The G Question

Before we left St. Augustine, when Eric and I told people about our plan to sail around the world, one of the most frequent questions we were asked was “Are you taking a gun?” Often, it came within the first five queries: “What kind of boat do you have? What route will you follow? What if you get caught in a storm? Aren’t you afraid of pirates? Are you taking a gun?” Sometimes it wasn’t a question but an automatic assumption: “What kind of gun do you do have on board?” Sometimes it was a fervent exclamation: “I hope you’re taking a gun!”

No, we’re not, and now that we’re in Colombia—often perceived as a highly dangerous place—the question of violence has taken an ironic twist. Because while we feel perfectly safe here at the marina and walking the streets of Santa Marta, we’ve just learned of a stabbing incident at our 14-year-old nephew’s middle school in Portland, Oregon. Mitch didn’t witness the attack. It occurred in the hallway while he was taking a test in math class. According to a news report I found online, it was a planned fight between two girls, and the weapon was a pocket knife. Mitch doesn’t know how the quarrel started and adds that teachers and staff pulled the girls apart. The victim was stabbed in the shoulder, and the injury was not serious—if you can call any injury resulting from an act of violence “not serious.” Which brings me back to the G Question from our perspective aboard Corroboree.

First off, we hope never to need a gun. As we have repeatedly assured our family and friends, we have no intention of knowingly venturing into dangerous waters or unsafe ports. In addition to monitoring State Department reports on the areas we plan to visit, there are a number of cruising websites that post up-to-date information on security issues abroad. Even more useful is the constant exchange of news between sailors themselves as to which ports to visit and which to avoid. We skipped Trinidad, for example, after learning from other boats of a massive oil spill in the harbor there. We bypassed Aruba due to numerous reports of a difficult check-in process and harassment by officials. If there’s a problem area, believe me, we will know.

Second, we are not licensed and trained in the use of a gun, which seems to me ought to be a basic requirement for ownership. More important—and as a friend who is a retired military and law enforcement officer pointed out to us—neither Eric nor I are mentally prepared to shoot someone. I’d like to disagree. I’d like to think that if Corroboree was boarded and our lives were threatened, I could and would blast away. But our friend is probably right. We’re vegetarians, for heaven’s sake. In a crisis situation, we wouldn’t react quickly enough, and in those few seconds, we could easily be disarmed and our gun used against us. Being extremely safety conscious, we’d also have to ask the thief/assailant to wait politely while we retrieved the gun from a locked cabinet and loaded the bullets. Right.

It’s also worth noting that in some countries visiting boats must turn in their guns to Customs upon arrival and cannot reclaim them until they depart. Having a weapon won’t do you much good if it’s under lock and key in the Customs Office when your boat gets boarded or you get mugged on leaving the local bar. And don’t even think about lying to the authorities and attempting to conceal your firearms. The consequences can be serious, including steep fines, jail time and confiscation of your boat.

So, how do we protect ourselves? We discussed with our military friend the possibility of carrying mace and/or a taser gun. But as with a regular gun, in the close confines of a 35’ sailboat, the likelihood of using either mace or a taser quickly and effectively is doubtful. Yet we do carry some “weapons.” Probably the most useful is an air horn. We keep it on a shelf beside our bed where it’s easy to grab, day or night. We’ve tested it, and one blast should scare the wits out of anyone trying to board us, as well as wake up every other boat in the anchorage. Also stashed on the bookshelf in the main saloon is a metal baseball bat. We carried a wooden bat aboard Duprass forty years ago and never needed it, but I do think I could swing it in a crunch. Under similar circumstances, an Italian friend plans to employ a bottle of wine. Finally, we have kitchen knives. Could I stab a human being? I don’t know. I really don’t.

Interestingly, not one of those who posed the G Question cited a personal instance of how a gun saved them from harm. If it did, I’m glad. But most didn’t even mention whether they themselves owned a firearm. Instead, the query came almost as a kneejerk reaction: You’re traveling to foreign places. Foreign is dangerous. You’re going to need a gun.

Well, yes, foreign can be dangerous, and our perception of danger is heightened by the media’s insistence on reporting it nonstop. Car bombs, terrorist attacks, assassinations, civil wars, drug cartels. Even if Eric and I were traveling to certain countries not on a sailboat but in a supervised tour group, you might express worry. Being on our own on a boat makes us even more vulnerable, sitting ducks, and we appreciate and share your concern. Yet even seemingly safe locales in our own United States—a movie theater in Denver, a church in North Carolina, an elementary school in Connecticut, a country music concert in Las Vegas—can be scarred by a horrific act. The appalling incident at Mitch’s school—a “planned fight” between two girls?—may seem minor by comparison and easily brushed off. It shouldn’t be. Feeling safe, wherever you live or work or go to school, ought to be a basic human right.