is to begin to tack (i.e., sailing a zigzag course), if a suspicious ship follows, thus indicating its intentions are nefarious. Some modern luxury yachts are very fast and can outrun pirate vessels.
Many wealthy yacht owners specifically recruit crewmembers from among naval special ops or marine units. Such personnel will already be familiar with combat aboard ships, combat boarding, and shooting from a moving deck. Shooting skills from a ship can be kept sharp by throwing empty crates, barrels, and so on, into the ocean, then firing at them from on deck. Accurate fire from a moving deck is possible, but it takes quite a bit of practice.
Weapons choice must be based on a combination of legal considerations and combat tactics. In general, machineguns, grenade launchers, etc. will be considered “war material” and will be difficult to justify on most private yachts. The two most useful weapons in countering pirates will be long-range rifles and shotguns. A .50 caliber “Anti-Material Rifle,” either single-shot or multi-round, with a good optical sight will allow yacht defenders to engage pirates outside the 300-meter RPG-7 extreme danger zone.
A lower power optic is a better choice for engagement from a deck, as it will give a wider field of view and will magnify ship movement less. Shooters should take center-of-mass shots to allow for some spread due to ship movement. With a .50 round, any solid hit will put the pirate out of action. With a .50 BMG caliber rifle shots may be taken at the cabin, machinery, etc. It is possible that a .50 rifle will be considered a “military weapon” in many countries and might cause some problems. In that case, another sniping rifle caliber such as .308, .300 Win Mag, or .338 Lapua might be a good choice. Self-loading .308s such as the Springfield Armory M21 or Rock River Arms LAR-8 would be a good choice, as they offer 20-round magazine capacity to allow the shooter to quickly put a lot of rounds downrange on the pirate vessel.
For closer-range work, if semi-auto assault rifles can be legally carried, then I would recommend .308s over .223s. The FN FAL, Springfield Armory M1A, Heckler & Koch 91, Rock River Arms LAR-8, and others are very good. Once again, the ability to put out a lot of rounds on a ship closing to board and on boarding parties can win the fight.
Shotguns are very effective in rappelling boarders and clearing decks. At close range, a shotgun with slugs can do a lot of damage to a pirate ship. As far as international laws are concerned, the shotgun is the easiest weapon to have aboard a yacht.
It will be necessary to check firearms laws in every port where the yacht will call. There should be a lockable arms locker/vault aboard ship to contain the weapons. In some ports, the customs officials will seal the arms locker and check that it is still sealed when leaving port. They are very strict about this. In other ports, the customs officials will take charge of the weapons and return them when you leave port. Note that this can be a problem if the original port of call is not the final one. In some countries, it is possible to arrange with customs to transport the weapons to the final port of call. As with most issues involving bureaucracy, the richer and more powerful the yacht owner, the easier the procedures with customs will be.
Tactics for yacht security against pirates is an extensive subject which far more can be written. In fact, some of the points in this article are taken from a lengthy analysis I am preparing on counter-piracy tactics as part of a consulting job. This column is meant as an overview to highlight some of the major considerations that face yacht crews today in preparing to protect their bosses. The most important points are, before you prepare to sail, prepare a defensive plan and constantly monitor where pirates are active and what tactics they have been using.