Attempted Piracy?

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slowgoesit

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May 11, 2019
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3,486
Location
United States
Vessel Name
Muirgen
Vessel Make
50' Beebe Passagemaker
As some of you may be aware, Laura and I, aboard MV Muirgen are finishing up our voyage from the PNW, down the West Coast, through the Panama Canal, and now across the Caribbean Sea, enroute to Florida. The following incident occurred several hours ago, and I thought it important enough to share with members on TF.

Location: Caribbean Sea, enroute from San Blas Islands, Panama to Florida.

When/Where: 20 April 2024, 1830 cst. Vicinity of Thunder Knoll, (Lat/Long: 16.21.197N, 81.26.630W) , approximate 175 nm SSW of Grand Caymans, and 140 nm off the coast from Nicaragua/Honduras border.

Description of events: We were heading 319 degrees true, enroute to Yucatan Channel, 8.2 kts SOG.

We were on a course to pass East of Thunder Knoll by about 5 nm.

We observed a vessel on radar in the vicinity of Thunder Knoll (Lat/Long: 16.21.197N, 18.26.630W), heading 225 degrees true, 0.9 kts to 2.4 kts SOG. Vessel was a 50’ to 65’ fishing vessel, white hull, beige superstructure.

As we approached to within about 1.8 nm of the vessel, the vessel changed course to 020, and increased speed to 8.5 kts.

On the radar, the vectors appeared to indicate we were on an interception course.

We turned right 20 degrees to 340 degrees, the vessel turned right to roughly 040, still on an interception course according to the radar. We turned further right 75 degrees, to 055 degrees.

The vessel turned right to about 050, which now placed him in our port quarter.

We increased our speed over ground to 8.8 kts, monitoring RPM and EGT. We weren’t maxed out yet, but close to it.

It was getting dark, and we turned off our NAV lights, and AIS. The other vessel was silhouetted in the sunset on the Western horizon. We were due East of the other vessel, against the darkening horizon.

After about 25 minutes, with several additional course changes which the other vessel mimicked, we had opened the range to about 2.3 nm (from 1.8 nm). At that point, the vessel turned around and headed back to the SSW, decreasing speed to about 3 kts, and eventually to between 0.7 to 1.5 kts, generally back to where he had originally been when we first saw him.

As I write this, he is now 8.4 nm distant, back on a course of 253 degrees at 2.6 kts. Our intent is to clear the area for at least another two hours, then turn our NAV lights and AIS broadcast back on. We still have AIS receive, as well as radar reflectors.

We warned another vessel, SV Courage, who we are in contact with, and who is about 45 nm behind us, and he is changing course to 360 to stand clear to the East of the Thunder Knoll by 30 nm.

For what it’s worth, we got out 4 flare guns, large and small, with about 25 total cartridges, 3 parachute flares, and a Hawaiian Sling. We prepared to lock all the windows, and further prepare to be boarded. Details aren’t important.

I also had United States Coast Guard Sector Key West on my phone ready to call them via wifi calling over Starlink.

We were also prepared to activate two PLB’s and an EPIRP that we would place out of view in various locations. We were also prepared to activate DSC on the VHF as well. None of this may have helped us, but might assist in the individuals being apprehended if things went bad.

We have no way of actually knowing the other vessels intentions, but given our location 140 miles off of the border between Nicaragua and Honduras, and given reports over the Panama Posse and other websites of problems encountered, with recommendations to remain a minimum of 125 nm off land in this area, we were in a state of, shall we say, heightened awareness.

End result is that we are unmolested, and continuing on our way, but it was an interesting situation.

I guess my takeaway from this is that it is better to think through these type of situations before hand, so that if, God forbid, they come up, you already have a basic idea of how you are going to respond.

Tomorrow, I will be discussing the incident with USCG Sector Key West.

Fair winds and following seas to all!

Incident report # 3292 uploaded to CSSN 20 April 2024, 2226 cst.
 
So glad you are safe!
 
