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Superyachts - A Dimension of Risk

With the superyacht industry booming over recent years, it is perhaps inevitable that this market catering exclusively for the global elite has presented new and challenging security issues. Pirates, hackers and other opportunistic criminals are all seeing the value that comes from targeting super-yachts and mitigating these risks is something every yacht owner should consider.

As a firm with extensive experience in protecting influential individuals, their families and their assets when aboard their yacht, listed below are what we deem to be prevalent threats surrounding superyacht owners.

Piracy and Port security

To many, the term ‘pirates’ may evoke images of galleons and treasure, but for both commercial sailors and superyacht owner’s piracy can pose a serious threat. As matters stand parts of the Philippines, the Gulf of Aden and the coast of West Africa are classified as ‘red-alert’ areas for pirate activity whilst some parts of the Caribbean are categorised ‘Amber’, (i.e. requiring caution). Although some areas of the Caribbean are safe, others have become hot-spots for pirates who prey upon passing vessels. Even the southern and eastern regions of the Mediterranean have become increasingly dangerous due to conflicts in both Libya and Syria and the increasing usage of waters around Sicily and Gibraltar by people traffickers. An incident in 2016 off of the coast of Turkey highlighted the dangers to sailors in waters near to conflict zones. A Turkish coast guard vessel spotted a raft that appeared to contain dead bodies drifting off of their coast. However, when the coast guard approached and boarded the raft exploded, killing a Turkish sailor, a victim of an IED.

Map showing migrant trafficking routes around Sicily – Credit, intelligence fusion.

Reassuringly, statistics show attacks upon superyachts remain extremely rare. The best way for superyacht owners to reduce their chances of a pirate attack is to present any possible assailants with an active deterrent of bolstered security.

Rob Bates, Senior Operations Manager at Blackstone Consultancy, explains that: "Criminals will examine a potential target before making a move, if they see security is on board they will likely go to seek easier targets. Prevention is always better than cure".

When sailing in dangerous waters, superyacht owners are advised to invest in additional security personnel and surveillance equipment. Superyachts can also be supplied with safe rooms and tracking devices for further protection in the event of an attack.

Comprehensive crew training protocols are also essential. Crew should be instructed on how to act in a crisis and not to discuss departure plans or yacht details with any third parties whilst on shore. Risk assessments should be undertaken for the entirety of the voyage or for a particular destination or area. Using crime pattern analysis can help in identifying risks to the vessel. This allows superyacht owners to sail from port to port aware of the risks and the methods needed to mitigate them.

Hackers, theft and extortion

In addition to physical threats from pirates, today we have also seen superyachts come under threat from cyber-attacks.

A skilled hacker can often infiltrate superyacht networks which are often not regarded as serious security issues by many owners. At a recent superyacht conferences, one cyber security expert showed how a hacker took complete control of a multi-million-dollar superyacht's Wi-Fi within a few hours using only a laptop. Via the ships Wi-Fi the hacker had control of the satellite communications, the telephone system, the Wi-Fi, and the navigation controls. Once they had access to the inside of the network, the hackers also had the option of wiping the data to erase their footprints behind them.

Though owners like to have strong Wi-Fi so they can operate their businesses from the vessel it means that the network extends far from the actual ship, creating openings for hackers. Yacht owners should therefore ask themselves who are they moored next to?

Evidence of cyber-attacks on yachts include a billionaire who had more than £100,000 stolen when criminals hacked his bank account. Other high net individuals have been blackmailed with compromising photos and some superyacht owners have even been forced to pay a ransom to unlock their vessel’s navigation systems. Infiltrating a ship's Wi-Fi can also enable assailants to manipulate the craft's CCTV equipment and assist the execution of a physical attack or kidnap.

Superyachts are an obvious sign of great wealth which marks their owners (and anyone aboard) as high value targets to criminals. Despite this, and the fact that the ships themselves are filled with technology that can be tampered with, digital security on-board yachts is often overlooked and vulnerable to attack.

It is strongly advised that superyacht owners invest in proven security software with end-to-end encryption and two-factor authentication in order to prevent hackers from accessing the ship's data systems.

Furthermore, bolstering the cyber security of the devices on-board your yacht is also crucial. Cyber security experts were also recently able to hack into a superyacht and alter the draft/water depth details of the craft simply by infiltrating the Captain's email. Though this may seem like a minor change, this attack could tamper with systems at a critical point during an intended voyage (for example during night-time passage through a narrow canal or strait). During the attack, the ship’s instruments looked normal, but it was deceiving the Officer of the Watch. The actual situation had become completely different to the one on screen and if the vessel had been operational, it would have almost certainly run aground. During the night, when navigation by instrument is critical, altering parameters such as position, heading, depth and speed can have a dramatic effect. More disturbing is that even when under this type of attack the navigation picture made sense and did not arouse suspicion. This type of attack can easily penetrate the many of the antivirus and firewalls typically used in the maritime sector.

Insurance cover is not always guaranteed, as Mike Taylor-West, La Playa's Director of Global Markets - Private Client, Marine and Aviation states:

"Whilst the various think tanks are grappling with the concept of cyber-attacks, the London insurance market continues to have a Cyber exclusion on all Marine policies for yachts and a collective market approach is yet to be established. At the very best, some policies may include a small element of cover.


The commercial drone industry is expected to surpass $1 billion in annual sales in 2018. Although these gadgets have a wide range of beneficial applications, they also pose a growing threat for superyacht owners and the privacy of their guests.

This was demonstrated by the case of seven guests aboard a superyacht moored in Portocolom, Mallorca, in June 2017 who were filmed by a drone as they sunbathed naked on the deck of their yacht.

The laws regarding drones fluctuate from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. Though many anti drone systems do currently exist, they are often bulky man-portable pieces of equipment that are seldom effective. Currently, Blackstone Consultancy would advise capturing data on the drone and locating its source, rather than trying to bring one down. Harry Chenevix-Trench, an Intelligence manager at Blackstone Consultancy, states that;

"Drones present rapidly evolving technology that few are able to keep up with and give the user remarkable capability in a low-cost package. Drones are small, fast, and very difficult to detect and defeat. A drone can also carry a wide variety of payloads that could range from hacking tools to explosives. Another key issue is that because drones operate in the air, they are governed by aviation law which is carries strict penalties for those who obstruct an ‘aircraft’ in flight. Though the law currently favours the drone pilot, this may change as the technology becomes more widespread and UK law is set to change the rules regarding drones later this year".

In addition to violating a yacht owner’s personal privacy, there also is the possibility that drones could be used by criminals to gain a bird's eye view of a vessel and highlight its vulnerabilities.

Insurance, infrastructure and crew vulnerabilities

Another security measure that superyacht owners can take is to prevent any vulnerabilities within the crew. The maritime industry is transitory and crew members (especially junior ones) seldom stay with one ship for long. This constant staff turnover can result in due diligence becoming neglected, which can prove a serious risk for the yacht owner and even the rest of the crew.

A crew should also be trained accordingly with regards to digital security protocols and safe Internet practices. Posting photos of the ship on social media, opening emails from suspicious parties and the introduction of unknown USB or disk drives are all ways in which crew members can inadvertently cause harm to the vessel and their client. For these reasons, many superyachts have confidentiality clauses which require them to use client provided phones and computers rather than their own. Given the lack of insurance cover against hacking Mike Taylor-West feels that yacht owners should therefore focus their insurance policy on the actions of people rather than on hardware.

"One piece of advice given by the insurance industry to yacht owners centres on the ‘people and policy’ factor rather than hardware. Yachts, their Captains and shore-side teams all need as a minimum to have communications policies for crews’ use of handheld devices, social media, and privacy during their period of employment, on aboard, ashore with work and on annual leave.

Superyacht owners can suffer significant financial losses and reputational damage due to the poor management, monitoring and handling of finances and sensitive information.

The multifaceted nature of the risk to superyacht owners should also encourage them investigate comprehensive insurance policies for their vessels, Mike Taylor-West adds:

Insurance should be a part of an integrated approach to managing risk in Superyachts. The vessel is likely to be among an owner’s top 5 asset investments in life and a central point of enjoyment and relaxation, usually acquired from the proceeds of professional success. Precious time enjoyed afloat! Time, the asset and any liabilities arising out of its use should receive the best levels of protection, in the most integrated way, so that it remains a safe and fun escape for today and into the future".

Written by Rob Bates, Senior Operations Manager, Blackstone Consultancy

Rob has worked within the security industry for over 12 years and has a wealth of experience in providing close protection, residential security and surveillance for High Net Worth clients, Middle Eastern Royalty, Corporate Executives and A List Celebrities.

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