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What is the issue?
Statistically, most people worry about being a victim of crime than will ever experience it. Women worry most, being justifiably concerned that they cannot fend off a young assailant.

However, in reality, it is young men living in areas of social deprivation that are most likely to be victims of violent crimes. Young men aged between 16 and 24 have the highest risk of being a victim of any crime, and they are over twice as likely to be a victim of violent crime as women of the same age. Women are however five times more likely to suffer sexual assault.

In sailing circles, the chances of violent crime are vastly diminished but it can never be ruled out. Because it only takes the convergence of three things for a violent or aggressive incident to happen: a victim, a criminal and an opportunity.

Why address this?
Understanding the nature of crime, its patterns, playbook and likely outcomes in advance will help bring a measure of objective consideration to one’s personal security and, for a skipper, for that of the crew. It will help, should an incident occur, to provide an understanding of the dynamic, and thereby assist in being cool and calm in the circumstance. Most importantly it will make you aware of your internal mechanisms to detect when something is not right and step out of dangerous positions safely.

How to address this?
On the whole, you will be less likely to experience issues sailing than you are exposed to living your life normally. For most people reading this article, I suspect that your statistical risk is negligible. In truth, we often forget to consider just how safe and secure the world in which we live in is.

Nevertheless, as the research uncovered in this piece of experience exposes, the complexity of this area and just how easily we try to deliberately deceive ourselves when we enter into a dangerous situation, I humbly suggest you take some time aside to take advice and give consideration as to how to deal with situations should you be placed under physical threat.

Personally, being 6' plus, carefree and a harmless male of modest means, I travelled the world highly secure and, apart from a few offbeat brushes, lived a life that was entirely free from any concern of violent crime. An awakening occurred when my circumnavigation coincided with an engagement to a highly attractive young female. In the following days, it took an early hours brush with some marginally corrupt North African Police Officers to make me aware that my life had vastly changed. The next morning I woke up to a world where I saw the thing I loved most in it, was as highly attractive as it was vulnerable. I had to stop thinking for one, and start thinking for two with a vastly different context. Moreover, having taken her with me on a circumnavigation and being the skipper, I also felt the responsibility on a few more levels than perhaps most would.

All of this caused me to look more deeply into this area than many would. The information below is a summarisation of my own personal research, findings and deducements largely based upon extreme American data and the neuroscience that helped me understand it. I share this with you, not as an authority, nor to provide you with the basis upon which you should plan your strategies. Rather the intention is to encourage you to give this area your own consideration. To provide the start of a conversation from which you may do your own research and take advice. Abide by the old sailing maxim that goes 'plan for the worst, hope for the best, and make the most of what comes along'.

My personal research of potentially violent situations could be broken down into three sets of three subject areas. The first two sets, cut down to bullet points for efficiency, are the key offender traits and the latter being the decision-making framework and strategies that you have available to you where we can spend more time.

Violent offenders normally want one of three things, in escalating order:

  • • Your resources.

  • • Your body.

  • • Your life.

They have also got three weak spots or concerns that they need to avoid:

  • • Getting caught.

  • • Getting hurt.

  • • To be in the situation for a long time.

Taking the above as a given your strategies are, again in escalating order to: detect, diffuse, and defend. These I will now expand upon, by spending the most time on ‘detect’ where you have much more resources to call upon.

Unfortunately detect, diffuse, and defend runs parallel to strategies’ ‘Position, Decision, Action (PDA) that describes the constant narrowing of options to outcomes as you descend through them. If you trap yourself in a position, you have narrowed yourself to be able to make fewer decisions, and your outcome is then narrowed to your ability to successfully action those decisions. So as we descend, one after the other, through detect, diffuse, and defend, the options abruptly narrow. Hence my disproportionate large focus on 'detect'.

  • Detect. The other old sailing maximum of 'it's better to be a thousand times too careful than once dead' comes into play here. Every single victim of a violent crime, when recounting the event, say the same set words in one form or another… 'I had a bad feeling'.

