Researching the subject of travel safety revealed an oxymoron since travel, by its very nature, is not completely safe. Traveling anglers compound the equation by adding elements of danger not often encountered by less adventurous souls, such as remote locations, stormy seas, boat failure, proximity to sharp teeth, hooks and gaffs, as well as a lack of safety planning by local operators. Today, the international political scene has become more unstable in some areas, and there are still places in the world where piracy, terrorism, kidnappings and violent conflict take place on a broad scale. Nothing is completely safe, but you can greatly reduce the level of risk by improving personal travel habits and selecting fishing destinations and operators that are relatively stable and incorporate security planning in their daily operations.
Personally, I have fished in 18 countries with great success – but not without some adversity. Aside from my many memorable fishing experiences, I have also been shipwrecked, robbed, bruised and battered in rough seas and inlets, snagged with hooks, cut by sharp fish teeth, sickened by bad food and water, stranded in remote areas and had equipment stolen or broken. None of this misfortune occurred at home.
Nowadays, I probably preach as much about safety as I do fishing because people are not asking the right questions about their travel arrangements. For example, anglers should evaluate a fishing operator beyond its ability to provide state-of-the-art rods and reels or a comfortable swimming pool. All boats need to provide reliable communication among the entire fleet as well as with shore. Crews should check in with the lodge on a regular basis and have a fixed return time, even if it means breaking off a fish. Every boat should carry all the basic safety gear from PFDs to EPIRBs. Little things like easy access to an anchor can prevent you from drifting onto rocks or reefs and keep you safe until repairs are made or the props cleared. Generally speaking, well-established fishing resorts and charter operations follow all of these safety practices.
Captains and crews need to know the waters they fish, including every boiler rock and navigational hazard, and keep the vessel in proper working condition. During one trip to Australia, I got put on a replacement boat with a captain who was not familiar with the area, and we ended up running aground on the Great Barrier Reef. We probably wouldn’t have survived if not for the aluminum hull that bent but did not break.
The cockpit should be clean and uncluttered, with all gaffs properly stowed. Make sure anglers using either stand-up gear or the chair are fitted properly and have an emergency cutoff or release system. Children should not be harnessed to the rod. Bare feet on deck may be cool, but you are just waiting to get a toe smashed, punctured or broken after a slip and fall. Wear sticky-soled shoes, and keep the blood and slime off the deck. It’s also a good idea to stay out of tuna towers in rough seas or when navigating inlets.
Peak danger times on boats include wiring billfish and gaffing and bringing aboard live, active fish such as dorado. You can also get hurt loading and unloading the boat with people, fuel and gear, working too close to fish that are near structure or shoreline, running at night or during bad weather, and fishing on congested grounds. As basic as it may sound, make sure you have plenty of water and food on board your charter boat. On a multiday trip to a remote island, my charter boat ran out of water but had plenty of beer aboard.
Some of the world’s best fishing is located in emerging countries or isolated regions where pristine environments and healthy game-fish populations thrive. Traveling to such countries may require stops in high-risk locales, and you should be aware of these. The U.S. Department of State (www.travel.state.gov) issues travel warnings when public travel to a country is considered unsafe due to civil unrest, dangerous conditions, terrorist activity or lack of diplomatic relations that make it difficult to assist Americans in distress. Departments from many other countries, such as the British Foreign & Commonwealth Office (www.fco.gov.uk/en), issue similar warnings and travel advice. Currently, the United States lists 31 countries on its warning list. Of these, 22 have ocean shorelines.
For example, Mexico is listed primarily for drug conflicts in border cities and crimes in Mexico City. However, tourism numbers declined throughout Mexico, including Baja and mainland ports. U.S. anglers seem to have mixed reactions regarding fishing in Mexico based on monitoring popular Internet fishing forums, such as www.bloodydecks.com, where heated debate continues to occur on the issue. Probably more appropriate, the U.K. advises against all but essential travel to “? parts of Mexico” as well as 32 other countries. The only country where all travel is advised against is Somalia.
