- March 31st, 2009
- in Yachting
CRIME: Should Yachties Worry? – The recent tragedies in Antigua and Puerto Rico involving professional yacht crew—in Antigua, Captain Drew Gollan was shot and killed while trying to protect his wife and child from a robbery, while in Fajardo, PR, Chef Sara Kuszak was abducted and murdered while out jogging—led to a flurry of outrage and concern among the Caribbean's boating community. The news that Ms Kuszak was five months pregnant only added to the indignation.
Of course, the fact that both these victims were yacht crew was incidental to their fate—they could just as easily have been airline crew or librarians on holiday—and did nothing to diminish the impact of the crimes. The shock was amplified too by the fact that such events are virtually unknown here in the BVI. An occasional dinghy theft, one documented (and vicious) assault aboard a bareboat, a well-documented robbery or two over the past few years add up to not very much in the overall picture of crime in the BVI.
Recently, though, armed robbers accosted victims in Road Town and at Brewer's Bay campground in what may be related incidents. The fact that robbers with handguns can feel emboldened to commit robberies in busy areas—one robbery took place as diners walked from Le Cabanon restaurant to the Village Cay marina—is a sign of a deteriorating security situation.
The factors that make the BVI such an ideal cruising ground—many of the islands are only lightly inhabited, there is no “boat boy” culture so prevalent further south, the charter community doesn't get to mingle much with the community at large—also make it generally a safe and secure destination for boaters. Add to that the status of the BVI as one of the world's wealthiest nations with strict immigration controls and little functional poverty, and the conditions for criminal mischief are greatly reduced, though the situation seems to be changing.
Should yachtsmen and women be concerned about safety in the BVI? Does the recent news from neighbouring islands offer a harbinger of trouble to come? As far as the charter business goes, according to Tim Schaaf, president of the BVI Charter Yacht Society, “whenever a story involves yachties it always gets attention.” Addressing the larger issue of crime and security on boats in the BVI, Schaaf said that things didn't seem any worse now than, say, a year ago. “There always seems to be a rash 'of events' then it settles down again,” he told the BVIYG.
One victim who has experienced such an event first-hand is Captain Doug of charter yacht Mustang Sally who has had his dinghy stolen not once but twice since Christmas, “The first time it was stolen in Jost Van Dyke and we found it in Red Hook (St. Thomas),” Doug told BVIYG recently. “The second time it was stolen from the boat in Red Hook and we found it on the dinghy dock in St. John,” he said. While admitting that these thefts were more likely ones of convenience—somebody wanting to get from, say, Foxy's to St. Thomas late at night—Doug said they were still hugely inconvenient and costly. These days he locks the dinghy at every opportunity.
Such events often get reported in online message boards such as traveltalkonline.com or the charter crews' own Internet group and then filter out into the general population, growing and changing as the story spreads. Occasionally the same event spawns myriad versions of itself. A single instance of multiple dinghy theft in Soper's Hole a couple of years ago has morphed into an epidemic of dinghy skulduggery in the telling and re-telling. “Guests are reading a lot of stuff online,” Penny Compton of TMM told BVIYG. “The problem is, a lot of it is misinformation,” she said. “Recently a group of guests were concerned about all the crime on Anegada and were sorry they weren't going to go there. It was only when they started talking about banking scandals that we realized they were really talking about Antigua, not Anegada.”
Many charter companies confine their warnings to Cane Garden Bay, which was the scene of a series of boat thefts last year. Prompt action by police and the local community however led to the recovery of much of the stolen property. Both CGB and Trellis Bay have implemented some version of a community watch to deal with any problems that arise around the Full Moon parties that take place each month—CGB being the preferred anchorage for visitors heading to the Bomba Shack in Apple Bay.
Of course dinghy theft and, less often, boat robbery do occur and can be real problems in the BVI. But, Tim Schaaf asks “How many times do hotel rooms or villas get robbed? Do we ever hear about those?” Horizon Yacht Charters Henry Leonning echoed Schaaf by saying he asks guests, “If you were staying in a hotel would you lock the door when you went out? A boat's no different.”
When asked about the advice TMM gives to its guests, Penny Compton said they offer warnings about Cane Garden Bay and require that guests secure their dinghies with the lock and cable provided for that purpose. Voyage Yacht Charters likewise advise their guests to lock dinghies and to lock all hatches and doors, particularly when in CGB, even during the day. Voyage's Alice Downing told BVIYG that guests “are surprised when we tell them to lock their dinghies. They aren't expecting any trouble here in the BVI.” While emphasizing security, “we try not to scare them,” she said.
That popular anchorage was also on the mind of one other charter company that preferred to remain anonymous, saying only that they didn't recommend guests go to Cane Garden Bay at all, but if they did so, to lock the boat and hide valuables. Ironically, it was our report last year on a robbery in Cane Garden Bay, in which a charter yacht lost a number of electronic items—laptop, cameras, as well as several thousand dollars in cash—that received much criticism on traveltalkonline, where posters went so far as to question the existence of the charter captain referred to in that story and imply that the whole story was a fabrication. Now, there are some in the BVI, particularly those involved in the hospitality business, who would prefer that the subject of crime not be broached so as not to disturb tourists—a sort of “not in front of the children” approach which would leave the discussion entirely in the realm of gossip and speculation.
The fact that Cane Garden Bay has been singled out by the various charter companies can't bode well for business there (and we will address the specific issue of CGB in an upcoming issue) although there has been concern about the area for some time. A couple years ago, the Moorings donated a rather nice centre-console dinghy to the residents of CGB to use in policing the mooring field there but it seems to have disappeared down the rabbit hole, as so many expensive dinghies do. We asked the Moorings about the content of their briefings to charter guests and were told that they make no specific warnings about specific destinations. Neither does that company issue cables or locks to secure dinghies. Fellow Tui Marine brand, Sunsail, used to issue cables and locks when they were an independent company but that practice seems to have stopped. One of the Sunsail chart briefers told BVIYG that they issue no special warnings about particular destinations.
The Charter Yacht Society's Tim Schaaf recommends three courses of action to maintain security. “It's contrary to regulations, but I believe you should never put the name of your yacht on the dinghy,” Schaaf said “otherwise everyone will know when you're off the boat. Remember, most hatches can be locked, and they should be,” he said, “and never use the VHF to make dinner reservations, use a cell phone instead,” when in such anchorages as Cane Garden Bay or Trellis Bay, particularly at Full Moon. “We always leave lights on and the radio playing,” Schaaf said, laughing, “and we try to keep in mind an old cruisers' rule—never invite anybody aboard who doesn't have as nice a boat as you do.”
Other recent events in Antigua—this time centred around malfeasance in the banking sector—have led to widespread concern about profound economic disruption there, as the Stanford Bank ceases business whilst under investigation. Should similar disruptions occur here and result in large levels of unemployment and extreme reactions by desperate people, then we can expect all kinds of changes in the levels of crime and criminal activity. In the meantime, the best advice seems to be to prepare for the worst whilst still expecting the best out of the BVI. This way you may be surprised but let's hope you won't be disappointed.