Industry » Safety & Security » Crew Safety Ashore: Sobering Thoughts

Crew Safety Ashore: Sobering Thoughts

Shawn Cass Global

A lot of time and money is spent protecting vessels, but what about the crew?

For a long time the Caribbean has been regarded as the most dangerous destination for crew off duty, but the number of attacks in the Mediterranean is at an all time high.

The figures are not easy to ascertain, but we hear of incidents all the time that never make it into print either to respect privacy or protect tourism.

Since the risks are real, what safety training is currently available for crew ashore and should it become mandatory?

The best way to illustrate the content of this article is to have the reader quickly answer the following three questions.

  1. Do more climbers die ascending or descending Mt. Everest?

  2. True or False: Do most traffic accidents occur within 2 nautical miles of your home?

  3. Do you think you are safer pulling into port in the French Riviera or Mogadishu, Somalia?


  1. Descending. By a large ratio, more people die coming down the mountain than going up. There is a joke in the climbing community that quips 'making it to the top is the easy part'.

  2. True. Your insurance agent will tell you that most accidents occur within 2 miles of your home.

  3. Nearly all readers will state the French Riviera. The author proposes Mogadishu, which will be explained later in the article.

Believe it or not, crew safety ashore is mostly cerebral and has little to do with pepper spray, firearms, or police escort. The best way to extricate yourself from a dangerous position is to never get into one in the first place. The second you are being accosted, or worse yet, assaulted, you have ceded the initiative and are in a reactive position. Reactive decision making is inherently faulty due to a compressed time line and insufficient data upon which to complete a sound decision making process. And even if you do it correctly, all your options may be bad. Do I fork over my wallet at risk of physical assault? That’s a lose-lose scenario. So is fighting back, and risking a severe beating, or submitting to rape. It’s the devil’s alternative with no 'correct' response.

The best solution is avoidance. In nautical parlance that translates to paying very careful attention at the navigation table versus taking to the lifeboats after you tore the bottom out on the reef.

proactive reactive

CASS Global has wrestled with issues like these for decades and our solutions are somewhat counter-intuitive and do not always run parallel with 'mainstream' security providers. However, for the tight confines of yachts with crews, they have proven to be both simple and effective. In a nutshell, here is how it should be done:

Improve Situational Awareness

Crew members, when ashore, need to start paying attention to their immediate environment. It is indeed a jungle out there, even though it may be a cleverly disguised one such as Cannes or Monaco. Just because it has pretty flowers does not imply that it is bereft of dangerous creatures lurking in the shadows. In short, crews need to become part of their environment as opposed to merely transiting through it. When we do this, we become more highly attuned to the discrete signals that are secretly warning us to be careful as danger lurks around the corner.

An extreme case in point, drawing from the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. Quiet streets are a dead giveaway, and signify a pending firefight. Why? Because both nations have huge numbers of children, who are everywhere. And now we stare down a quiet, lifeless street, devoid of street urchins. Why? Because their parents have pulled them as no mother wants her child exposed to a pending gun battle.

Many of us are still alive because our situational awareness went into overdrive and we constantly asked ourselves 'Why?' And if the answer didn’t make sense, we didn’t do it. More than a few Westerners went to their death because they never connected the dots between absent children and pending ambush. Others survived because they became part of the environment as opposed to passing through it.

'Why' should be your most favorite word ashore. WHY have I seen that person three times in the last 2 hours? WHY are we the only people in the bar when it should be full? WHY is that person sitting so close to us when we discuss itineraries? Why. Why. Why. Use it and you will never lose. And vice versa.

secure danger road sign


Complacency Kills

Just because you have driven the same route to the grocery store for the last ten years doesn’t mean nothing will happen this time. Today could be the day the tractor-trailer loses its air brakes and if you are not paying attention you are going to be on the wrong end of the win/lose equation. It is indeed true that most auto accidents occur within a couple of miles of home. It is because we become complacent, descend into mental auto pilot, and cease to pay attention to something that has become routine. That doesn’t mean it is any safer, but rather we have become immunized to its potential hazards. And because we become complacent, we actually increase the risk of adverse events occurring.

