As a follow up to my last article about security while cruising, I want to address the question that started this conversation. People are buying boats and going cruising in a big way. And when new boaters plan to go on their first extended cruise, such as the Great Loop or other adventure, a common question is whether they should carry a gun for protection.

This has many angles depending on where one plans to go. Let’s skip outdoor adventures in bear country, or the dangerous waters where desperate men resort to piracy to get by. No, we are cruising American and Canadian waters, where we want to see new things and meet like-minded people. It is a fabulous lifestyle that allows us to see the world in comfort and style.

As I mentioned in the last article, there are things one can do to greatly reduce or eliminate the threat of petty crime on one’s boat. Lights, alarms, dogs, properly stowed gear, and maintaining situational awareness will remove targets of opportunity and keep you safe.

Thinking about personal safety is very much about managing one’s fear of the unknown. Without experience, we often dream up all kinds of bad scenarios of what could happen. Much like the scary monsters of our childhood, lurking in the shadows and under the bed, the mind can come up with all matter of danger, however unrealistic or unfounded. Many years ago, we worried about sea monsters dragging our ship under, tentacles wrapped around masts as they crunched our ships into splinters.

The fact of the matter, when it comes to the potential danger to personal safety, cruising in North America is downright fun, full of adventure, and safe. As every newbie quickly finds out, the cruising community is close knit, and we are always willing to help each other in every possible way. But if one lets his or her inexperience and fear fester out of control, however, it is easy to develop reasons why we must go armed to the teeth. Which is not real.

gun on a yacht

A retired couple on a sailboat or trawler boat are not a prime target for criminal activity beyond what I have already discussed. And we have ways to remove that risk.

So, to the question about carrying a gun. The idea of a gun on a boat for protection implies we will need to counter violence with violence. But what are the odds of that?

In the U.S., fully three quarters of all homicides are committed by people who know each other, usually spontaneously and with great emotion. And they mostly happen in large cities of over 250,000 people...four times greater than the small towns we cruise to. Destinations like Annapolis (population 39,000), Anacortes (17,000), New Bern (30,000), Friday Harbor (2400), and Southwest Harbor (1800) just don’t have the demographics to support violent crime, compared to the 471,000 people who live in Miami. Drugs are often involved.

So, the likelihood of needing to counter violence with violence is negligible.

Imagine you step into your cockpit to find a young man trying to steal your dinghy. Your very presence will cause him to flee. But what if I magically placed a Smith and Wesson .357 Magnum revolver in your hand, what would you do? Would you even consider pulling the trigger, more or less aiming at this kid? Having researched this over the years, I can promise you the adrenaline and emotions of the moment would most certainly cause an untrained person to miss. Perhaps even scarier, what if you hit and killed him? Your life will be changed. And you might also put a hole in your boat.

Be mindful where you store your weapon if you choose to bring one, especially if cruising in rough water.

gun on a boat in drawer 

A Navy SEAL commander once explained how they train operators to perform flawlessly, where failure is not an option. They don’t practice until they get it right. They train until they cannot get it wrong. Thousands of rounds per week in simulated combat and hostage environments is the norm.

He added that to be good enough to hit a target consistently, a normal person needs to shoot something like 200 rounds a month with a handgun, and maybe 20 rounds a month with a shotgun and rifle. That kind of disciplined practice, even without the emotion of an actual situation, is not part of the cruising experience most of us are looking for. Even police officers don’t do that, which is why he said the average law enforcement hit rate is around 12 percent.

But practice aside, the more critical element of why carrying a gun on your boat is a bad idea is mental attitude. Waving a gun at a real threat (and, at this point, I trust you see how unlikely that is) is not sufficient. I will quote Commander Stubblefield here. His advice is completely relevant to someone going cruising.

“You can’t just threaten to use it, you have to be willing to commit to pull the trigger. You cannot hesitate. Otherwise, do not even bother to pick it up. You are better off using pepper spray, a whistle, or an air horn.

pepper spray for boat

“I can’t emphasize this enough. If you haven’t got the will to kill someone, do not get involved with firearms for protection. And most people do not. They will tell you that they do, and they’ll say how if someone came onboard they’d shoot him. Those are stories. Trust me.”

I offer some other considerations. Guns are fairly complicated, especially semi-automatic firearms. They have lots of sliding and moving parts and require a healthy amount of maintenance to keep them in perfect shape in the marine environment. They need to be cleaned and oiled regularly. Ammunition is subject to corrosion, especially in a saltwater environment.

One might consider buying a corrosion-resistant shotgun or stainless steel revolver to get the best possible weapon for the marine environment. But are you then prepared for the hassle of crossing borders where laws and restrictions vary from state to state, from country to country? And what about declaring your firearms, or having the right permits, and providing the exact number of rounds for each gun? Many experienced cruisers find it simply not worth the perceived value of having them aboard.

Seen below: A Mossberg Mariner shotgun comes with corrosion resistant material.

mossberg mariner shotgun


Other Options

If you still feel the need to have something on your boat for personal protection, consider these alternatives. While pulling the trigger of a firearm may not be something one is mentally prepared for, in a real emergency, I doubt there would be any issue whatsoever with spraying a bad guy with pepper spray. They are especially effective if you hit him in the eyes as he is inhaling.

Today’s products include handheld models that spray a peppered gel out to 30 feet, which resists any tendency to blow back onto you if there is wind. Pepper spray and gel are widely used by police departments, and will disable someone for up to 45 minutes, long enough to have it end your way. Some of these products should be replaced annually, while others have a shelf life of up to four years. They are effective and useful both on and in your boat.

I might also suggest a handheld air horn or high-quality whistle. Thieves dislike loud noises, as it draws attention to them, much like a panic button wired to a siren. Loud is bad news for people involved in crimes of opportunity.

There are stun guns and other electrical safety devices, but they require some degree of contact with the bad guy. It is much better to reach out and hit him from a distance.

While it might come across that I am against guns, I own firearms, and rather enjoy the patience and concentration necessary for accurate target shooting. And I appreciate that practice is key. If I don’t shoot for several months, I am back to square one.

For me, removing the pressure of carrying firearms is one less thing to have to deal with. I am out here to have fun. So are you.

Let’s maintain a state of awareness while we enjoy the safety of cruising on our boat and leave the childhood bogeymen out of it.


Enjoy these other boating and cruising articles by Bill Parlatore: