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Could fitting a boat tracker prevent theft, people trafficking, stranding and even death.

How fitting a boat tracker could prevent theft, people trafficking, stranding and even death.

Over the last Three months at least Two yachts have been used to traffic desperate people to Italy.  Tragically in one case around 12 people died.  In another the yacht was smashed to pieces on the rocks and a “total loss”.

Whilst the average boat owner can’t prevent the determined traffickers, a simple cost effective device could protect property and save lives.

In recent months there has been an increase in boats, typically yachts, stolen from, or close to Lefkas (Lefkada), an Island in the Ionian sea.  Lefkas lies about 45 miles south of Corfu and a few miles north of Cephalonia.  It is a hugely popular region for holidays and yacht charter.  There are literally thousands of boats, both private and charter in the area.

Crucially, the heel of Italy and main land Europe lies approximately 65 miles due West of Corfu and about 120 miles North West of Lefkas.  These short distances can easily be covered in relatively short times of between 12 and 24 hours.

During the summer months the harbours are full of holiday makers, charter boats and privately owned vessels enjoying the idyllic sailing grounds.

At the end of the season around mid October, many boats are hauled out of the water or laid up waiting on the start of the next season in April.

Its during the off season period that boat thefts seem to have risen, particularly 2019 to 2020.


12 people die off Paxos
Greek coastguard vessel at the port of Preveza, northwestern Greece, Saturday, Jan. 11, 2020. Greece’s coast guard say 12 migrants have been found dead in the Ionian Sea and 21 others have been rescued after their boat took in water and sank. (Andriana Soldatou/ via AP)


Whats happening?

The general sequence of events is that a yacht is taken without the owners knowledge.  Typically the boat stolen is a yacht about 15 meters (50 feet) long.  A boat of this size can hold around 50 people, albeit very crowded and overloaded.  Then at a discrete location, probably a deserted beach or anchorage, the traffickers embark the desperate immigrants or refugees.

Around twenty four to thirty six hours later, the news, internet chat groups and Facebook pages are full of posts and comments about another boat being stolen and displaced people arriving in Italy.

If the refugees are lucky, they may make it to Italy, if not, they will perish at sea as did 12 or 15 did in early January 2020 south of Paxos and Corfu, despite a major rescue operation.

It is not unusual for the boat owner to be oblivious that their pride and joy and probably their second largest asset has been stolen and used for illegal purposes.

With current technology I ask how can this be?  How can a boat owner not know where his or her vessel is 24/7/365?  How can they not know if it is moved without their permission or knowledge?

Greece Italy Inonian
The Ionian Sea, Greece and Italy. Showing the region of boat thefts and trafficking.

A duty to protect vessels and lives.

Having spent much of my working life at sea in one form or another I know and understand the need and obligation to protect life and property at sea.  I own a boat and am a commercially endorsed Yachtmaster.  It upsets and frustrates me that boat owners appear to be doing little and in enough numbers to prevent boat theft and lives being lost at sea.

What can boat owners do?

There are numerous ways a boat owner can try to prevent their boat being stolen, and if it does get stolen, know about it immediately and alert the authorities.  There is no “silver bullet”, but I believe every boat owner has an obligation to at least try to prevent misuse of their vessel and prevent the loss of life.

Fit a GPS tracker.

In its basic form, a GPS tracker will tell you where the boat is.  Prices range from very cheap to “you have to be joking!”  In their simplest form, boat trackers are easy and quick to fit, often only requiring two wires to be connected to the batteries.

Personally I think if you are going “cheap”, expect what you pay for.  I’ve seen trackers for about £15 on ebay.  From an “experts point of view” don’t waste your money.  I wont waste too much of my time justifying why not to buy one.  The marine environment is harsh.  I have seen many tracker types and most that are not marinized, or of suitable quality to survive more than a season or two. Expect them to fail.  You have been warned.

Mid range trackers cost between about £120 and £250.  There are a number of boat trackers on the market in this price range.  They are typically made to a standard that will last years on a boat.  They have functions that will provide data and information such as location, course and speed.  A map of the boats location can be seen online or via an app that comes with the tracker.  Some boat trackers will alert you when the ignition is switched on or the boat starts to move or leaves a predefined location or area using a technique called Geofencing.

