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Dealing with intruders

Sep 1, 2010

To the editor: My husband Con and I have been sailing in and out of 30 countries in our 51.5 Nauticat sailboat, Big Sky, from Finland through the Baltic states, the Kiel Canal past Atlantic Europe, across the English Channel, the Bay of Biscay and into the Mediterranean to Africa and Southern Europe.

We often sail off the beaten path and have never had safety issues confront us until last autumn in Corinth, Greece. We were in Corinth's downtown harbor. We were one of four pleasure boats tied to the pier; the other three boats were unoccupied at the time. Con, his sister Albertine, and I were sound asleep at 0230.

The wind had been causing our lines to strain against the metal rings and then bash back against the pier with a rhythmic clanging sound. Funny how you can train yourself to sleep through noisy bashing, jarring lines and howling in the rigging, but when it's a bit out of the usual, you wake up — or at least I do.

I woke to whispered voices on the pier and remained motionless in bed listening. Con was sleeping soundly beside me. The boat then pulled hard to starboard. The motion seemed more than just the wind jarring our lines. I lay in my cozy bed a moment longer hoping that the boat listing wasn't the weight of intruders. But the next sound I heard was hammering at our companionway doors and at the lock; clearly intruders were aboard, intending to enter.

Grabbing my housecoat, I scrambled to the pilot house, knocked loudly from the inside and shouted into the darkened doorway: "Get off the boat! Get OFF the boat! GET OFF THE BOAT!"

I purposely kept the interior lights off so they couldn't see me — at 125 pounds I was hardly a match for four 180-pounders. Shocked that someone was on the other side of the doorway, they stepped back and off our boat. Once they were halfway down the pier, I came out to the cockpit, my white housecoat silhouetted against the moon and my right arm extended with the sort of firm instructions you'd give training a dog. At that point, Con poked his head out the companionway door, "What's all the noise? Why are you shouting?"

I looked at Con realizing that the intruders would have gotten inside if I wasn't there. He and Albertine would have slept right through the entire break in.

I've replayed the situation in Corinth a number of times in my head, hoping that like a fire drill, if we're ever broken into while aboard, our reaction would be second nature. Living in a paranoid fashion is no fun, you miss seeing the beauty of the real, honest people in the world. However, being broken into or attacked can wreck you for a lifetime. While docked at the town quay, public harbor, private marina, or at anchor, here are some practical reminders:

If it appears unsafe, leave. If you can't leave, lock your windows, set up a buddy system with a neighbor, and do what we do, hide your valuables in an I-bet-you-can't-find-it spot, and put some cash in a fake wallet in an obvious place.
Leave a small light on in the boat, but not enough to illuminate anything within the boat. Don't advertise; tuck your valuables inside and out of sight.

Keep a 1-million-candlepower flashlight charged and nearby to shine in the eyes of would-be night intruders.

If you're comfortable, keep a defence weapon (baseball bat, or fire extinguisher) in an easy-to-reach location.

If the motive is theft; we won't fight. If the motive is meant to harm us; we will fight. If you're boarded by intruders while you're asleep, keep your protection nearby, not in an awkward location. Discuss in advance what protection makes the most sense for you.

Guns are not practical, they generally harm the innocent. Ask yourself, "Can I shoot someone?" and know that it is very difficult checking in and out of countries with firearms and often you'll be asked to check them with the local authorities and pick them up when you're leaving.

Is it practical to keep a flare gun near your bedside? Again, could you shoot someone?

Knives often harm the owner rather than the intruder.

Bear spray or wasp spray is another option. Keep one can by your bedside and the other near the companionway door. Be sure to read the instructions ahead of time. Never open your companionway door to intruders for the purpose of spraying them, as the wind may blow the irritant back in your own eyes.

Lastly, think practically, believe in the goodness of the people in the world but at the same time, talk it through with your cruising companions much like a fire drill.

—Barb Sprenger is a freelance writer, and retired founder and national executive director of the Kids Up Front Foundation of Canada. Her website is: www.sailbigsky.com.

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