Industry » Safety & Security » Loose Lips Sink Ships: Yacht Security

Loose Lips Sink Ships: Yacht Security

Shawn Cass Global2

This feature focuses on the current portrayal and stereotyping of yacht security companies and armed guards in the mainstream media.

The usual focus in the yachting media is on anti-piracy measures, but we take a broader look at the varied work undertaken, including anti-piracy/theft (awareness onboard), vessel recovery, close protection (body guards), crew safety and self defense (awareness ashore).

CASS Global concedes the stereotype of ‘maritime security’ in the form of physically intimidating, well-armed former soldiers does in fact represent a considerable portion of the industry today. The reason?  Misinformed clients still pay for it, ergo security companies still sell it.

In order to demonstrate a more effective methodology we must first touch upon three commonly accepted truisms in the superyacht community.

  1. If you own a superyacht you are financially in the ultra high net worth bracket. This implies you have a need for personal security and can afford to equip your vessel with the technical means necessary to defeat attempted piracy/boarding. Therefore, criminals assume that security exists, thus the next step for them is to identify it in order to negate it.

  2. There is not a competent captain in the world who does not cast a long, hard eye at security. And although it’s not talked about, superyachts plying international waters have no shortage of weapons aboard. Yet for all that, most captains will readily concur that their greatest source of grief in any given voyage does not come from external threats but rather from the internal performance of their own crews.

  3. Technology, in the form of radar, thermal imagery, night visions devices, and communications is now sophisticated enough that we have the technical means to defeat nearly any form of attack on the high seas.

The hard truth in yacht security is that the weakest link in the entire chain is the human one. Exhaustive security audits we have completed over many years have clearly traced the trail of culpability to the following causes:

Inexperienced/naive crewmembers:

How many times have we, in the yachting community, watched entry level crew members indulge in a few drinks too many at some exotic port of call? Where they happily boast about owners and itineraries to all within earshot?  Great effort was expended on both sides of the Atlantic in World War Two on a public awareness campaign that touted, ‘Loose Lips Sink Ships.’ The rules have not changed, but we fail to act accordingly.

Lack of focus on duty:

A skiff or dhow one nautical mile away moving at twenty knots is alongside in three minutes. If you are in fact faced with a hostile event three minutes is precious little time to implement a critical decision making process. Many crew members still suffer from the ‘It can’t happen to me’ syndrome. They are not alone. Survivors in lifeboats paddling through the frigid North Atlantic still referred to the Titanic as ‘unsinkable’. The only remedy is a robust training plan and dismissal of weak team members.


Poor security integration:

photo 18By this, we are referring to the concept of security as an isolated node existing alongside routine shipboard operations. The security element dwells in ‘a world apart’ from the rest of the crew. In our opinion this is a disastrous approach and creates more problems than it solves. There is no room on a sea going vessel for an ‘us and them’ camp.

Another potential problem is the internal mindset of the security element, who often strive to separate themselves from the rest of the crew. By showcasing themselves as the stereotype of ‘men in black suits with guns’ style security, they are in fact lowering the security posture of the vessel while simultaneously alienating themselves from the rest of the crew.


Poor crew training:

There is a reason that naval forces spend months on sea trials before declaring a Capital ship operational. The better trained the crew, the higher the level of performance the master can expect in times of crisis. If we, as a community opt to bypass realistic, performance based training in lieu of comfort, then we have abstained from any form of risk mitigation and opted to bank on luck. Luck, in our experience, is a poor alternative to intelligent preparation. The captain is not paid to be nice. He is paid to safely and efficiently operate a vessel on the high seas. There is a difference.


Subcontracting local nationals in lieu of Westerners:

In a move eerily reminiscent of the war in Iraq, large numbers of maritime security providers are leaning out the presence of Western security personnel in favor of much cheaper local national talent. Though the paper equation remains the same in terms of manpower and qualifications, the true performance curve takes a nose dive in times of stress, which is precisely when you need them the most. The graph was identical in Iraq and Afghanistan and there is no valid reason that history won’t repeat itself on the high seas. It is a case of ‘when’, not ‘if’.


The Correct Approach

Yacht security elements should be contracted for overall performance as opposed to physical looks and firearms proficiency. A skilled security manager is a potential force multiplier to the captain in a multitude of applications, some of which are as follows:


There are two types of crews: Proactive and Reactive. Proactive crews seize the initiative while reactive ones cede it. Proactive crews are constantly running contingencies in their head, often called the ‘what if’ scenario. They are able to control intelligence that could be of value to the opposition, look out for each other ashore, and have received rigorous training to negate dangerous situations.

Confident and capable, they are able to construct intangible barriers around themselves, their client, and their vessel. The opposition finds them difficult to attack as they are unable to discern any chink in the crew’s collective armor.

‘Better to move on to easier prey’ says the criminal mind when confronted with proactive crews.

photo 16Reactive crews have already ceded the initiative to the enemy. They move unawares, ignore the ‘loose lips sink ships’ memo, and strive to perform just to the minimum standard necessary for continued employment.

In so doing, they have provided sufficient intelligence for any criminal element to plan an attack.