It must have been scary. I am glad you are safe. Thank you for highlighting the need to plan for such contingencies.
 
Sounds like you had good reason for concern, and that you have handled it well. Nice job being as prepared as possible for such a situation. Preparation is important to success in most things, and certainly in boating. Stay safe out there.
 
My worst nightmare! Glad the outcome went fine, but must have really rattled you both.

Scot mentions incident report to CSSN. CSSN is a nonprofit reporting group my monitoring safety, theft, and piracy in the Caribbean - vast majority of events are petty thefts such as dinghys, but the zone off the tip of land where Nicaragua meets Honduras has had serious piracy reports in the 2010's with a couple of armed boardings of yachts well offshore.


The App "NoForeignLand" imports these reports and has a very convenient portrayal (see screenshot). Events are categorized as suspicious activity, attempted piracy, and piracy.

Best I can tell, Muirgen was just north of the spot where a very similar event occured last year as reported to CSSN. You'd think being 125 nms offshore would be sufficient. While this is the hottest zone for piracy, there are other pockets including off Venezuela.

We are a year behind Muirgen. Geopolitical risk - which is my broad rubrik to include piracy and theft - has been top of mind for transiting the Caribbean. To me, it's an incredibly challenging leg due to lack of anchorages, weather, ocean currents, lightening, and safety. Coming down the Pacific side is wonderful as it can be broken into a series of day trips with seas generally behind you, and ample ability to be selective about weather. That dramatically changes once through the Panama Canal. I grew up associating the word Caribbean with sunny beaches, bikini clad girls, and umbrella drinks. It's sobering to hear of Scot and Laura's account and a stark reminder of what lies ahead for Weebles.

Thanks for the excellent report Scot. Please update if you get any additional information, especially from USCG. A strong case for Starlink.

Peter
 

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Peter, the initial location of the suspect vessel was 69.5 nm NNE of the incident you reported to me. . . . In the light of the new morning, and the further distance we've traveled from where the incident took place, our stress level has gone down. But this, and similar incidents should serve as cautionary tales that all cruisers should take note of. Best of luck to all!
 
Not good miles from anywhere. At least you had enough fuel and speed to put some distance between them and you. Pirates in a slow boat, that is a new one for me.
 
Not good miles from anywhere. At least you had enough fuel and speed to put some distance between them and you. Pirates in a slow boat, that is a new one for me.
I have wondered the same thing - pirates in a slow boat. But several of the CSSN reports of suspicious activity in that area are similar, including a relatively slow boat such as Muirgen shoveling coal as best they can to the lofty speed of 8-10 knots, and the suspect vessel turning away and seemingly giving up. A 60-ish foot boat should have no problems running 10-kts, especially lightly loaded as a fishing boat that's not fishing would be. One of the CSSN reports from a few years ago was a yacht was rammed by a steel fishing boat, then boarded and robbed. But mostly, the actual threat comes from pangas with machete wielding crew. One report recounts being boarded and robbed by over a dozen men (some of whom were drunk) from three pangas "no guns, no calls, no problem."

As I said, worst nightmare. I cannot imagine what was going through Scot and Laura's mind as this was slowly unfolding. Scot is an ex chopper pilot and is undoubtedly well trained for impossible situations. I have not had the pleasure and have no idea how I'd respond. I sure appreciate his taking the time to inform -

Peter
 
Glad you emerged from this event safely! It will be interesting to learn about what the USCG had to say...
 
We cruised the eastern and western Caribbean, Yes the area off the corner of Nicaragua has had alot of issues, there is always the chance they had a long float fishing line or net out and were trying to warn you of it, Weve seen gear destroyed and vessels rendered inoperable runningthru these and it can be a mess!!! typically if a pirate vessel they would be closer to the banks, or have had some faster pangas etc in tow to launch.
We were followed for 2 days about 100 yards by a " Suspicisous fishing vessel " from St Lucia onour way from Bequia to Bonaire. They were simply fisherman on a course to fishing grounds, they could have easily caught up to us. We had pangas race up to us in other areas offshore a bit which really got our blood pumping, and they held up fish and wanted ciggarettes and water, didnt have cigs lol. any one of these could have gone wrong or been interpreted wrong, but glad you are safe.
 