If you were a yacht crew pulling into Mogadishu for the first time, all hands would be hyper vigilant, suspicious, and situational awareness would be at an all time high. Complacency would be non-existent. Barring overt armed attack, it would be exceedingly difficult for any local to take you into the seedier part of town, access the yacht, or befriend any crewmembers. Alcohol intake would be minimal.  WHY? Because we all recognize that Somalia is a very dangerous part of the world and common sense dictates that we conduct ourselves accordingly.

But if we fast forward a few weeks and find ourselves pulling into a 'friendly' slip, all our security protocols so superbly on display while we plied the Horn of Africa evaporate as swiftly as a snowball in Ethiopia. It's as if we are two different crews. Why? Because the Mediterranean has become familiar, and therefore less dangerous. We tend to be scared of things we are not familiar with, which is not always the best methodology to employ. As a female, you stand a greater chance of being raped by someone you know than by a complete stranger. Frightening but sadly true. We become vulnerable when we let our guard down, based upon familiarity/complacency. This helps explain why the Med continues to climb the scales of violence and criminal activity for visiting yacht crews. It's partly because we set ourselves up to be taken advantage of. The criminals of the Mediterranean are not that much different from their counterparts in Somalia. They just wear better clothes so they can take advantage of us when our guard is down.

antibes IYC4


So What’s a Crew to Do?

The good news for crews is that crime is somewhat like having the Grizzly bear show up unannounced at the party…you only have to outrun the slowest and most obese compatriot to make it to safety…

Criminals, like bears and sharks, are creatures of habit. They stick to pre determined routines and only attack when they think they can win. If they believe they risk serious injury (which includes arrest) they will bide their time until easier prey blunders into the ambush zone.

So the key to success is to become Proactive. In so doing we are clearly advertising that we are difficult prey to corner, and any potential predator will pay a high price should they choose to press home an attack.

So How Does one Become Proactive?

There are three steps, all simple but all critical, to reduce the odds of your becoming a victim.


Step One: Educate Yourself

Crime does not simply 'happen'. Even the most erratic and drug addled pickpocket goes through a modest decision making process before attempting to relieve the victim of a wallet. By understanding the cycle of violence that the criminal engages in to identify and assault victims, we provide ourselves with the knowledge necessary to construct an effective defense. By comprehending the 'triggers' that activate the criminal thought process we can short-circuit it. It is akin to making sure we never swim while bleeding from minor cuts and abrasions…as it represents the dinner bell to blue water predators. If we fail to grasp how the system works, we are more prone to become a victim of it.

As an aside, the regurgitation of local crime statistics by a security manager prior to docking is meaningless as it does not contribute to our education of the process. Understanding the methodology employed by criminals that creates victims is priceless.


Step Two:

The single most powerful tool that potential victims can utilize to deter criminal activities is an entry-level understanding of basic counter surveillance techniques. These simple mechanisms need not be 'James Bond' in complexity, nor do they mandate long days of training. ALL preplanned attacks require at least a rudimentary surveillance of the potential victim. It is during this time that the criminal is running the risk/reward algorithm in his head and deciding whether to proceed with the assault. However, for him to be in a prime position to conduct surveillance on you, the reverse is also true. It means that you can see him. This is your best opportunity to visually identify potential threats, as the next time you see him may be in a back alley with a knife to your throat. By clearly identifying him you are discretely transmitting that 'we know who you are and can easily identify you again'. 

In one short second, the potential assailant has lost the most powerful weapon in his arsenal; the element of surprise. He is reduced to his counterparts in Somalia in that any future sighting of him only ramps up the level of suspicion and defensive measures you are prepared to implement. To him, you now represent a hard target; far better for him to slither away in search of easier prey.

