Mid-Life Cruising Sabbatical

Chapter 12

Should We Take A Gun?

I guess most of you thought we had died or gone off cruising. Nope, just been very busy with our consulting. Finally decided that I just had to make time for another installment.

Those of you who read rec.boats.cruising or the live aboard listserv certainly know that the topic of guns on boats has gotten a lot of heated interest of late. I had always intended to cover this topic and decided that now was the time since many of the posts on the above mentioned lists have been without the benefit of practical experience. Well, here is our experience with guns on our MLCS.

First let's cut to the chase. Did we take guns? Yes, two (but came back with only one). Would we take guns next time? Definitely NO. Read on to find out why.


I cannot understand why anyone with no experience with firearms would ever consider taking one cruising. If you did not think you needed one for protection at home, why would you think you needed one cruising? If you think some area of the world is more dangerous than home why would you want to go there any way?

In our case Jim was very familiar with firearms. He grew up in the South and his father was a big hunter so he had been around guns all his life. Diane was neutral on the subject and we never really discussed it before we left. Actually we never gave it much thought.


We left on our cruise with two firearms: a Winchester Mariner 12 gauge shotgun and a Colt Super 38 automatic pistol. We came back without the pistol.


So when would you use a gun? Here are some scenarios to think about:

You are asleep in the cabin and awake to hear a noise on deck. You grab your gun and go out to find someone stealing your dingy. He has already cut your chain and is about 20 feet from the boat. Would you shoot? After all, he is stealing   $ 2500 plus of your stuff.

You are asleep in your cabin and awake to see someone going through your wallet. Would you go for your gun and shoot?

An intruder is threatening you with a knife. Would you go for your gun and shoot?


So when is it permissible to use deadly force? You may think you know the law in the USA, but you certainly will not know the law in each country you visit. I doubt you even know the law at home. Consider this true story that happened here in Ohio:

A homeowner hears a noise at his front door and goes to investigate. There he finds a would be intruder trying to break in and yelling that he is going to kill the homeowner. The homeowner gets his gun and kills the would be intruder. The homeowner is tried for manslaughter because he did not exercise all other options before resorting to deadly force. The court said he could have gotten away from the intruder by going out the back door.


Every country you visit on your cruise will be less tolerant of guns than the USA. All will require you to declare them on entry and some will require you to turn them over to the authorities while you are in the country. Some even require you to account for every round of ammunition. Some countries require you to clear in and out of customs at each port of call. That means you are constantly turning in and picking up your guns. What a pain!

Some countries allow you to keep a gun on board if you have a secure gun locker that customs can seal with tape. We never found anyone who could define "secure gun locker."

Of course you could lie on the customs form and not declare your gun. Now you have an illegal firearm in a country whose gun laws you do not know. Even if you were in a situation where you had a legal right to use the gun, did you forfeit that right by smuggling the gun into the country?

If you are sailing in the Caribbean, as we did, you will be sailing to countries with a Spanish (not Anglo Saxon) heritage. Guns are a macho thing. Customs agents like them. If you are required to check your guns you will very likely find that they have been taken out for a little target practice when you get them back. If you get them back.


OK, enough theory. Here are our experiences with our guns on our trip. As I said we left with a pistol and a shotgun. The shotgun Jim had bought new when he first bought "Down Time". The pistol was a little unusual and this has a bearing later in the tale. I said the gun was a Colt Super 38. This is basically an automatic .357 magnum. Colt used the .45 army frame so the gun looked like a Colt .45. Very desirable with the macho set.

Our first foreign country was the Bahamas. Here you declare your guns and each round of ammunition and they let you keep them on board.

Our next country was the Turks and Caicos. Here they confiscate your guns for the duration of your stay. But they are very proper, very British. When you are ready to leave you call them on the VHF and they bring they guns to your boat. Now here is a little wrinkle. When your guns are returned your are expected to leave immediately (this is true for all countries that confiscate guns, not just the Turks and Caicos). The police or military or whatever stand on the dock to make sure you go. Suppose your engine does not start or you get a mile away and the engine overheats and you return. Legally you are required to take the guns back to the authorities and then go through all this again when you have gotten your engine problems sorted out. Bummer.