Thank you for the report. Your actions were decisive and correct. Shutting down your AIS transmitter was Excellent. Putting them between you and the setting sun was brilliant too. Congratulations on your smart moves which kept you both safe.

Some things don't change. We were shot at north of Venezuela in the 1960s. It was a single boat with four men aboard. I was sent below deck. Ours was steel so we were fine, though Daddy did decide to forgo filling our fuel tanks there on that trip.
 
To add another incident.

Left San Andrés in 1999 sailing north returning to Florida.
Was approached by a panga close to the same location.
Single person, offering marijuana, I declined to buy, he was very polite and left.

Same spot a year late, a family including children gunned down.

OP was very lucky!!!!!

So glad is safe

Looking at the CCSN shot for the area is sobering

Almost like C. Eastwood in Dirty Harry (well punk, do you feel lucky)?


We take our vessels for all the good reasons, there is always a balance between risk and reward.

A very personal decision, did it back then, glorious 4 years, not today for this specific area.

So many other wonderful areas to explore available
 
Turn off and leave off the AIS until there is a need to advertise your location. Get a radar detector to pick up another boat radar that sees you. Your crazy Ivan moves, the sun in their eyes should be standard practise in those waters.
Glad the cats are safe, and Scot & Laura too.
Optional equipment may be heat seeking missals, :devil:
 
I would think that USCG Sector San Juan would cover that area.
 
Scot,
You will always have another exciting story to add to your myriad of tales of life voyaging the seas. Glad you and Laura, and kitties, are all safe.
Let us know how things are going in Florida. Hopefully you enjoy it and will continue the adventures and keep us posted.

DJ and Cheri
 
Responding to the OP, Muirgen:

That's a creepy story. I don't blame you at all for elevating to DefCon 1, and am so glad that the incident ended without conflict. I do wonder about something not mentioned in your account: was Muirgen monitoring VHF channel 16? If so, did either vessel attempt to hail the other to clarify intentions? Not that I would have necessarily accepted the other vessel's explanation under those circumstances and in that location, but it might fill-in some gaps in understanding what was going on, which as you say remains unclear.

While offshore in the Caribbean and (more so) in the Gulf of Mexico, I have been hailed by what were obviously commercial fishing vessels, either actively fishing or laying-to after a night of setting nets or long lines. They had been out for weeks, their supplies were depleted and the crew were aching for cigarettes or beer. Could never help with the former, but I did once maneuver alongside and trade out a case of cheap, warm beer (Old Milwaukee, IIRC) for several pounds of fresh shrimp on ice. Never saw a commercial fisherman so happy! In each situation, it took some minutes of conversation on the VHF to satisfy me that the other crew was legit.

That said, in the stretch of the western Caribbean where Muirgen was traveling, for any vessel to maneuver to intercept what was clearly a private yacht traveling alone, without a whisper on the VHF, is suspicious behavior to say the very least. Well played.
 
We were actively monitoring VHF Channel 16. There was sporadic transmissions back and forth between two vessels in Spanish, but nothing directed at us. We elected NOT to open communication, desiring not to identify ourselves to the other vessel. If we had not been able to draw away from the other vessel, we would have attempted communication with them, and implemented other measures as well.
 
