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A simple trick to help minimising the impact of a robbery

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What is the issue?
Robberies are rare aboard vessels but they can happen. If you are held up a lot more than your property could be at risk.

Why address this?
Having a plan, as in most difficult or dangerous situations, always helps.

How to address this?
Having a sacrificial cash box that is easily found, or handed over in a crisis, but contains very little of real value can be a useful tradable. It can give you something that appears to have an outsized value that you could use to defuse a tense moment.

A standard lock and key cash box can look the part
Photo: CC0

Small lock and key cashboxes can be picked up from most office suppliers for very little. Carefully print the ship's name on it and label it cashbox with a '£' or '$' symbol to make it look like the ship's stow. Place a few solid rolls of US single dollars bills, that look more valuable than they are, and store all your travel's collected excess currencies here that have little value but look substantive. Likewise, use this as a repository for any out of date credit cards.

The hope is, that if the boat is broken into, the thieves will come upon this and then quickly depart with what appears to be the vessel's primary score. It should be much later that they discover that the foreign denominations are of little value and the credit cards are out of date. Likewise, if you stumble upon a thief or are caught in a hold-up situation it gives you something substantive that you can visibly hand over quickly and without issue, so it could provide the perfect diffuse a tense situation and provide a tool to allow you to extricate yourself.

This a play, but only 'one play' that may not work in a hold-up situation. Please do not rely on this single play to save you in a situation of a physical threat as it is not good enough on its own.


On the whole, you will be less likely to experience issues sailing than you are exposed to living your life normally. For most people that is negligible and we often forget to consider how safe and secure the world is that we live in. Nevertheless, as this piece of experience exposes the complexity of this area, I humbly suggest you take some time aside to take advice and give consideration as to how to deal with situations should you be placed under physical threat.

Personally, being 6' plus, carefree, harmless male of modest means I travelled the world highly secure and, apart from a few offbeat brushes, lived a life that was entirely free from any concern of violent crime. An awakening occurred when my circumnavigated coincided with an engagement with a highly attractive young female. I suddenly woke up one morning to a world where the thing I loved most was as highly attractive as it was vulnerable. Having taken her with me on a circumnavigation and being the skipper, I also felt the responsibility on a few more levels than most.

This caused me to look deeply into this area. The information below is summarisation of my own personal research, findings and deducements largely based upon extreme American data that and neuroscience findings that helped me understand this area. I share this with you, not as an authority, nor to provide you with the basis upon which you should plan your strategies. Rather the intentions is to encourage you to give this area your own consideration, to provide the start of a conversation where you may do your own research and take advice. It is also abiding by the old sailing maxim that goes 'plan for the worst, hope for the best and make the most of what comes along'.

I found that I could break the research into potentially violent situations I covered could be broken down into three sets of three. The first two sets characterise the bad actor(s) and the latter being the decision-making framework and the strategies that you have available when caught in such a situation.

Bad actors normally want one of three things, in escalating order:

  • • Your resources.

  • • Your body.

  • • Your life.

They have three weak spots that they need to avoid:

  • • Getting caught.

  • • Getting hurt.

  • • To be in the situation for a long time.

Taking broad simplifications as a given your strategies are, again in escalating order: detect, diffuse, and defend that I will expand upon.

  • Detect. The other old sailing maximum of 'it's better to be a thousand times too careful than once dead' comes into play here. When violent events are recounted every victim always say the same set of words in one form or another 'I had a bad feeling'. This is perhaps the most critical point to focus on as we have the most extraordinary tool that we are all almost entirely unaware of, our subconscious mind.

    The stated 'bad feeling' is the subconscious mind processing the developing situation and signalling danger. It is how it communicates that it is picking up on a bad pattern that has not been fully identified in the conscious mind. The subconscious has a processing capability of 11 million bps (bits of information per second) is super fast and up to 9 seconds faster than your conscious mind. Our conscious minds can only process 40 bps and servers to run like a veto on the faster subconscious mind's action.