Higher cost boat trackers typically include boat monitoring systems.  These might be hardwired, or use Bluetooth to connect the remote sensors for things like turning heating on and off remotely, door sensors, CCTV cameras, bilge pumps and audible alarms.  The list of what you can potentially do remotely is endless once connected to the internet!

Everyone has their budget but when choosing, bare in mind what is a necessity and whats a “nice to have”.  In the context of this article, keep things relatively simple and buy a boat tracker that allows you to know when the ignition is switched on or the boat moves.  Seeing the boats location on a map is also a huge benefit.  Receiving and alert if the companion way hatch is opened might also be useful.


Boat tracker and Monitor
Boat tracker and Monitor

Which SIM card for the tracker?

One important factor is the SIM card used in the tracker.  The tracker will need to connect to the mobile phone network so that it can send its alerts and location to you.  To maximise coverage and reduce the risk of connectivity issues I recommend a roaming  multi network SIM.

Some people use a Pay As You Go SIM from a Single network.  But consider this…If the SIM runs out of credit at the critical moment, you won’t get notified of the theft. Likewise if the single network does not have coverage or has a local “blackspot” where there is no mobile signal.  Also, some network will deactivate SIMs if they are not used; some countries do this if a SIM is not used for as little as three months.  Our Data Bundle SIMs are ideal for trackers of all types, including Boat Trackers.

Some countries such as Turkey do not allow “permanent roaming” and will block a SIM from connection if it has been in country and on local networks for an aggregated 90 days in any 180 days.  In this instance you would need to use a local SIM.

I’d recommend a multi network roaming data SIM.  These SIM cards roam on multiple networks rather than being fixed to just one network.  This maximises coverage and reduces the risk and consequences of network outages or black spots.

Ignorance is not an excuse. 

Any seafarer or boat owner worth their salt will understand the importance of up to date information.  Be it navigation hazards, weather, local regulations, equipment or techniques.  There is a plethora of online resources.  This includes various Facebook and chat groups. Although informal and unregulated, they are invaluable for knowing what’s going on at a local level and for general “gossip”.  In the Ionian there are a number of such groups.

These groups mention trafficking “gangs” or criminals operating in the area moving people illegally and are one of the first places a report is posted when a boat is stolen or used illegally.

Think of the potential emotional impact it might have on you as boat owner, knowing that you could possibly have helped prevent criminal use of your boat.

You might argue that you cant stop them. 

I agree, you will not stop a determined criminal but you can make it inconvenient or difficult.  Don’t leave your boat unlocked, particularly when laid up in a quiet harbour, anchorage, town quay or pontoon.

You might just say I can’t be bothered as the risk is so small.

Wake up ship mate!  It’s happening  outside your cockpit.  Its real, don’t kid yourself.

You may think using a Boat tracker is expensive.

You might think that a boat tracker is too expensive to buy and operate.  See my comments above.  You protect your house, your car your kids and granny.  You invest in nice cushions for the cockpit, shiny stainless steel fittings, fancy widgets, new ropes, and bottles of your favorite tipple. So why would you not protect your boat from theft and misuse?

You might say a boat tracker is too difficult to fit.

Most mid range trackers only require a power supply.  That’s two wires.  Most boat owners have the knowledge to connect two wires.  If you would prefer to use the services of a boat electrician, ask your local boat yard, chandler or marina.

You might say I never knew such devices existed. 

Come on!  You can track your car, you can track your pets, you can track your elderly parents suffering from dementia.  So why on earth do you think you can’t track your boat?!

You might think your insurance company will pay out.

Even if you are insured, you might be under insured for a total loss.  But what about the time and effort to source and buy a replacement pride and joy? Its entirely plausible that you would miss a full season trying to pick up the pieces, sort the “mess out” and get back to “normal”.

It is your Duty!

You have a duty to prevent these despicable criminals from taking your boat.  They risk innocent lives. They have caused death and misery.

Ask you self is it worth it?  Could you live with your conscience if your boat was stolen and used for illegal trafficking.  What if lives were lost?

At least fitting a tracker gives you a fighting chance of knowing where your boat is, and alerting you to any misuse immediately.  It might even prevent lives being lost.

The old adage Prevention is better than cure rings true.  Do what you can to protect your boat and fit some sort of tracking device before its too late.


Reference links.

The National Herald report.  21 people saved off Greece

12 dead, 21 saved from stolen boat off Western Greece

Boat Tracker