And once that attack occurs, the recipient is in a reactive mode, which is the last place you need to be once events begin to spiral out of control. Once ceded, the strategic initiative is extremely difficult to recover. Better to not go there in the first place.

A professional security manager, working hand in glove with the captain, can transform mediocre crews into highly proactive ones, thus mitigating the majority of risk before ever even having been exposed to it.

Operational Security:

Security must have the ability to teach the rest of the crew the principles of Operational Security, which tightly control the release of confidential information into the yachting community at large. By educating the crew on the cycle of violence and how it is perpetrated by criminal elements, we are in fact elevating our overall security posture. If the opposition does not know who we are or where we are going to, it becomes increasingly difficult to attack us, due to a lack of actionable intelligence.

To that end, our security operatives are very low profile, and avoid the stereotype of the bodyguard while ashore. While highly competent, we create confusion in onlookers by not clearly displaying our role, unlike the ‘men in black’ approach. This makes it difficult to discern who we really are, which is advantageous. Indeed, the greatest compliment we can earn is when a guest passes us his dinner jacket, on the assumption that we are personal assistants or service staff. This style is Proactive security. Large men in ill-fitting suits (the media stereotype bodyguard) are reactive style security.


Crew Training:

One of CASS Global’s greatest success has been our ability to harmonize teams into one collective whole, all pulling together towards mutual success. Globe trotting yachts, whatever their size, are too small for internal cliques. What does that mean?

photo 14This concept implies that shore-going crews should have the basics of counter surveillance training to detect possible threats while hostile elements are still in the intelligence-gathering phase. It means that security personnel need to stand watch like everybody else and become competent in executing the mundane tasks of shipboard life, just like their peers in other departments.

It underscores that ALL personnel, regardless of position, should understand the rudiments of navigation, engine control, communications, anti-boarding drills, etc. To be in a time of crisis and be faced with a ‘now what?’ scenario because the only competent individual is absent is testament to lack of training. We all need to remember that SOLAS, and any other pertinent regulations, only strive to impose the minimum standards to be held in compliance with regulations. Striving to achieve minimum standards is an admission of mediocrity and only opens the door for criminal acts to be perpetrated against us.


Sea Trials Work Up:

One of the first items on the “to do” list between a competent security manager and the captain is to itemize the critical nodes that represent hazardous conditions for clients and crew.

The second is to aggressively train for precisely those scenarios, employing the harshest training climes we are able to create. They don’t all need to be anti piracy based, as security is a far broader topic.

This type of training is not always initially popular with lax crews but an old analogy best illustrates the point.

There were three old captains, all of whom ran ferries across a seemingly placid river. It was a quiet place where nothing much ever happened.

The first one had a sign which stated, “Nice guy and popular person”.

The second also had a placard on his establishment that read, “Highly punctual. We leave and arrive on time.”

And the third? His advertising proclaimed, “Gruff old bastard. Intolerant of stupidity.  Will get you across the river, regardless.”

As can be imagined, Number three didn’t get much work.

The first got the bulk of the traffic, especially on sunny days when the river was low. Families flocked to him. The second received the majority of business travellers for obvious reasons. Nobody ever used the third.

Then one day a huge storm arrived and torrential rains created mudslides putting the village at risk. The river was a raging torrent and the people were in fear for their lives. Who do you think they opted for when the chips were down and the effects of errors could result in fatalities? When it concerned life and limb, everybody opted for captain #3.

The moral of the story is that popularity and efficiency/safety is not always the same thing. Our overriding mission is to create the safest environment possible for both passengers and crew. Therefore we must train to precisely that end, even if we are gruff old bastards intolerant of stupidity.

To that end, during the work up phase there needs to be man overboard drill at 0300 with simulated casualties while another element simultaneously engages in fire fighting drills. It should not be a finger drill or a check the block exercise, as all too many are.

photo 11We have discovered over the years that after the initial shock is overcome, good crews rise to the occasion and are proud of their collective skills.

Morale and self confidence increase, overall cohesion is improved, and the crew begins to act as a unified whole as opposed to a collection of individuals.

Unexpected dividends for the captain and owner lie in the form of reduced turnover, higher collective skill sets, and reduced attrition due to unwanted incidents ashore. In short, the crew is highly professional and proud of it. And as we know in the security business, those that look and act professional are actually targeted the least. Remember, if you look and act like a target, you are.



When in doubt, focus on the human equation. Education, hard training, and a high standard of collective effort dramatically improve morale. Morale implies professional bearing, competence, and confidence in one’s team members. Well trained professionals deter criminals. Always have and always will.

 Alas, criminals are not so dissimilar to the other dreaded denizens of the deep; the shark. Both prey on the weak, the bleeding, and those in distress. By creating a tightly knit professional organization you are in effect standing your ground and clearly stating, ‘Don’t mess with me.’

And the truth is that 99.9% of the time, neither sharks nor criminals will in fact bump you to determine if you are worth attacking. Why bother, with so many other weak, reactive crews currently plying the seas?

Remember, your worst has to be better than their best. So if you are not proactively leaning forward you are eventually going to come up short.

Think about it.


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