    One of the key functions of the subconscious is to look out for aberrant patterns and to assess people coming into your field of view. From the first moment a person is spotted the subconscious immediately starts asking ‘is this person friend or foe?’ and it starts looks for cues that we do not even consciously notice the vast majority of the time. It will have this decided by the time the person is about 3.5 metres, or 12, feet away. That particular distance is pervasive in human research as it represents the historical distance where we have enough time to react appropriately. For instance for a mother to reign in a toddler when it waddles out of her safe reaction distance or, as in this case, get our fists up and fight or run for our life.

    The subconscious has a set of tells which is just as important here. Humans operate to unconscious driven wishes, desires, intent. That is we make an unconscious ‘I want that’ decision and then our bodies start to act it out. We literally embody that decision and start acting on the intent. How often have you found yourself needing a drink to find yourself filling the glass of water without even thinking of it? Because our subconscious is so fast and intent-driven our conscious minds spend most of our day running veto to it or explaining to ourselves why we just decided what we did rather than deciding consciously - like a reverse salesperson.

    Why this is important is when a bad actor decides to do you harm, that intention will be keyed into their physical demeanour. No matter how they might consciously try to conceal it your subconscious mind, continually running its processes with its speed and pattern observational ability, will pick up on even a nanosecond's lapse. It will then send the alarm as always as an impulse 'I have a bad feeling'. So when we get that feeling the subconscious has spotted something wrong with an individual or situation that we are not even consciously aware of yet. Then the danger is the slow conscious mind, that tends to be fixed of purpose, can decide to veto it.

    The reason why it is important to understand the mechanics here is to know you have the evolutionary most magnificent and unparalleled set of equipment telling you 'this situation is wrong, wake up, think safety. In short, if you get a bad feeling, act on it! Never shrug it off as an inconvenience with the self-deceiving 'it's probably nothing'. It is something.

    If you get that feeling... don't anchor in that particular place, come int that pier, don't land in the dinghy, don't go down that street, and, above all don't let that guy persuade you 'don't worry, everything is fine...'. Turn around, move to what represents the safest option in that moment.

    Listen to that voice, it is something. There is no downside to choosing safety except at worst a little embarrassment perhaps, the odd person being put out and a little mocking banter... who cares? It's a lot easier not to get into a mess than get out of one once you are in one. This takes us to the next level of escalation.

  • Diffuse. Now you are in a situation it is the time to totally switch on. Know that you are now up for your resources, your body or your life, in that order and that you have to figure out which it is and deal with it. The number one thing you have to do is accept what is happening right now because our natural inclination is to go into denial. That's because denial is much more pleasant, much better experience than what is really happening.
    Aim for the first level and try diffuse the situation by passing over your resources, with something like the above cash box strategy. Try to calmly negotiate the criminal away at the resources level. You can say 'take it, no harm done, just go, we will not follow you and we will leave it at this, there is no need to make this worse than it is'. Resources can be particularly difficult to determine if held-up in a boat situation. The boat is the primary resource and all its contents may very well be what they want and in a remote location, that is not easy to detect, time may be on their side.

  • Defend. If you attacker can't be sent away by giving them resources, you have to accept the situation is escalating to the next levels, your body or your life. You then have only one recourse, to fight!

    Don't go into denial at this point, and let your mind try to sell you a nicer story, you have to accept the situation. Your criminal isn't an ordinary decent person that you can project your nature and approaches upon, it will not end well if you do that. If you co-operate with a mugger you get mugged, in that you lose some immediate resources. If you cooperate with a rapist you get raped and if you cooperate with a killer you are going to get killed.

    It's in your DNA to fight, you don't even have to think about it. Understand the situation, make a plan and throw everything at it 100%. Crime statistics show that people who fight back have better outcomes. It's not who is right that wins a fight, it is who is left.

This is a summary of what I found to underpin this area. I am delighted to say, for the vast majority of people this will be entirely irrelevant to the course of their lives. Although it is easy to focus on the bad things that happen, it is extraordinary how peaceful the human condition is as a whole. A quarter of a century later, neither my wife or our subsequent children have yet to experience such a situation. Nor to my knowledge has anyone that I know from my immediate circuit of acquaintances.

I still believe it is good to have a good grounding in this area that this research provides. When my children go out into the world and start to make their own way I will discuss this with them and make one personal request going forward. Should they ever feel the impulse 'something's wrong'... listen to it, look for the safest option available in that moment, then act on it.

With thanks to:
Michael Harpur, Yacht Obsession.
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