Industry » Safety & Security » Security at Sea: Commercial vs Private

Security at Sea: Commercial vs Private

shawn englebrecht cass global new

There is, among the seafaring community, a number of misconceptions as regards “security at sea”. 

Sidestepping the issue of whether security staff are “seafarers” or not, by developing a better understanding of how they work, informed clients are more likely to choose the type of provider which best fits their particular situation.

Maritime security can be roughly divided into two large segments: commercial and private.

They are alike as chalk is to cheese and it is important to understand the few similarities and marked differences in their approach to security at sea.

The commercial side of the house is tasked to perform a job. It is precisely that, meaning it is fairly regimented operation complete with all the appropriate “manuals” covering every contingency imaginable. It is structured, precise, and leaves limited scope of maneuver for the little guy on the sharp end who is actually performing the task.

For example, a security individual on a large commercial vessel will have clearly defined duty posts, with a directory of standing orders which provide easily understood instructions in case of fire, armed attack, etc.

container ship shutterstoick 600

What most laypersons do not realize is that the manual has been (hopefully) written as a joint effort between the Underwriters, (who have no wish to be sued or forced to pay out), the shipping line, (who have similar objectives AND want to spend the least possible on the security provider in question) and the actual security provider (who have similar objectives and want the MOST people possible at the highest rates to maximize profit).

As can be deduced, there will be a process of give and take until equilibrium is established to the minimum extent acceptable by all parties. It is a market competitive process.

The point to remember is that all players will contribute precisely 51% of what they need to in order to meet their profit goals. Think of it as an auction: why pay $100 for something when I can get it for $51.00? Of course this is a snapshot of the free market system which is why it is called “commercial” in the first place.

But because the position has already been constructed and the manual drafted, the prerequisite caliber of individual required to fill it is actually lower, as his role is to execute orders, not promulgate them. For this reason the industry is seeing an influx of 3rd World Nationals, whose skill sets are no where near the quality of all Western teams. But they are cheaper to operate and fill the same role as their First World counterparts, at least on paper.

The organizational hierarchy of commercial Maritime firms, where the guy on board is at the bottom of the intellectual ladder, sounds suspiciously like how Armies and Navies do business. Which is precisely why ex military men represent the majority of the personnel engaged in Maritime security.

The private sector is nothing of the sort. First and foremost, you are providing a service that is much broader in scope than any manual.

yacht securityoff website


Please note the following:

  • Security managers on private vessels usually have to “create the manuals” on a custom basis, working with the vessel and crew en situ. No two situations are ever quite the same hence the need for highly qualified and forward thinking security managers.

  • There is rarely a third party, as opposed to shipping lines and underwriters. You work for the boss, who usually owns the yacht. You will interact closely with the Captain. So in this case that 51% discussed in Commercial operations is now 49% shy of what is needed. There is no division of labor or mixed loyalties. As a general rule working for a single master creates a more streamlined workflow. The other side of the coin is that expectations are much higher.

  • Security managers in the private sector are afforded much greater freedom of action than their counterparts in the commercial side. Greater reliance is placed on initiative, cross training with the crew, etc. This all requires a higher caliber of individual.

  • Lastly, any staff member in the Private sector, regardless of position, fully comprehends there is an implied consent to an unwritten part of the job description which states, “and whatever else it takes to complete the mission”.  As a Security Officer on a private vessel, one had best be prepared to drive the tender, pick up groceries in port, and take drink orders in a pinch. This will not happen on commercial operations.

  • Security staff on private vessels are a more visible ambassador of their employer than security staff on Commercial assignments. Therefore grooming standards, grammar, syntax, and verbage are all expected to be a notch above their commercial counterparts.

  • Because of different job descriptions, Private Security managers have a greater chance of having Special Operations backgrounds in the military OR have no military background whatsoever. There is an increased emphasis on “thinking outside the box” and creativity than exist in the commercial sector. In this capacity civilians can outperform their more regimented military peers.

  • Security Officers in the Private Sector spend more time under the collective microscope than their commercial cousins. It is far easier to get fired in the Private sector than the commercial. A simple “I don’t like him” is usually all that is required.


reactive proactive sign 250 cropCASS Global would term the commercial security sector Reactive. They respond to external stimuli predicated upon pre written contingency planning designed precisely for such situations.

The private side is Proactive. They are an integral part of the process, leaning forward to proactively avoid hostile situations in the first place and only falling into a Reactive posture when absolute necessary.

So at the end of the day, we are really comparing apples to oranges. Private yachts and guided missile cruisers both have “crews” in the broadest sense of the term, but how those crews operate can be wildly divergent.

Security is indeed “different” predicated upon how it is to be implemented. The trick is knowing which methodology is best suited for you.


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*Image credits:  Shutterstock/weerasak saeku , Cass Global, Shutterstock/iQoncept

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