Our next country was the Dominican Republic. The DR is one of those places that confiscates your weapons, requires you to check in and out of every port and allows cruising yachts to stop at only a few ports.

Our port of entry was Puerto Plata. Here we took the guns to the police station as instructed. When we got ready to leave for Samana we went to the police station and an officer was sent to the boat with us. He actually carried the guns and would not give them to Jim until Jim was on the boat and the officer handed them over from the dock.

Upon arrival in Samana we were required to tie up to the commercial dock to clear customs and immigration. A group of officials came on board and asked about guns. Now here is a little footnote. Each country wants to see the customs paper from when you cleared out of your previous port. The guns are declared on them. So, it is a little tough to stop declaring your guns once you have started.

Back to our officials in Samana. We brought out the guns and they were very industrious recording types and serial numbers. I knew we were in trouble when I saw the way they looked at the Colt. They kept trying to record it as a .45 and we kept saying no, it is a .38. Finally they gave us receipts and departed with the guns.

A few weeks later we were ready to leave Samana and the DR for Puerto Rico. It was a Sunday and Jim went to the police station to pick up the guns and clear out of the DR. The shotgun was there but the pistol was not. The officers on duty searched high and low, but the pistol was nowhere to be found. They called the commandante at home who came in and he called in everybody else on the force. Somebody at the police station had simply liked the gun and stolen it. It was never found. We even got the commandante to agree (in writing) that his department had lost the gun and that the DR would pay us for it. Yea, right, try collecting that one!

We also got a lesson in arguing with the Spanish macho ego. The commandante took everything we said personally and became very angry with us even though he admitted that his department on his watch had "lost" the gun. Heads you loose, tails you loose.

We called the US embassy in Santo Domingo to report what had happened. Not so much with the hope that they could do anything to recover the gun, but rather to make an official (US) report of the theft so that, if the gun ever turned up in a robbery or murder, there would be a record that it was not ours anymore. It also became obvious that the embassy had a lot more important (in their minds) things to do than help some gun toting cruiser with his problem with the commandante.

Our only consolation is that the thief will never be able to use the gun. It required a special ammunition that we had a hard time finding in the US.

I must say here that, except for the gun incident, we thoroughly enjoyed the DR and would recommend it to any cruiser headed that way.

So, off we sailed to Puerto Rico minus one gun.

Our next gun story is a funny one. We spent several months in the Virgin Islands, basing ourselves in St. Thomas and taking several 10 day to 2 week trips over to the British Virgins. We always cleared in and out of the British Virgins at West End. Each time we cleared in we declared the shotgun and were allowed to keep it on board, usually with the official comment "don't shoot anybody, mon." The actual procedure was as follows: The clearance papers had a statement in red on them which you had to sign to the effect that you had no firearms on board. Each time Jim would sign the statement and add "except one Winchester 12 gauge shotgun serial number 12345". This made the customs officials happy and off we sailed into their waters.

We had already been in and out of the British Virgins four or five times following the above procedure. One Saturday in late September we decided to sail over to the BVI for a few days. Actually what we really wanted to do was got to Sydney's Peace and Love Beach Bar and Restaurant on Jost Van Dyke for a lobster dinner. Well, it was a Saturday afternoon in the middle of hurricane season only two years after Hugo and nobody was in the BVIs. We sailed into West End, picked up a mooring and Jim dingyed to customs & immigration as usual. Both are in the same location and the office is everybody's idea of British colonial bureaucracy: white building, windows with wooden shutters, high ceiling room with ceiling fans, bored officials sitting at their desks. Actually on this summer Saturday afternoon most of the officials were sleeping at their desks. One finally came to the counter to check us in. Maybe he was upset at having his nap interrupted, but this time he decided we could not keep the shotgun on board. We even had clearance papers from previous visits that allowed us to keep the gun. In fact the official who had cleared us in on our most recent trip was sitting at his desk but was acting deaf. Nothing would do but for Jim to go back to the boat and bring the gun ashore for them to keep.

