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Pro and contra: Weapons on board?

Every skipper who is planning a circumnavigation or an excursion to distant climes considers the issue of “weapons on board” before the trip. Should you take them on board or leave them at home? SeaHelp lists arguments for and against firearms on the yacht and interviewed Germany’s best-known sailor, Bobby Schenk, on the subject.

Carrying firearms on board yachts, especially when sailing around the world or on expeditions, is a controversial and complex issue. There are many arguments both for and against arming yachts. In addition, numerous legal aspects must be taken into account, which vary greatly both nationally and internationally.

Arguments in favor of carrying firearms

1. self-defense: According to many skippers, one of the main arguments for carrying firearms on board is to “protect the crew from potential pirate attacks”.

In his book “Yacht piracy – the new danger“, circumnavigator Klaus Hympendahl († 2016) writes: “Today, yacht piracy must be expected wherever poverty and anarchy prevail”.

The focal points are “the coastal areas of Somalia, the Gulf of Aden, Indonesia, Venezuela, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Honduras, Brazil and Cape Verde, with Indonesia recording by far the most attacks”. Even in the Mediterranean, off Albania and Morocco, sailors are not safe from robberies.

2. deterrence: The mere presence of firearms can deter potential attackers and increase the safety of the crew – at least that’s what you occasionally hear at the skippers’ regulars’ table.

3. animal protection: On expeditions to remote areas, it may be “necessary to protect yourself from wild animals”, such as polar bears in the polar region around the North Pole.

Excursus: Legal basis in Germany

In Germany, the carrying of firearms is subject to strict legal regulations, which are set out in the Weapons Act (WaffG). The main points are:

1. firearms license: Permits under firearms law are issued after application and examination of the requirements by the competent firearms authority in the form of firearms possession cards and firearms licenses, among other things.

2. applicant: The applicant must be of legal age, i.e. have reached the age of 18, have the required reliability and personal suitability as well as expertise, in order to be granted a firearms permit.

3. transport and storage: Anyone in possession of weapons or ammunition must take the necessary precautions to prevent the items from being lost or taken by third parties without authorization. Even the (spouse) partner or other persons living in the home are not authorized to handle the weapon.

Details on the storage of weapons and ammunition are regulated in § 36 of the Weapons Act (WaffG) and in §§ 13 and 14 of the General Weapons Act Ordinance (AWaffV), whereby the following principles must be observed: Weapons and the associated ammunition may only be stored separately from each other in the appropriate security containers (gun cabinets, safes).

Depending on the type and number of weapons to be stored and the degree of danger they pose, different technical requirements apply to the safety containers in accordance with the norms and standards of the German Institute for Standardization (DIN) or the German Engineering Federation (VDMA). This also applies to yachts.

4. export license: An export license for firearms is required for international (sea) voyages. Permission to take weapons or ammunition to another country may be granted if the applicant is entitled to acquire and possess the weapons in accordance with the Weapons Act, the prior consent required under the law of the other country has been obtained and safe transportation by the applicant is guaranteed.

When taking weapons or ammunition abroad, it is advisable to obtain information about the current regulations from the local authorities in advance. Please note: although the same customs regulations apply within the EU member states, there are also different firearms regulations.

Arguments against carrying firearms

1. legal risks: The legal requirements and regulations are complex and vary from country to country. Violations (even unknowingly) can lead to severe penalties, including confiscation of the weapons, heavy fines and/or imprisonment.

2. Risk of escalation: Carrying firearms can lead to an escalation of conflicts. Pirates are often heavily armed and the use of firearms could exacerbate the situation.

A sad example is the death of the well-known sailor Sir Peter Blake. In 1995, Blake led the New Zealand team with the yacht Black Magic to victory in the 29th America’s Cup (AC) and defended this title in 2000 with New Zealand in the 30th AC as the first non-American participant.

On December 6, 2001, Blake’s SY SEAMASTER was anchored off Macapá near the mouth of the Amazon River, awaiting customs clearance, when pirates boarded the boat. They stole an outboard motor and several watches. After Peter Blake resisted (with a rifle), he was shot dead by one of the pirates. Two other crew members were seriously injured.

3. accident risk: Weapons on board increase the risk of accidents, especially if the crew is not sufficiently trained in the use of firearms.

4. Insurance issues: Carrying firearms can increase insurance premiums or mean that certain insurance policies do not apply.

The opinion of an experienced practitioner: Booby Schenk

Germany’s best-known sports sailor Bobby Schenk has his own opinion on the subject of “weapons on board”. In his column “Speaking into the wind 59” on his website, he spoke out strictly against carrying firearms on board a yacht.

SaHelp spoke about this topic with the author of numerous sailing books and travel reports, who was born in Munich in 1939.

SeaHelp: Mr. Schenk, do you need weapons on board to sail your boat around the world?

