Industry » Features » Migrants and ISIS: Whatever the Risk, are you Prepared?

Migrants and ISIS: Whatever the Risk, are you Prepared?

Rod Hatch 140 for feature cut2

Regarding Shawn Engbrecht’s OnboardOnline post of 1st April last, entitled “The Future of Yacht Security”: There is a fine line to be drawn between promulgation of identifiable risks following a considered analysis of facts and observed trends, and squawking that the sky is falling.

Shawn notes that the latter alarmist approach can undermine the credibility of an otherwise objective assessment about yacht security during the 2015 Med season. Shawn’s article, in conjunction with his links, does make scary reading. And outside of the reassuring confines of a cinema, we don’t like to be scared. It’s much more comfortable to ignore scary stuff.

To quote former President George W. Bush when his advisors brought him the news about the demise of Lehman Brothers and the fact that the global banking system stood on the edge of collapse, “How did we get here?”

Recent history

Back in early 1991, while anchored off the Bitter End on Virgin Gorda, I went ashore with owner and guests one evening to watch, in real time, the first Gulf War live on a large outdoor TV screen. We knew it was real, but it was all happening far away, and in our daily lives we felt disconnected from it all. Even then, some months later, when the yacht arrived back in the Med, I did receive a call from a US charter broker asking if, from Antibes, we could see the smoke from the oil wells that had been set alight by Saddam Hussein’s military as they withdrew from Kuwait.

We yachties of course knew that Antibes was a long way from any possible fallout from what was going on at the far eastern end of the Med. We could never have imagined that what was happening in the Middle East would ever directly affect our world.

OO two yachts generic2

Moving on to 1994, I was planning a cruising itinerary from the South of France to Israel, Egypt, Seychelles, the Maldives, India’s Malabar coast, SE Asia, Indonesia, the Philippines and Australia. What seemed to be a reasonable approach to security at that time? First, well ahead of departure, I undertook a 3-day course with ICTS, an Israeli company, covering some basic security awareness, self-defence, defensive (ambush avoidance) driving, and weapons training. I then asked ICTS to prepare a rolling “umbrella” of security analyses to be updated ahead of each leg of our cruise.

A few months later the yacht arrived in Sharm el-Sheik. In preparation for the long cruise ahead of us, ICTS came aboard to give the crew a basic one-day awareness and self-defence course, At the end of the afternoon session I met with the instructors in the sky-lounge for a de-briefing. Then we discussed risk areas.

One particular risk area was the vicinity of Socotra off the Horn of Africa, where armed groups of Somalis in small boats were acting like maritime highwaymen, boarding ships, emptying the bosun’s stores, robbing the crew of money and personal valuables, and forcing captains at gunpoint to hand over the contents of their safes.  My proposed tactic of keeping outside a 60 mile radius of the island, which was a safety factor used by other yachts, was accepted by ICTS as a reasonable precaution, as no Somali vessels had ever operated so far out to sea.

somali piracy pic

The highest risk area at that time was assessed to be the vicinity of the Sulu Sea, where there had been recent incidents of gratuitously violent armed piracy. I asked what would I need to defend the yacht against the pirates’ best-armed groups. The owner had already ruled out living with armed guards on board for the next 12 months. So given that a fight is by definition more or less even-sided, with equal risk of harm to each side, then what would be required to outrange, outgun and utterly destroy the Sulu Sea’s worst?

The answer was an Israeli model of bipod-mounted machine gun, with appropriate crew training. I took the tidings down to the crew mess, then to the owner in his office. It was unanimously agreed that we were all in yachting for pleasure, not to go to war.

The final outcome was that the umbrella was used to give an all-clear regarding security for each region as we moved East, with updated coverage of everyday robbery and pilferage alerts specific to our needs. Only once were we diverted away from a planned destination for security reasons (a very recent sea-launched terrorist incident).

Current risk

That was then. Fast forward to today. The transits of the Red Sea, the Gulf of Aden, around the Horn of Africa and across the Indian Ocean, which yachts made with equanimity in the 1990’s, are now considered so dangerous that convoy systems are in place, and yacht insurers make coverage for the transits conditional on onboard armed escorts. Somali pirates have extended their zone of operations to within view of the Seychelles, they have captured large ships and held their crews (sometimes for years) to ransom, and have deliberately killed seafarers in the course of such activities.

It has taken a years-long campaign by NATO and other navies to suppress them and even now the pirates are corralled rather than eliminated.

Increasing risk now comes from a new quarter. Religious zealots of all stripes, loosely associated with IS in the Middle East, have established bases close to the Mediterranean coastline in Libya.  As noted by Shawn, by a UK Rear Admiral who recently led a Ministry of Defence think tank, and by the former Supreme Allied Commander Europe (SACEUR), IS-associated groups have promulgated believable threats to shipping in the area.


The turmoil that these groups have created on land is sending waves of migrants to sea, hoping to be picked up and delivered to an EU port of entry.  This was once a side effect of IS activities, but now looks like becoming a deliberate policy, as a means to insert IS activists into genuine refugee groups. In the past week a group of Muslim diehards on one refugee boat tossed 15 Christian refugees overboard. The Italian authorities report that 10,000 would-be migrants (yes, four zeroes) have been rescued at sea during the past week. As I write, a rescue operation is in progress south of Lampedusa  for survivors of a capsized vessel carrying about 700 refugees.

This is what is going on, right now, today.  How many IS operatives have been embedded in those 700 refugees? How many others amongst them have such hatred of non-believers in Islam that they are sympathetic to the notion of throwing them overboard, and would carry such mindset onto European shores? Nobody can answer.