So Jim, not a happy camper, went back to the boat and got the shotgun. We did not have a case for the gun, so there's Jim walking down the dock in West End carrying a stainless steel short barrel shotgun. Quite a sight! In the 50 foot walk from the dingy dock to customs he got two offers from locals to buy the gun.

So now Jim is back in the customs & immigration office with the gun. Remember this is the large room with high ceilings and fans and officials sleeping at their desks. The same guy that sent Jim back to get the gun is at the desk. His first question is, "Is it loaded?" Well, Jim had had about enough and in answer to the question he racked the shotgun to show it was empty. Now, there is no sound on the face of the earth that can be confused with the sound of a pump shotgun action being worked! Customs officials went everywhere. Chairs turned over backward, bodies sprawled on the floor, people crawled under desks. Quite enjoyable, actually.

Well, things finally calmed down. People realized that they were not about to die from some crazed boater raking their office with shotgun fire. Everyone came over to look at the gun. They all decided that they did not want to be responsible for such a gun as it would doubtlessly be stolen from their property room. What to do? They decided to call the local police station and get them lock it up in a cell. Jim and a customs official would drive the gun the mile down the road to the police station. As they were leaving the customs building Jim got another offer to purchase the gun from a local.

They arrived at the police station. The sergeant on duty took one look at the gun and decided he was not going to be responsible for it. It would doubtlessly be stolen from his cell. The next suggestion was to take the gun to police headquarters in Road Town. By now Jim had had enough. More than enough actually. Forget it, we would just leave the BVIs and go back to the USVIs. Turns out, when you clear out of the BVIs you actually have 48 hours to leave. So we cleared out taking our gun with us, sailed over to Sydney's, had dinner (the real purpose of the trip, remember?) and returned to St. Thomas the next day.

See what a pain guns are?

We cannot honestly remember any hassles with the gun in the Windward and Leeward islands. We can't even remember for sure which ones let us keep the gun and which required it to be surrendered. Trinidad did require that the gun be surrendered. We cleared in in Chagaramas and spent several months in Trinidad. When we were finally ready to leave for Venezuela we sailed back to Chagaramas to clear out. Of course the gun was not there. It had been sent to Port of Spain and someone would have to go get it. This took hours and did nothing for our sailing schedule to Venezuela.

By now we had had enough of cruising with guns. We wrapped the gun in plastic and an old blanket and taped it with duct tape. We buried it in the bilge not to reappear until we returned to the US. From then on we answered NO to the question of guns on board.

After reading all this you still decided you want to take a gun, here are our recommendations: Take a short barrel shotgun. Countries are more tolerant of them than any other kind of firearm. If you must take a pistol take a revolver not an automatic. Revolvers do not have the macho cache of automatics. If you must take an automatics do not take anything that could be mistaken for a .45 or 9 mm as these have the highest macho factor. Don't take anything that you would mind loosing to a customs oficial.

In countries where you are required to surrender the gun, remove and keep some essential part of the mechanism in front of the customs officials. That way they will know the gun is inoperative (and not worth stealing). Also have a case (preferably a hard lockable one) to protect the guns from prying eyes.

Enough about guns. My own recommendation would be, if you feel you need some sort of protection, that you carry a police night stick. Get one of those two hand jobs and get some police friend to teach you how to use it. Pepper spray might also be an option, but it is considered a weapon in some countries and will cause you all the customs hassles. Also, imagine what it would be like to be in the closed cabin of your boat when pepper spray was used. Everybody present would be gassed. We know someone that had this happen to them when they tried to spray a rat, but that's a story for another time.

Jim & Diane

Send comments to: jkbarrentine@earthlink.net

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