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2017: the threats facing superyachts - and how to manage them

Lizzy Foster, 17 July 2017 
July 17th 2017
Lizzy Foster, 17 July 2017
Keeping your superyacht secure at sea has never been so challenging on so many fronts as in 2017.

Piracy, robbery and ransom - going nowhere
Fears of kidnap and ransom or robbery may have waned in the late 2010s, receiving less media interest than during the previous decade, but the International Maritime Bureau's piracy reporting centre has actually recorded more crew members being kidnapped in 2016 than during the previous 10 years. In the first quarter of 2017 alone, 43 ships were attacked and 58 seafarers captured - up on the same period last year.

While the majority of piracy incidents are primarily focused on commercial shipping, there has been acceptance in the superyacht industry for some time that they represent plum pickings to those pirates that cotton on. As far back as 2009 Michael Howorth, technical editor at Superyacht World, predicted that pirates would move to attack superyachts and CNN were reporting on how superyachts were being fitted out to protect themselves: 'Hidden chambers, escape pods, tracking devices and ex-marines employed as security guards have all risen in popularity.'

In 2011, their predictions came true for one crew on board the 21m M/Y Capricorn when it was overrun with pirates in the Arabian Sea. Luckily for the crew, the owner had contracted Naval Guards Ltd to oversee their trip from Djibouti and they provided a 42m escort vessel that had been shadowing the superyacht. Somali pirates attacked both vessels but the Capricorn crew - trained for this eventuality - sought their hiding spots onboard, while their escort vessel swung into action. Shots were fired but no injuries reported and only minor damage to the vessels - the superior Naval Guards quickly gained control of the situation.

Fast-forward six years and reports such as these are on the rise and spreading. In Grenada, a couple were held at gunpoint and assaulted in 2016 while yachts have also been targeted in the Mediterranean. 

Private security still essential
For the crew of the Capricorn, their security detail was essential and there are more options than ever for superyacht owners to acquire their own. Private security firms like Veritas International, Pinkerton or Naval Guards provide a complete service to superyacht owners.

In an interview with the Financial Times, Simon Rowland ex-SBS and founder of Veritas International explained how he proved to one superyacht skipper the necessity of additional security by swimming out and boarding the yacht, surprising the skipper on the bridge having navigated the yacht unchallenged. 

Private security like these will, on the whole, offer a complete risk assessment of the yacht, review their itineraries and check cargo, cars and locations. There may be armed guards on board, additional security features installed or - as in the case of the Capricorn - an entire vessel at their disposal operating as an armed shadow. These firms accept that they must establish a rapport with their client - understanding the lifestyle and needs of the owner whose way of life and staff they are hired to protect.

There are other preventative measures that can be taken - quite simply, avoiding high risk areas. The number of yachts entering danger zones has dropped but nevertheless, wealthy Arabian or African owners may well find it unavoidable to return home through the highest-risk waters. In these circumstances additional security measures should be taken.

Fresh threats - the rise of cybercrime
Cybercrime is a slightly different beast to traditional piracy - the threats are real and the risks to property and lives could be just as high while our understanding of the terrain is less entrenched. While piracy is combated by the provisions of the owner, the fast reactions and professionalism of the security team and finally the clear-thinking and training of the crew, in cybercrime the onus are different.

The owner can put in as many measures as they want but one crew member could undermine everything with one shared social media post or one click on an email attachment. The crew are the new frontline and the biggest risk factor on board.

Training is an integral part of building awareness and reasserting correct behaviours in crew. These will frequently become de rigour for employment in the sector, probably combined with provisions in their contracts for strict confidentiality. 

Security firms are also building into their packages the additional threats posed by cybercrime that they can reasonably handle, for example Pinkerton's Global Risk Group run intelligence centres. In an interview with the FT they explain more: 'If we have a client on a yacht who is concerned about someone trying to steal information, our GRG folks create a geofence for those specific areas. The team would also sweep the vessel for listening devices or bugs.'

What is around the corner?
One incoming regulation that will be of interest to superyacht owners will be the EU's General Data Protection Regulation. This will come into force next May and is worth considering now for the serious implications.

The regulation places direct obligations on those controlling and processing data - breaches can incur fines of up to 4pc of the annual worldwide turnover of a company. This means that yacht owners would be liable for any data breaches and, if the yacht were proved to be part of the owner's company, then the corresponding fine could be substantial. This would count for yachts operating within the EU or even just carrying the data for EU citizens.

Considering the possibilities and what is at stake, owners are to be encouraged to rigorously check their insurance policies and ensure they include cyber liabilities.

In 2017 there are more threats than ever circling the superyacht industry - the key for owners and their crews is to be vigilant and reduce risk across the board before incidents occur. Appoint the right people and the right protection and invest in training, and consider thoroughly the consequences of an incident and implement measures to limit the damage.

The Financial Times  (14 July 2017)
International Maritime Bureau
Gcaptain.com  (3 March 2011)
CNN  (13 July 2009)
Marsec Review  (16 September 2016)