This is an incredibly powerful tool which, when coupled with a strong sense of situational awareness, aborts the overwhelming majority of potential attacks long before they are brought to violent fruition.

woman attacked street shutterstock2


Step Three:

Have a plan. We all develop highly detailed float plans before departing the harbor, but few can be bothered to leave contact details or 'check in' when exploring some exotic port of call. All crewmembers should have a clear plan of what to do for any number of contingencies. These can include assault, robbery, dealing with a severely intoxicated crew member, a road accident, etc.

Plans can be simple, concise, and easy to understand. Technology, in the form of smart phones, has made effective communication and navigation easier than ever before. Harness those technologies in a positive manner. This can all be implemented without creating parasite drag on the crew or making them feel like 'big brother is watching'.  An effective security manager will elicit positive 'buy in' from the crew when they realize that plans are designed to keep them safe and happy as opposed to hindering them. There is a reason even the most highly experienced  airline pilots still follow a written check list before takeoff. It’s because they work. Your crew should have one similar to implement on every port of call, regardless of location.

 protection prevention2

To Arm or Not?

Many 'security service' companies are advocates of weapons training and unarmed combat.  The theory is that by training crews in unarmed combat or the use of firearms they can somehow battle their way to safety. CASS Global strongly disagrees with this approach, for the following reasons:

  • As this essay pertains to crew safety ashore, it is self evident that by carrying a concealed firearm ashore in Europe you have now joined the ranks of the criminals. It is illegal and simply won’t work.

  • Marksmanship is a perishable skill, and there exist an appalling number of narratives in professional journals where police officers and soldiers have missed from point blank range. It requires constant practice, costs thousands of dollars, and implies the mental ability to shoot to kill if need be. To provide training en masse is not a realistic option in terms of viable performance expectations under severe stress.

  • All 'fight back' policies, such as firearms and unarmed combat, are reactive plans. Proactive is invariably superior to reactive for reasons discussed earlier.

  • Unarmed combat is a great idea and highly valuable. This is assuming you have several hours a day to practice, and you can do so for a year or two before any altercation. In other words, it is also a highly perishable skill, not to mention requiring a ruthless mindset on an 'on call' basis. Truth is, yacht crews have neither the time nor the inclination- and having a security company provide a day of hand to hand combat training is a waste of both time and money. In such a short period of time we are capable of training you only to the point where you become a serious menace to yourself. Study it professionally or leave it alone.

  • It should be noted that protection on the high seas, in dangerous waters, is a completely different topic but is outside the scope of this article.

As mentioned before, the most effective tool to mitigate your becoming a victim is the proactive planning to avoid the incident in the first place. Far better to have the best smoke detectors on the market to catch the fire BEFORE it burns down the house as opposed to the best, state of the art Fire Department  just a mile away which arrives just in time to destroy the 50% of the house which hasn’t already been consumed by flame. Think about it. Prevention trumps cure by a vast margin. Proactive is better than Reactive.

As for security training being mandatory, CASS Global would prefer that it is not. If it becomes regulated, the quality of education will sink to the level of the lowest government bidder, and will conform only to the minimum standards necessary. Conforming to minimum standards is a policy that we have never adhered to. The competent crews will seek intelligent training with quantifiable results while mediocre ones will seek out 'minimum standards'. Our world, in terms of criminal activity ashore, is still Darwinian, and those who best survive extended forays into exotic ports will be noted by those who don’t. Eventually, word will get around. That’s the way it always works.

In conclusion, we strongly feel that the best weapon is the one located between your ears. By switching it to the 'on' position and paying attention to your environment, you bypass 90% of the problem areas without effort. Common sense planning creates boring evenings for your security manager when the crew goes ashore to visit.

In our game, boring is good.


cassglobal logo3

*Image credits: Shutterstock/Iculig ; Shutterstock/Sampien ;OnboardOnline ;  Shutterstock/ and Shutterstock/Alexskopje.

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