Piracy in the Caribbean and Southeast Asia

Part of the craziness of my cruising life is that my two favorite cruising destinations in the world—the Caribbean and Southeast Asia—completely misunderstand each other. Even stranger, they misunderstand each other on the same weird, sensational subject: piracy. Each thinks the other is riddled with bloodthirsty pirates. Nothing could be further from the truth. 

Let’s take a look at the Malacca Straits. To a sailor knocking back a shot of rum on St. Thomas, St. Barts, Antigua, or Grenada, the Straits might seem like a desolate, lawless place teeming with Islamic desperados. It is not. It is one of the heaviest-transited marine corridors in the world, with more modern, cyber-wired ships per square mile, at sea and at anchor, than almost anywhere else. What little crime there is, is a result of its amazing density of traffic, not its isolation nor lawlessness. 

In one way, it is like the Bermuda Triangle. Landlubbers see an astounding number of perplexing mysteries. While intelligent, observant sailors see a densely packed area of international shipping that is heavily traveled by a wide variety of commercial craft—most of which have relatively few problems. 

Perhaps we should begin by defining piracy.

  • One definition is the Johnny Depp one. We’re all familiar with that pegleg, parrot-on-shoulder, deadmen-tell-no-tales version.
  • Definition #2 is crime aboard. 

Let’s say a kid in Sint Maarten is walking down a dock with his boombox blaring reggae. He sees a school chum who is listening to rap music while sanding a mahogany railcap—and stops to chat. Naturally, it is time for a break. Herbal medications are discussed. They both go belowdecks to self-medicate. While they’re attending Ganja University, some light-fingered Euro yachtie strolls by and steals both the boombox off the dock and the boombox off the deck.

One is a petty crime of little note outside Simpson Bay, the other would statistically live for a hundred years as an act of piracy if committed in the Malacca Straits.

Huh?  

Because of the existence of the International Chamber of Commerce’s Maritime Piracy Reporting Center in Malaysia, every slight crime regarding commercial ships is carefully noted, categorized, parsed, compared, and forever rebroadcast. 

All of which is fine. Data is good. Truth matters. But we must bear in mind that a dearth of crime reporting and a surplus of it can be the same thing—if it is the same data being parsed. 

Let’s look at two individual islands. Dominica is almost exactly the same size as Singapore—but its shipping industry is… well, modest. Singapore, however, has over 100,000 ships pass through its waters annually and a new ship enters Singapore every two to three minutes 24/7—with over 1,000 ships at anchor at any given moment. Each of these anchored ships require a plethora of support craft and a major law enforcement presence to service their varied industrial and human needs. 

Thus, the shipping industry of Singapore generates billions of dollars in revenue each year. 

Singapore is relatively low in crime. Dominica is…not. Nor is Dominica famous for its recordkeeping and international statistics dispersal. However, Singapore has 100 times the population of Dominica, thousands of times more ships, and billions of dollars more money floating around. 

Which do you think reports more pilferage from its ports?

You guessed it—Singapore!

Is there crime in Dominica? Yes! Is there crime in Singapore? Yes! Is either destination crawling with pirates? 

No. 

And when you’re dealing with apples and oranges, it is easy to get confused. It is also easy to massage such data to get the result you want—regardless of what that result might be. And it is always more comforting to view the other guy (other color, other culture, other religion) as lawless and evil rather than to take a good hard look at one’s self. 

Let’s focus on Malaysia for a moment. 

Malaysia is a relatively poor country that benefits from a huge spillover of shipping wealth from the economic miracle that is Singapore. But Malaysia doesn’t have the ports, police, nor the infrastructure that Singapore does. Thus, nearly all commercial traffic in Malaysia is anchored out and unguarded. 

Now, the whole purpose of shipping is to get cargo to its destination. So shipping companies have a tendency to either lock up their cargo or go out of business. 

However, most Third World vessels have their crew quarters forward—along with the galley, pantry, and ship’s stores area. These areas are used constantly during the day and usually unlocked. And people get lax. Teefs know this. Especially hungry teefs—the most motivated teefs of all. 

Thus, at night, open vessels with dozens of teenage swimmers drift through the anchorage. One or two kids slip into the water before each massive freighter on moonless nights. They easily trot up the anchor chain and grab what they can. If there’s a lot of stuff that floats laying around, they either toss or lower it into the water. If an alarm is raised, they simply dive over the side and are picked up by their speedboat. Yes, most of the stolen stuff tossed into the water randomly is lost—but who cares? Some of it is recovered by the teefs and that’s all that matters. 

Is this piracy? Yes, it certainly is. Criminals have boarded a ship and made off with its valuables. 

But it’s more ‘petty piracy,’ correct? Yes, and some crime models and insurance statistics account for this significant fact and some don’t. And organizations like the Piracy Reporting Bureau in Malaysia might not be as transparent as one might think. They have pretty nice offices. Pretty nice cars. Pretty nice phones. Who finances them? Why? 

Obviously, dishonest people in the shipping industry, insurance industry, and tourism industry might skew nebulous figures in slightly different directions for different reasons, right? 

The marine media (that would be me and other literate reprobates who can’t find shore jobs) often plays a role—and, occasionally, not a good one. Even journalists writing for freely-distributed fish-wrappers have to ‘sell papers’ on some level. Which am I more likely to focus on—ho-hum shoplifting at the marina’s 7-Eleven convenience store or Piracy Upon the High Seas? 

We all do this to some degree. Which is a Caribbean cruiser more likely to comment on to a pal—a ten day stretch of ‘no crime’ reported by the Safety and Security SSB net or the day a stolen dinghy in Trinidad is hot news in western Puerto Rico?

And is there some kernel of truth to all these sensational matters? I mean, does the occasional charter yacht in the Caribbean get boarded and its crew get sliced and diced red with machetes? Yes, occasionally. 

Is that horrible? Yes, it certainly is. I do not intend to make light of it. But the question isn’t whether it happens but rather how often and how likely it is to happen to us? 

And should we realistically fear it?

Part of the reason that I’ve had such a wonderful 68-year-long cruising life is because I try to keep my hopes more buoyant and empowering than my fears. 

Do small mobile ‘fuel barges’ in the Malacca Straits occasionally get boarded and forced to raft alongside nameless rusty tankers to offload its fuel at gunpoint? Yeah, sometimes. And this isn’t good. 

But the bottom line is this: most charterers and world cruisers are relatively safe aboard their vessels in the Caribbean and the Malacca Straits. I’ve cruised up and down the Lesser Antilles and the Malacca dozens of times over four wonderful decades with my wife and child (and now grandkids) without a problem. 

We have to keep things in perspective: I was born on Englewood Avenue on the southside of Chicago while surrounded by heavily-armed police officers—now there’s a dangerous place! (end). 

Currently Fatty and Carolyn divide their time undersail between here and there—and everywhere else damp in between.

Cap'n Fatty Goodlander
Cap’n Fatty Goodlander has lived aboard for 53 of his 60 years, and has circumnavigated twice. He is the author of Chasing the Horizon and numerous other marine books. His latest, Buy, Outfit, and Sail is out now. Visit: fattygoodlander.com