The Department of State also issues travel alerts about short-term conditions within a country such as natural disasters, terrorist attacks, coups, and political or sporting events that may escalate into violence. Currently, Thailand, India, Mozambique, Ethiopia and Malaysia carry alerts. Thailand, long known for its hospitality and access to the Andaman Sea fishing grounds, raised concerns due to the ongoing political demonstrations in Bangkok. Travel to tourist areas outside Bangkok should be safe using caution and good judgment – a standard practice for experienced travelers.
In India and Malaysia, the threat of terrorist activity is of primary concern – violent crime against tourists, however, is uncommon.
On the sea, piracy has become a worldwide threat that affects not only the coasts of Africa, but also Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Yemen and Venezuela. The Gulf of Aden remains a hot spot of piracy primarily due to Somalia, a country without an effective government. Most of the pirates in these waters direct their attacks against cargo vessels, but cruise ships also come under fire, as well as some smaller private yachts. What started as near-coast hijackings spread out to 300 miles into international waters, creating concern for the outer, southernmost islands of the pristine Seychelles, a popular fishing destination.
The Straits of Malacca, located between Indonesia and Malaysia, were long considered a center of piracy, but increased patrols have reduced the number of attacks to only a few per year. In Malaysia, the South China Sea off Tioman Island experienced some pirate activity. The southern island of Mindanao and the Sulu Archipelago are of primary concern in the Philippines.
Have a Safe Trip
Regardless of your destination, it is advisable that U.S. citizens register with the Department of State (https://travelregistration.state.gov). This makes it possible to contact you in the event of a family emergency or changing safety conditions. Using a professional sport-fishing agent will guarantee a detailed itinerary and provide backup support should you run into trouble with travel connections, hotel check-in or even safety situations. It is not unusual to call a U.S. agent to work out local problems regardless of how experienced the traveler may be. Fred Stephens, owner of Adventure Sportfishing, recalls a new twist for the “client in distress” phone call.
“A few years ago I had a large group fishing from Quepos, Costa Rica – about 36 guys fishing on nine or 10 boats, a large chunk of the Quepos fleet at the time,” Stephens says. “I was sitting in the Adventure Sportfishing office in San Diego and received a phone call. The person identified himself simply as, ‘We’re stuck out here floating in the ocean.’ I responded with, ‘What ocean?’ He replied that he was fishing offshore of Quepos, Costa Rica, and the boat’s engine would not turn over. The crew had drained the battery trying to start the boat, and now the radio would not work.
“Since he still had not identified himself, I asked him how he ended up contacting me in San Diego. He responded, ‘I found a brochure in my backpack with your phone number on it, and I’m calling you on my satellite phone.’ After determining what boat he was on, I attempted to get a position and placed him on hold while I called Marsha at the El Gran Escape restaurant/ bar in Quepos. She picked up and I explained the situation to her. The El Gran Escape has a repeater station on the roof, and Marsha was able to radio one of the other J.P. Sportfishing Tours boats. By luck, the crew on the boat she called could see the stranded boat a few miles away. Marsha said, ‘They can see the boat and are on their way now.’
“I went back to my stranded customer who was still on hold on his satellite phone and stayed on the line with him until the rescue boat approached. He was very happy, and a possible disaster was avoided,” says Stephens. “Who would have thought that you would have to call 3,000 miles away to let somebody know you are having engine problems, but it happens. Having someone to call when it does happen makes all the difference. I’m sure there are plenty of do-it-yourself travelers out there who will scoff at what I’m about to say, but having sent tens of thousands of anglers on international travel to third-world countries over the past 25 years, I think it’s fair to say that having somebody who is looking out for your interests while you are traveling abroad is a good thing,” says Stephens.
The Smart Traveler
Purchase travel insurance before venturing to a new destination. The more remote you are, the more expensive and time-consuming it will be to transport you to proper care. Check your basic insurance to make sure it is valid for the regions to which you are traveling and the activities you plan to do. It pays dividends to read about the country and familiarize yourself with the language, unique customs and general facts. Learn at least a few cordial phrases, and avoid social faux pas that could lead to an awkward situation or even violence. In Asia, refrain from touching a person’s head (the most sacred part of the body) even though it is a congratulatory gesture to Westerners. Do not show anger or even raise your voice, as it is a sign of personal weakness.
Sometimes you might have to taste food that you might find disagreeable but is important to local culture, such as kava and betel nut in the Pacific Islands and Asia. However, if it is potentially dangerous, pass on it. A few years ago a large grouper in Baja poisoned a dozen people who ate its entrails, a local tradition.