Bobby Schenk: There are really only three things you need to sail around the world: the crew has to fit and pull along, the ship has to be safe, and the finances have to be right. Weapons are certainly not one of them.

Nevertheless, I still get a lot of questions on this subject: what weapons should I take on board or not? If so, which weapon, which license, where to get the weapon(s)? How do I obtain an official permit? And so on.

There have even been visitors to my website who have struggled for months with the administrative authorities and also litigated in order to obtain a gun ownership card and thus finally be able to legally purchase a gun.

What experience have you gained in this regard in your decades of on-board practice?

Unfortunately, the discussion on the subject of “weapons on board” is conducted with outlandish arguments, so that the reverent listener is completely unsettled.

A few keywords here: “If you have a weapon on board, you have to use it without hesitation” (what bullshit!) or “Weapons on board are dangerous” or “I have to protect my family” or “My weapon won’t be found”.

Unfortunately, and this is the strange thing about this topic, mind you among adults, hardly anyone is able to see this problem without prejudice and draw the appropriate conclusions.

A friend of mine, a very harmless sort of person who had never raised the subject of weapons with me before he set off with his children to sail around the world, had to experience the police in the West Indies questioning him about the origin of his poorly concealed three guns and ammunition during a raid on a ship. Anyone can imagine the consequences.

Another wanted to fly home from his yacht and took his pistol, disassembled into its individual parts, with him in his pocket. He then had to travel three times from home to the court hearing in Turkey to finally receive the harsh sentence.

The same thing happened to a German who wanted to fly home from Trinidad, also with a gun in his bag. Sentence: six years in prison.

An American yachty, a former officer, had a gun on his yacht in Indonesia, officially registered with the “necessary papers”. When he duly declared this to the port captain, the latter confiscated the (expensive) weapon, with the terse justification that weapons are generally prohibited on yachts here and should therefore be confiscated.

It was only when the yachtsman contacted the American ambassador that he was able to pick up his gun again three hundred kilometers away, in the capital.

Did you have weapons on board yourself during your cruises?

Yes, in the seventies we carried a .38 revolver on board the THALASSA, which we declared whenever we were asked about it in writing or verbally.

Nobody was particularly interested in it, neither in the Mediterranean nor overseas. Only in Panama (Colon), a criminal’s nest, did the police take the weapon under lock and key without much formality.

There was never a situation where I would have been tempted to have my revolver ready as a precaution during the many years of sailing around the world. But it was also a time when things were still very peaceful almost everywhere in the world, at least where yachts passed by.

In the eighties, we were already more heavily armed and the authorities took things a little more seriously. In Polynesia, our weapons were therefore officially locked up for years, a dungeon with the yachties’ weapons, which could certainly have been used to successfully wage any civil war.

Apart from a rifle in the hands of an American trained as a soldier, I am not aware of a single case where the use of one’s own (fire) weapon would have prevented an attack.

So a clear “no” to the “weapons on board” question?

Indeed. The story of my heavy Smith & Wesson revolver, which I bought on professional recommendation and after training at the State Criminal Police Office in Germany, shows just how “useful” a weapon was in my case.

If I calculate the usefulness of this weapon, it was available to me for almost exactly half a year in ten years, i.e. a paltry five percent, and only on the high seas. The rest of the time it was “kept by the authorities”. So the benefit of this weapon is close to zero!

On the other hand, one advantage of the official safekeeping was that for ten years I wouldn’t have been tempted to even think about using the weapon in an emergency.

Today, having weapons on board would be an absolute “no-go” for me! There are only advantages to not having weapons on board: No skirmishing with the authorities. no bills, no storage problems (safe, rust), etc.

What advice can be given to safety-conscious skippers on long voyages who have decided not to have weapons on board?

You should focus your attention on sailing only(!) in recommended areas. Areas where there have been attacks on yachts should be strictly avoided. Only then is a comparison with our home areas, where crime cannot be completely ruled out, permissible.

A signal pistol (caliber 4), and thus also the firearms certificate and a corresponding gun ownership card, can also be safely spared. This is because the difficulties in practice, i.e. in the eyes of the immigration officers, are the same as with a “real” firearm.

A signal pistol or even rockets were once effective in the Titanic era, but today they can be replaced much more effectively by various radio signals (or even powerful LED spotlights). This means that it takes just five minutes to prepare for a circumnavigation with weapons on board! (More on this topic).

A good alternative to signaling weapons on board can be over-the-counter signaling devices

(Editor’s note on the topic “Signaling weapons on board“: for those who shy away from acquiring the gun ownership card, which is also required for a 4-calibre signal pistol, as well as the certificate of competence, commercially available signaling devices without these more difficult requirements and proofs can be a good alternative. Hand-held parachute rockets sometimes have the same elevation and flare duration as those that can be fired with a signal pistol. Difference: only an easy-to-obtain certificate of competence in accordance with explosives legislation is required for purchase).

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