Most people would agree that the arming of yacht crew is a ludicrous proposition. More interesting are the reasons why not and whether basic recognition and familiarization training is of any value in the event that a firearm finds its way on board.
Part 1: To arm or not to arm?
Such is the question that has come up for discussion, yet again, in the various ports of call around the world. And to dig a bit deeper, if you opt to “arm”, why not introduce the whole crew to weapons? Give them a familiarization course, let them shoot under controlled conditions, so they are better prepared when it comes to repelling pirates as they storm the quarter deck.
So here’s a view from somebody who lives with these things every day, has been on both the giving and receiving end, and trains top end Protection Officers in the use of firearms. I gave a speech on a similar topic not long ago and what follows are the approximate questions and answers leading to the conclusion of the talk.
Q: Do I think there is a role for firearms on the high seas?
A: Absolutely. But like any technical skill set, this area should be the preserve of those who are well trained, experienced in the application of weapons, and extremely competent with them. It is a highly perishable skill, requiring a challenging blend of maturity and controlled aggression, and it is certainly not for everyone.
Q: Well, we have former military members…..why not use them?
A: The “military” does not necessarily denote “combat infantry” who are the true experts with small arms. Even then, the military does not worry about legal recourse if an innocent is killed in a firefight. Such is war. So even with former military, the mindset of “shoot till the magazine is empty” regardless of bystanders or background, is an invitation to save the vessel only to spend the rest of your life in jail for murder because you killed an innocent by mistake.
Q: What do you think about weapons familiarization courses for all hands?
A: It’s a great way to kill your friend by mistake. Weapons training for novices is a “psychological belay”. That’s a mountaineering term for a little nail half stuck in a rock which you wrap your rope around. You feel better, but that’s about it because if you ever actually fell, that “belay” would collapse in a nano-second. So weapons familiarization is an expensive way to make everybody on board feel better while simultaneously increasing the risk of an “own goal” to all.
Q: Don’t you think that’s a little hard, failing to give credit to smart crews who can adapt?
A: No it’s not hard at all. What is HARD is scrambling for your rifle in the wee hours of watch while you listen to crewmates screaming, then methodically slaughter the pirates and be the hero in a hail of incoming gunfire, all completed in the space of 90 seconds. That’s the HARD part.
What’s more, if you are not trained to a ruthless standard where you have zero compunction about pulling the trigger and killing another human being at close range (possibly also women or teenagers) you are going to hesitate, even if for only a second. And then it's too late because they won’t hesitate. Not at all.
Q: (and I get this one all the time) Well, if it's so hard, then why don’t you just use rubber guns painted to look like the real ones?
A: If that is the route you wish to go down, then this conversation is no longer about weapons at sea. Why stop halfway? Just paint your yacht to look like a gunboat and all will be well.
Q: So training a crew is unrealistic?
A: Absolutely. Let me put it into context. We train bodyguards for worldwide assignment and only a few of our candidates are “raw” civilians. So we put these guys on a pistol range with a known distance of 7 meters (21 feet) and 50% of them can’t hit a paper plate sized target when placed under MILD stress. Yet they will all tell you they can “shoot”.
Give me a month, thousands of rounds of ammunition, hundreds of hours of range time, and an attrition rate of 50%, and eventually we can do some amazing things with weapons, like ensuring you don’t shoot the wrong person, and can control the situation without the use of firearms, etc. It’s rehearsed countless times. Each team member intuitively knows what the other will do, and eventually, after rivers of sweat, you get a highly skilled Protection Officer who can shoot.
We push the envelope and have had three incidents where students, under stress, have been shot on the range. In all cases they wound up shooting THEMSELVES. And this is with people who are supposed to know what they're doing.
Granted, most actions at sea will not be pistol based but rather employ rifles, but the modus operandi is still identical. Providing unparalleled, military grade firepower to a novice who can barely load the thing is not my idea of a sound contingency plan.
Most of humanity (thank goodness) has no concept of how violent, brutal, and fast armed actions are, which is why the Army needs almost a year to train a private soldier for combat.
And you are going to do it all in an afternoon, with your crew, at a range where they all get to fire a half dozen shots in a tightly controlled environment? Good luck. Because you are going to need it.
Q: So what is the solution?
A: Put “firearms” into the same specialist category as engineering or food service staff. Meaning it is NOT a general skill, but rather reserved for three or four selected individuals who, based on background, bearing and competence, are capable of operating with firearms during times of crisis. Get them trained to an acceptable standard on the systems on board, REHEARSE potential scenarios, develop a WRITTEN plan for resolving them, and REHEARSE AGAIN at zero notice, however many times it takes to ensure the system actually works.
At this point in the presentation, I always get the “WHAT IF” questions. I always brief Captains and Owners beforehand to pay particular attention to those who ask the “what ifs” as it's often an indicator of the person most likely to unravel first when things go pear shaped.
Here are some classic “What ifs” in regards to firearms on boats:
Q: What if the four designated marksmen are all killed or captured?
A: When was the last time that happened? Somebody tell me an occasion when FOUR dedicated marksmen were killed/captured on the job... It goes very quiet because, as we all know, it has in fact never happened. So this is fear talking nonsense, which is what so much of the current discourse about firearms is based upon.
Q: Well, what if we are attacked by hundreds of them?
A: Stick your head between your legs and kiss your ass goodbye. Seriously.
I have intentionally included the last two examples, both idiotic, but common questions. It only serves to underscore the hype, mythology, and unrealistic expectations society has from watching far too many Hollywood movies where all ends well.
When firearms are employed, there is no happy ending for everybody. This does not mean I am opposed to their use (quite the opposite when necessity demands it) but I prefer to see life and death decisions made by those who are fully cognizant of their actions, and executed by those who are ruthless enough to enforce death to maintain life; at zero notice under extreme stress.
In Part 2 we look at the sense and utility of weapons recognition/familiarization training for yacht crew, in terms of psychological and practical application.