Obviously, you should avoid sharks and other dangerous species. The teeth of wahoo, barracuda and others, and the sharp hooks that go along with them, are best dealt with by clearing the cockpit before you bring them on board or at least by giving the mate plenty of space until things settle down.
Renting a vacation home can certainly add to your enjoyment, with views of the ocean, remote setting and private pool often available. Be aware that isolation and privacy combined with a lack of telephone communication (verify before you go) and the perception of wealth prove very attractive to thieves or armed robbers. Make sure you have reliable radio, cell or telephone service to call designated people in an emergency. If there is on-site staff, ask them about any potential problems and precautions to take. Unfortunately, some rental agencies and owners are reluctant to provide information about crime. Consider hiring a security-guard service; after all, guards may be protecting other properties in the area, so why not yours too?
At one time I trusted unfamiliar crews and operators regarding my safety and well-being – but no longer. I discuss safety first and may ask questions that an experienced, competent crew may find insulting – but so be it. I don’t hesitate to tell a captain to back off from a big shore break or to run from a lightning storm if I feel it’s warranted. I give the crew the same tip whether I catch fish or not. I know of some ego-driven crews who catch trophy-class Central American black snook from the ocean side of treacherous river mouths by waiting for a brief lull in the huge waves, running in, dropping their live baits and hoping to get out before the next set starts. One day a boat didn’t make it out. Fish just aren’t worth that type of risk, and if you think they are, be sure to buy plenty of life insurance.
The vast majority of traveling anglers enjoy safe travels with little more than a sunburn. But you should always be aware of the existence of potential dangers, all of which can be mitigated by careful planning, common sense and awareness of your surroundings.
**Don’t Be a Victim
10 Tips For Traveling Safely
1. Dress and act like a local to avoid being a target. Anglers usually rank low here with our conspicuous rod tubes, bulky luggage, gregarious nature and high-tech clothing.
2. Public transportation can be risky. Make sure to verify a taxi’s credentials before entering. Becoming familiar with two or three reliable taxi drivers and having them “on call” is a good idea. When I stayed in a popular but high-risk beach city, my taxi driver was an armed, off-duty policeman who I hired for the duration of my stay.
3. Follow the charter routine. A good resort/charter operation greets their clients at the airport or other arrival points and provides a safe ground or domestic air transfer to the final destination. Making the transfers yourself might save a buck or two, but it may not be wise.
4. Partake of bars, casinos and nightlife in moderation and with friends. Avoid food or drink offerings from strangers – they might be drugged, a growing practice in Latin America and Southeast Asia. Regarding “recreational” drug use, don’t even consider it in a foreign country where penalties can be extremely harsh. Make sure all prescription medication is properly labeled and in its original bottle with your name on it; otherwise, you might run into trouble when bringing it back into the United States.
5. Communication is critical. If your cell phone doesn’t work in a different country or is costly to use, purchase an inexpensive local phone and program important numbers into your contact list. My Panama cell phone cost $20, and a $5 calling card holds more than enough capacity for two weeks.
6. Do your research before renting a car. Driving in a strange country with possibly different rules of the road, lane direction, poor signage and signals, aggressive drivers and poorly maintained roads can turn into a nightmare. Before arrival, study a road map of the city, outline a conservative route, ask questions regarding current road conditions or changes, and don’t drive at night. In many countries, car-rental agencies can provide a driver at a reasonable cost if you ask in advance.
7. Carry a lean wallet. Take out unnecessary credit cards, your social-security card, irreplaceable items or other valuables from your wallet and leave them at home. Keep your passport, credit cards, cash and airline tickets in the hotel or room safe. Keep a copy of your passport photo page with you at all times, as well as your driver’s license and credit cards.
8. When carrying valuables, avoid fanny packs, handbags and outside pockets. Distribute cash and other valuables inside pockets or a hidden money belt. Carry minimum cash at all times.
9. Keep your luggage close. Stay with your luggage until it is checked behind the airline counter or into your hotel room.
10. Avoid crowds. Political gatherings, nationalistic soccer matches and even public recreational events can turn into mob scenes or individual crime incidents with you as a target.