Monday, April 13, 2009
Arming Yourself On The High Seas
Avast Ye scurvy Rats! Sit right back while old Dojo Rat spins a yarn from his past...
There is a currently a lot of talk about the dramatic rescue of the American ship Captain who was being held by Somali "Pirates" this week. Of course I have heard only one commentator mention the fact that the Somali's are pissed about European nations dumping radioactive waste off their coast and other abuses.
One of the most frequently asked questions is "Why don't these ship crews arm themselves"?
The answer is simple: You can not enter many foreign ports with guns on board. In some cases, you can declare that you have weapons on board and turn them over to customs, hoping you will get them back when you leave port. This brings us to our story:
I have always lived near the coast, owned my own boats and know lots of friends that have been all around the world on boats. One of my friends, we'll call him "Skip" had a harrowing adventure on a cruise that could have been very, very serious.
Skip was an expert sailor; he had been in the Coast Guard, sailed near Antarctica and was skilled and confident. When I met Skip, he was due to arrive at our moorage near the Columbia River south of Portland. This was in January during one of our worst winter storms, and he successfully brought his sailboat down from Canada safe and sound. Skip had two crewmates, both Canadian citizens. The plan was to outfit the boat, a Colvin lug-rigged Schooner, for an extended scuba diving trip in the Caribbean. They provisioned and upgraded the boat, got in shape for a demanding trip and set sail. I stood on the riverbank and waved as they headed off to the ocean, and imagined what kind of adventure they would find.
They made it down the west coast, and went through the Panama Canal to the Caribbean side, where the real adventure began.
This was at the time when the Reagan administration was fighting an illegal guerilla war in Nicaragua, pitting the CIA-backed Contras against the Socialist Sandinista government.
Before sailing, Skip and the crew had invited me onboard for a beer and a smoke, celebrating their upcoming voyage. I asked if they had thought about taking a handgun or any weapons with them. Well, it just so happens that Skip had a very nice AR-15 assault rifle on board, and in a seperate storage box he had the conversion kit to turn it full-auto. In fact, he kept the rifle stored with his old Coast Guard uniform, thinking that the fact that he was former Coast Guard might mitigate the fact that he had the rifle on board.
So there they were, somewhere off the coast of Nicaragua where they were boarded by a heavily armed Sandinista patrol boat. That's when the whole idea of the Coast Guard uniform and assault rifle became a big, big problem. The Sandinistas, keenly aware of covert operations against their country, immediatly took them into custody believing they were CIA. They held them for nearly two weeks, as the lawyers, guns, and money got involved. Fortunately, the Schooner was a Canadian registered vessel, and both of Skips crewmates were Canadian citizens. That's about the only thing that kept them out of prison. After much negotiating they were released, without the rifle, and free to go.
Needless to say, some of the fun had gone out of the trip, like an empty Beer bottle sinking to the bottom of the sea. They cut the trip short, and eventually sailed back home.
Many, many articles in sailing magazines have argued the merits of carrying or not carring weapons onboard. There are some places you can not do it at all, and others, like the South China sea where you are crazy not to. Wherever you go in the world, you have to clear customs, and there lies the problem.
*** On a side note, I supported the Sandinistas against the CIA Contras. One of my best friends from grade school, Ben Linder, was the first American killed by the CIA Contras. Ben was building a small hydroelectric plant in a rural jungle village. He was tortured and killed by the Contras. My friend and mentor, the late Ace Hayes, ran guns down to the Sandinistas. He installed them in the walls of a pick-up camper and drove them down to Nicaragua personally. How he didn't get caught, we will never know...