So is the sky finally falling? Looking down from my balcony on this quiet Sunday afternoon, seeing the large motor yachts serenely moored in Port Canto, a couple of catamaran yachts anchored off the Carlton, and a host of kite-surfers racing up and down off the Pointe Croisette, an IS attack here seems about as likely as an Alien abduction. It would seem to be the same for Genoa, for Gocek, for Porto Montenegro, for Piraeus, and anywhere else in our cosseted yachting world.

Iraqi insurgents with gunsyachts monaco

But such complacency is now foolish, dangerous and irresponsible. Any captain who will be making a passage across the SE Med this coming summer, especially if passing south of Sicily, and around the Aegean Islands closest to the Turkish coast, will need to consider factors for which formerly there were probably no risk assessments made and no contingency plans prepared. And captains should not be left on their own to deal with the new realities of Med yachting.

Somali pirates may not be lurking in the SE Med, but refugee boats are almost certain to be there in the better summer weather, and very likely in some form of distress, which may obligate the captain of any yacht in the near vicinity, especially if first on scene, to initiate some sort of rescue effort involving a limited number of crew and possibly hundreds of desperate survivors, some of whom may have malevolent intentions.

Policies and protocols

For a while, which may seem an eternity, that captain may be on his or her own, directing an operation which is emotionally distressing to himself or herself, and to the crew. If a management company’s only contingency plan for such an eventuality this summer is for the captain to call the DPA and wait for advice, the captain needs to send a rocket up the senior management of that company.

If that does not get results, the owner should be enjoined to call and ask what the top manager is doing to justify the fees he is being paid each month for the well-being of the owner’s asset and crew, with a demand within 72 hours for a complete 2015 Med risk assessment and response plan. Shouldn’t be difficult, should it, especially with the help of Professor Google?

Where is the Company Security Officer’s bridge checklist, updated daily, of responsible search-and-rescue authorities in what areas? What assets, and where in the SE Med, are currently available to assist the yacht? What pre-passage advisories will be available for the captain? Assistance with drawing up onboard delegation of duties in a mass rescue operation? Boarding procedures to control a horde of half-drowned hysterical wretches? Denominated survivor zones? Reference list of weight loadings and stability calculations for large groups of survivors on different decks? Precautions to ensure the safety of crew? Help with recommending basic supplies of protective gear for crew coming into contact with sick survivors?  Links ready for medical consultation and dry runs tested?

Protocols for minute-by-minute live Skype support, if necessary via satellite and never mind the expense? Contact list for all Flag consulates in appropriate ports? Policies delineated, explained, and on record as being explained, regarding crew use of smart phones and social network exchanges to record and share events during rescue operations? Policies regarding press and TV coverage, questioning, interviews?  Laminated flow charts for the captain to help in assessing the yacht’s capabilities in relation to various types of rescue scenarios and numbers of survivors? Legal guidance for logging a flow chart outcome that leads the captain to limit or decline involvement – e.g. overwhelming risk to safety of his own vessel? At least one pre-season crew training session about mental preparedness for a traumatic event? 

Etcetera. Captain and crew would have no time to think in such a situation. As with any other emergency, they need to be trained and drilled.

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The refugee rescue scenario is a regular event now, and in the SE Med the eventuality of a yacht being involved in such an event should absolutely be raised from a possible to a probable risk.

Finally, what about the really ugly sky-falling issue, the warnings raised by Shawn and the authorities he quotes, about the possibility of actual aggressive IS attacks on shipping? We’ve all seen the photographs of what happens when IS strikes, and maybe some of you have watched the videos. This is something different from piracy, even homicidal piracy. It is barely imaginable and almost unmentionable – what captain would want to raise to an owner the spectre of an IS assault on his yacht and its likely aftermath on his crew and maybe his family?

In this context, David Goldie of Akula Yachts has succinctly summarized a recent MYBA-commissioned Superyacht Advisory as follows: “The current ISIS threat to superyachts at sea in the Central Mediterranean is assessed as LOW and, given the normal superyacht pattern of life and cruising areas, the risk of an ISIS-related maritime attack against such a vessel is assessed as VERY LOW”.
“There should be no reason to decide not to operate luxury yachts in the normal sea areas.”

This Advisory was dated 18th. March 2015, and came from a reputable and credible source. Since then we have had the toss-the-Christians-overboard event, the capsized migrant vessel disaster yesterday (19th April), and in the last 48 hours the release of an IS video showing the gleeful of butchering 30 Ethiopian Christian captives in Libya.

In the past week Médecins Sans Frontières reported that up to 100 migrants a week are landing on the Eastern Dodecanese Islands. This raises the potential for a well-equipped yacht in this area to be within a response radius that could obligate participation in a rescue operation.

In all good conscience, if you are a charter broker, a yacht manager, or a captain, you need to balance the contents of the Advisory with the assessments of the UK MoD analyst and of the former SACEUR, and with the most recent news updates concerning your proposed 2015 cruising grounds. Then inform and advise your clients and owners accordingly. Bad things always happen to somebody else. But if you happen to be the somebody else, you’d better have a clear record showing that you’ve made every effort in applying due diligence to comply with your duty of care.

yacht at sea

*Image credits: Flickr/Flickr/Wikipedia Google Images Daily Mail Flickr

About the author:
Captain Rod Hatch is an active council member of the PYA (Professional Yachting Association), with a yachting career spanning 45 years, including six years in commercial shipping. He was one of the last captains to be certificated in the UK as Master of a Home Trade Passenger Ship. Current special interests: MLC 2006; advocacy of CPD opportunities for yacht crew outside of their mandatory training courses.

Related articles:

Sequel - Migrants and ISIS: Proactive Measures
The Future of Yacht Security
Advisory Notes: Large Scale Operations at Sea
Superyacht Special Advisory: Central Mediterranean - ISIS Maritime Threat Assessment

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