    This is perhaps the most critical point to focus in on here because we have in our subconscious mind, the most extraordinary tool that we are entirely unaware of, let alone care to tune into and use. The 'bad feeling' was the victim’s subconscious mind processing the developing situation and signalling ‘danger’. Had they paid attention to that ‘red flag’, they probably would not have allowed themselves to be led into the dangerous position, or at least may have extricated themselves in time. This is why it so important to focus on this area exclusively. You will always walk away 100 % unsaved from the bad positions that you do not get into and you have the built-in warning system, if you just care to pay attention to it. Let’s step back somewhat from this for a moment as this needs at least a brief explanation.

    You are, in this moment, considering this with your conscious mind. It can process 40 bits of information per second (bps) as it goes through this in a slow, conscious and deliberate way. The rest of the brain, the subconscious, has a processing capability of 11 million bps, is super fast and can at times operate up to 9 seconds ahead of your conscious mind. You see we have evolved to free up our conscious mind by pushing a lot of activities down to our subconscious mind. Tasks like maintaining our heartbeat, breathing, except in rare circumstances, so we don’t have to think about that. Also a lot of automation such as forming the F# chord on a guitar, balancing on a bike, hitting the left signal on the car, again so we don’t have to think about that and so they can be processed superfast – try playing an instrument if you can by thinking about the placement of each note consciously and you will see what I mean.

    One of the key functions of the subconscious is to look out for aberrant patterns and to appraise people for danger that come into your field of view. From the first moment a person is spotted the subconscious immediately starts asking ‘is this person friend or foe?’. It immediately then starts to look for cues that we do not even consciously notice the vast majority of the time. By the time the person is about 3.5 metres (12 feet) away it will have that decided. That particular distance is pervasive in human research as it represents the historical distance where humans have enough time to react appropriately. For instance, it is the trigger range for a mother to reign in a toddler that has stumbled out of her safe reaction distance or, as in this case, to get our fists up and fight, or run for our lives.

    The subconscious has a set of tells which is another key piece of the jigsaw we have in question here. Unfortunately, we've also evolved to do certain crucial things in our unconscious minds that would make a lot more sense to think about consciously, one of them is decision-making. The vast majority of our activity is driven by a flow of wishes, desires, intents issued from the subconscious.

    That is, we make an unconscious ‘I want that’ decision and then our bodies start to act it out. We then literally embody that decision and start acting on the intent. How often have you found yourself needing a drink and suddenly find yourself glass in hand filling it with water without even thinking of it? That’s because our subconscious is so fast and intent-driven. Because of this, we operate largely on autopilot with our conscious mind spending most of its day running veto to these unconscious intents, or explaining to ourselves why we just decided what we did, rather than deciding consciously - like a reverse salesperson.

    With subconscious intent and embodiment running ever so slightly ahead of consciousness, it is hard to cover that process up. As grownups, we have learned to control our faces very well, but it is much more difficult to lie with our bodies. Let’s take something we are all in one way or another familiar with, a business meeting. We don't reveal our full feelings in a business situation as it is a culturally controlled environment. Unfortunately, in the vast majority of these, we are probably bored out of our minds but we don't sit there with a scowl on our face, we keep our faces reasonably bland. We have learned how to do that with our faces, but it is much harder to lie with the body as a whole. Want to test this in a safe place that may even benefit you, how about you give this a go?

    The next meeting you are in where you just get a feeling that says… ‘this is not going very well stop and take a pause if you can. Look at the participants to see what is causing that impulse. They may be looking at you and following the conversation but, typically, the rest of their bodies will be giving their true feelings away in some way. They may be tapping their fingers, maybe a twitching, may be moving restlessly in their chairs, maybe scowling slightly, sketching doodles in their notes and miles away, it is coming out in the rest of their bodies somehow and you will see it if you just look. The subconscious has seen that and is flagging it to the conscious mind, but it is all tied up trying to say what it wants to say and is not reading the room.

    Every communication has two conversations, the content and the body language. When the content and the body language are aligned, the situation is credible. When they're not aligned, the body language always trumps the content because it's much harder for the body to lie. So let’s take this all back into the dangerous situation and see how all this machinery works in this context.

