Security Considerations - Solomons and Papua New Guinea
After living 8 months in the Solomons and four months in Papua New Guinea, I thought I would share some general thoughts for future sailors heading this way.
There are three general categories of theft:
- Opportunistic ‘Grab and Go’ - Generally this consists of items stolen off the deck of boat left in plain sight and unsecured. This includes snorkels, masks, clothes drying on line, fishing rods, etc. This can occur at anytime, but usually at night while the crew is sleeping.
- Forced entry - Breaking a lock and stealing something that is secured on the vessel. This usually occurs when the owners are not onboard.
- Violent theft - Using machete or other weapon to rob the boat while occupants are onboard. The thief is not afraid of confrontation and may inflict deadly bodily harm.
In virtually all cases in the Solomons, the first category is by far the most common, and the easiest to prevent. In fact, we are not aware of any other type of theft taking place in recent years that were not opportunistic, and 100% preventable if the owners of the yachts used some level of carefulness.
During our 8 months in the Solomons we met several yachts that had items lifted off their boat. Most cases were in areas that known rascals were present (Ghizo, Florida Islands, etc). In all cases, the items were left unsecured on the boat. Two boats we met had laptops or cell phones stolen from inside the cabin. One theft incurred in broad daylight, while the other at night. In both incidents the salon doors were open, and the rascals entered and took the items he could grab, and paddled away.
Interestingly, in both cases most items were found and returned, other than one of two laptops stolen off a yacht in the Florida Islands.
We had our own issue, when a mask and snorkel were stolen of our boat in broad daylight. The offender was a kid, who climbed up and grabbed Sarah’s mask and snorkel that we foolishly left visible on deck while off in the village. Some kids saw this rascal grab the mask and paddled over to tell us and the chief what happened. Needless to say, in short order the chief and I jumped in my dinghy, found the kid’s parents (different village), recovered the stolen item and headed back to Field Trip. The kid was suspended from school for taking the mask.
PNG is similar to the Solomons in most respects regarding security. There is however a significant cultural difference. Solomon islanders as a people are generally non-confrontational, and less likely to be violent. They tend to shy away and avoid face to face confrontation of any sort. This is not as true of PNG, especially in the north and around the larger islands and cities.
We’ve talked to many people, including expats in the Solomons and PNG that confirmed this view. PNG is more like the ‘Wild Wild West’ with guns, shootings, and physical altercations than the Solomons. In PNG we are only aware of one incident in 2017 that involved armed robbery on a yacht and that was in Vanimo. Some friends of ours were robbed during the night at gunpoint for money. A scary proposition.
Vanimo is a location that is known for problems, and sailors have been advised now for years to not spend the night in the harbor, but do a day trip to clear in or out of customs, get visas - and depart. We would completely avoid Vanimo unless you need a visa for Indonesia.
If you have spent any time sailing in the Caribbean, in particular the windward islands, you will be well versed in security considerations. Locking up at night, securing the dinghy and engine are all part of the game, as thefts occur, and in some areas very frequently. It’s unfortunately part of sailing in those areas.
Once sailors get to the South Pacific, the vast majority of areas are very safe, and rarely are items stolen off boats. There are exceptions, and one that is vivid in our minds is Bora Bora, French Polynesia. There were a lot of boats that we know that had items stolen during their visit. In a couple of cases it involved forced entry, and stealing laptops from inside the salon during the daytime. All of this occurring in beautiful Bora Bora, with lots of boats in the anchorage.
After years of sailing in safe waters, sailors rightly get jumpy when heading to areas like the Solomons or PNG where thefts can and do happen. After spending over a year sailing in the windward islands of the Caribbean, we feel the Solomons is as safe if not safer. With some basic preventive measures, removing loose items from the deck and locking up at night when leaving the boat, you are very unlikely to have any problems.
For Field Trip, we have several things we do to keep our boat as safe as possible, especially in higher theft areas like cities and large towns.
- We added 12v LED lights with motion sensors on our transom steps. We turn these lights on at night, and if there is any motion aft of the boat, including around the raised dingy, the lights will go on. Light is your friend at night, especially when an unsuspecting rascal get close only to be partially blinded by the sudden 30W LED lights shining in their face. The lights are bright enough that we can see them through our window in the cabin so we know if there may be an issue.
- Our boat has a security system installed called SimpliSafe. We purchased this in Grenada as we were concerned with the crime that was taking place in some of the anchorages during our stay. It has been great, and nice to know if someone opened a hatch or door while we were away a very loud alarm will go of in the cockpit, hopefully scaring away the rascal.
- We always clear the deck at night or when leaving the boat during the day, and make sure all jerry jugs are covered and locked. This includes stowing fishing gear in lockers.
- At night we close the clears in our cockpit, and zip them up. We leave our hatch cracked in our room so we can hear if someone it trying to unzip the enclosure. Sometimes we even leave the cockpit light on ‘low’ to provide more light and less of an amicable dark environment (assuming stern motion lights did not turn on) for snooping around.
A couple of points about some of the ‘notorious’ areas, most notably Honiara, Ghizo, Florida Islands & Kavieng. We spent lots of time in all four of these areas, and never had an issue. Honiara was in the end a pleasant surprise (given all the bad reviews by others), and we still find ourselves missing the buzz and provisioning of Honiara. It was easy to get around, everything we needed could be found and the people were very nice. Maybe we were lucky, but I would like to think that taking these simple steps kept us out of trouble, as it did with most of the other boats we met along the way staying in these same places with no problems or issues.
As a final thought, we found that lots of the ‘bad’ things you hear about in the sailing community are either over blown or due to a lack of common ‘street’ sense. As an example, one guy in the Solomons left a case of beer in his dinghy while shopping, only to return to find it missing. This incident was the buzz while we were in the area about how ‘unsafe’ this place was…but the reality was closer in my view to ‘sailor stupidity’ than an ‘unsafe’ anchorage.
We enjoyed the people and places of the Solomons and Papua New Guinea, and hope many other sailors will follow our wake and find similar enriching experiences in this remote part of the world.