Cruised the eastern Caribbean for more decade. Don’t have experience of the western. Did follow noonsite closely and hope you reported this story to them as well. Unfortunately the San Blas have gotten a bit of a reputation but most difficult interactions near shore or on land. Our recurring concern difficulties related to the economic failure of Venezuela and resultant piracy between there and the ABCs as well as the jump from Grenada to Trinidad. People will approach the ABCs directly from the north to decrease risk. People will form flotillas to sail from the southern Grenada bays to Trinidad for hurricane season and refit. Rather than a simple great circle or Mercator line will head east first a bit to stay further away from common hot spots. Still it seems in most areas boats used for this activity are fast outboards often in packs. An unusual story but totally agree when in doubt assume the worst and totally agree with your response.
I’m not a Spanish speaker. This has presented difficulties when near the PR trench. They seem to like to fish on the edge of the trench and behave in a way that makes no sense to me but undoubtedly does to them. They are not infrequently dark having no AIS, poor radar targets and commonly unlit. If they will respond to vhf it’s often unhelpful. Still unlike your story if you see one you’re likely to see another. Also never felt I was being chased. So agree yours is a suspicious story. Just glad you made out alright.
Cruising the caribe is wonderful. It’s still one of the best cruising areas in the world. Especially the windwards where your away from the cruise ships and resort crowd. Think piracy danger exists but is quite manageable with simple situational awareness and planning. In my travels among my circle the only real violence has been a cruiser shot at on his boat after he shot at an outboard small boat that he thought was up to no good. That was while anchored in the eastern tip of St. John USVI . Not a place you’d think of for pirates. We had one occasion of anchoring on the western shore of St. Vincent to catch a nap. Felt nervous so upped anchor and left. But that’s it in 10yrs. No pirates. No theft (including dinghies). No boardings. Yes be aware but don’t let it prevent you from cruising some beautiful parts of the world.
 
Glad the outcome was a good one. Thank you for sharing. I hope you are home by now; I am posting this for future travelers.

Regarding calling the USCG - call the Seventh District Command Center in Miami. They are 24/7 (like the Sectors) but they manage the resources (law enforcement response, search and rescue, etc.) further offshore than the Sectors. I recommend calling the District as soon as you smell trouble. Articulate why, and establish a communications schedule with them. They have significant resources at their disposal to assist, and more with another call or two…but it takes time for them to brief things up the chain, make decisions, and move resouces over those distances.

Best Wishes
 
Glad the outcome was a good one. Thank you for sharing. I hope you are home by now; I am posting this for future travelers.

Regarding calling the USCG - call the Seventh District Command Center in Miami. They are 24/7 (like the Sectors) but they manage the resources (law enforcement response, search and rescue, etc.) further offshore than the Sectors. I recommend calling the District as soon as you smell trouble. Articulate why, and establish a communications schedule with them. They have significant resources at their disposal to assist, and more with another call or two…but it takes time for them to brief things up the chain, make decisions, and move resouces over those distances.

Best Wishes
I agree with contacting USCG. I've had Coast Guard Station Alameda (SF Bay) on my phone for years. Guidance has been to call them anytime, anywhere. But I've always been in the Pacific.

Scot/Muirgen reported this to CSSN, the Noonsite-affiliated site that catalogues all reports of piracy, theft, etc. in the Caribbean. Almost exactly 1-year prior, the following report was made by a vessel roughly 120 nms south of Muirgen (NOTE - Muirgen's report was classified "Suspiscious Activity" vs this report classified as "Attempted Piracy"). The older report is pretty troublesome (fishing vessel blocking VHF comms via open-mic) and they engaged the USCG immediately who mustered an emergency response team that included Colombia and Nicaragua.

2023-04-20: Attempted piracy.
Description:
A yacht transiting north from Providencia, Colombia to Caymans traveled in stealth mode (no lights, AIS Tx) overnight and observed a large fishing vessel on radar. At 0730HRS at position 15° 16.095N 81° 12.270W, approximately 100 miles off the coast, they had visually sighted the large steel vessel to port and it was tracking back and forth in a small area. As the yacht continued on its northly course they noted the fishing vessel had altered course and was now moving on a parallel course but closing the gap. The vessel attempted VHF communications with a trailing buddy boat, and the fishing vessel repeatedly jammed their communications by continuously clicking over them. The buddy boats began using satellite texts. At a distance of about 1 mile the fishing vessel again altered course to intercept directly and put on speed, large amounts of dark smoke were now billowing from its exhaust. The buddy boat issued a pan pan, and the yacht activated their Iridium SOS feature and began voice communications with the emergency response team that included the USCG, Colombian Coast Guard, and the Nicaraguan military. None had assets in the immediate area but maintained continuous voice contact with the crew. The yacht put on all possible speed with sails and engine and turned sharply southeast, and the fishing vessel continued to follow at speed. At 8+knots the yacht was able to slowly increase the separation and after some time the fishing vessel gave up the pursuit, it remained in the area for several hours. Both yachts left the area and returned south.