    That primordial 'bad feeling' is how the subconscious mind communicates that it is picking up on a bad pattern that the conscious mind has not identified. If what it has picked up on is a potential offender intent on doing you harm entering the scene, the ever scanning subconscious will have seen that motive way faster than the conscious mind. This is because, unless the offender is exceptionally controlled, the intention will be keyed into their physical demeanour. No matter how they might consciously try to conceal it, your continually processing subconscious mind with its speed and pattern observational ability will pick that up, even in a nanosecond's lapse. It will then send the impulse alarm 'I have a bad feeling'. The conscious mind may at that time be working on something else, such as figuring out street directions, taking in a situation or story it is being fed or daydreaming… whatever, but this is the critical moment.

    Here, unfortunately, is where it is most likely went wrong for all the aforementioned victim accounts. The danger in that moment is the slower working conscious mind, that tends to be fixed of purpose and not consciously aware of the signals, can decide that was an inconvenient impulse, and decide to veto that vital impulse. The did so at their very own peril.

    The reason why it is important to take the time to understand the above mechanics is to let you know you have the evolutionary most magnificent and unparalleled set of equipment in the Universe inside of your head. It is on and protecting you and if it suddenly sends an impulse saying to you… 'this situation is wrong, wake up, think safety immediately. Never shrug it off as an inconvenience with the self-deceiving 'it's probably nothing'. It is something.

    If you get a bad feeling, act on it! Don't anchor in that particular place, come into that pier, don't land in the dinghy, don't go down that street, and, above all don't let that guy persuade you 'don't worry… everything is fine...'. Turn around, move to what represents the safest option in that moment. Listen to that voice, it is something.

    There is no downside to choosing safety, except at worst a little embarrassment perhaps, the odd person being put out and a little mocking banter... who cares? It's a lot easier not to get into a mess than get out of one once you are in it. This takes us to the next level of escalation where you are now in the position and the options vastly narrow.

  • Diffuse. Now you are in a situation it is the time to totally switch on. Know that you are now up for your resources, your body or your life, in that order. You have to figure out which it is and deal with it. The number one thing you have to do is accept what is happening right now because our natural inclination is to go into denial. That's because denial is much more pleasant, much better experience than what is really happening. It is essential now to figure out where this event’s outcome is, your resources, your body or life.

    Diffusing strategies are to hand over your resources, with something like a cash box ploy Experience. Try to calmly negotiate the criminal away at the resources level reducing their associated risks of being there a long time, getting injured or caught. You can say 'take it, no harm done, just go, we will not follow you and we will leave it at this, there is no need to make this worse than it is'.

    Resources can be particularly difficult to determine and trade away if held-up in a boat situation. The boat is the primary resource and all its contents may very well be what they want. That is not easy to detect, and time may be on their side and risk of being caught are low in a remote location.

  • Defend. If you attacker can't be sent away by giving them resources, you have to accept the situation is escalating to the next levels, your body or your life. Your decisions are now vastly narrowed again, you have only one recourse, and that is to fight!

    Don't go into denial at this point, and let your mind try to sell you a nicer story. You have to accept the situation. Your criminal isn't an ordinary decent person that you can project your nature and approaches upon, it will not end well if you do that. If you co-operate with a mugger you get mugged, in that you lose some immediate resources. If you cooperate with a rapist you get raped, and if you cooperate with a killer, you are going to get killed. It's in your DNA to fight, you don't even have to think about it, it is built in.

    Understand the situation, make a plan and throw everything at it 100%. Crime statistics show that people who fight back have better outcomes. It's not who is right that wins a fight, it is who is left.


This is a summary of what I found to underpin this area. I am delighted to say, for the vast majority of people, this will be entirely irrelevant to the course of their lives. Although it is easy to focus on the bad things that happen, it is extraordinary how peaceful and beautiful the human condition is as a whole. A quarter of a century later, neither my wife nor our subsequent children have yet to experience a criminal situation, let alone any violence. Nor to my knowledge, has anyone that I know from my immediate circle of acquaintances.

I believe it is nevertheless important to have a good grounding in this area. When my children go out into the world and start to make their own way I will discuss this with them and make one personal request going forward. Should they ever feel the impulse 'something's wrong'... listen to it, look for the safest option available in that moment, it does not matter who you might inconvenience or put out, just act on it!

With thanks to:
Michael Harpur, Yacht Obsession.
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