A full report will be made by the crew at their next port of entry.
 
A very good reason to have some form of Satphone on your boat in traveling outside the US coastal waters. We carried a Fleet one Sailor as well as a handheld device. Never had an issue transmitting or receiving with the ship based unit. The handheld was fairly reliable but at times dropped the call. Particularly when sending/receiving large files. Went low baud if using it for weather files. Still good to have for the ditchbag. Phone calls are usually cheaper than internet with most service providers. So avoided running over our allotments.

We preprogrammed all the USCG phone numbers that were relevant along our path in both. Also once or twice daily texted an offspring that we were ok beyond the usual breadcrumbs and automatic message. She had the appropriate contacts if we reached out to her if we were in trouble or had a concern. Very convenient for ordering parts and spares. She could do it and have it at our next port of call. Often cheaper buying and mailing avoiding much of the importing broker hassles some countries put you through.
 
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A very good reason to have some form of Satphone on your boat in traveling outside the US coastal waters. We carried a Fleet one Sailor as well as a handheld device. Never had an issue transmitting or receiving with the ship based unit.
Startlink has changed everything.

While at sea our cell phones work as normal.
 
Starlink can serve as a Satphone. It is a satellite system . Feel it’s important to have some form of satellite communications when in a raft. Starlink doesn’t serve that function.
Look at their web site now. Service is degraded. Not something you would want in a key piece of safety equipment. The north and south high lats are marginally covered and mostly uncovered. Not being portable you still need some form of a second portable device.
Of interest to my limited understanding many ships and those in the blue water crowd have not converted to Starlink. Surely its find for near shore with a handheld supplement but apparently some are more comfortable with other vendors such as Viasat, telesat, and others who have been around longer. They do offer customer products but are mostly aimed at governmental and corporate interests with long standing contracts in the maritime industry.
 
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Starlink can serve as a Satphone. It is a satellite system . Feel it’s important to have some form of satellite communications when in a raft. Starlink doesn’t serve that function.
Look at their web site now. Service is degraded. Not something you would want in a key piece of safety equipment. The north and south high lats are marginally covered and mostly uncovered. Not being portable you still need some form of a second portable device.
Of interest to my limited understanding many ships and those in the blue water crowd have not converted to Starlink. Surely its find for near shore with a handheld supplement but apparently some are more comfortable with other vendors such as Viasat, telesat, and others who have been around longer. They do offer customer products but are mostly aimed at governmental and corporate interests with long standing contracts in the maritime industry.
Any service can have problems, and startlink is not immune.

Looking at the boats that come in to my marina in Mexico, large and more modest, many still have geostationary satellite domes.

All of them now have a visible starlink antenna.

The world has changed, and there is no going back to the good old days of my $2,000 satellite bill.

As far as needing a satphone in my liferaft a spot or garmin inreach is sufficient. The days of the satphone are also over.
 
Sat phones are dead. Starlink has taken over the sat com market for serious cruisers, including ocean crossings. We carried around an unused sat phone for the first year of our Starlink service and now that phone is gone, along with the KVH hard-mounted phone/data dish in a dome. A very happy day was when we pulled the plug on that KVH account.

PLBs and EPIRBs go with you in the life raft if stuff goes that far wrong. They are also the backup to VHF/cell service/Starlink for an emergency distress call from the boat.
 
The new iPhone uses sat constellations for positioning and text communication. Pocket epirb with comms.
 
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