Help for British nationals overseas – guidance

Sea, river and piracy safety

How to stay safe when travelling by sea or river outside of the UK


Britain’s safety standards aren’t matched by every country. If you’re travelling by sea or river there are a number of precautions you should take. This guide explains what you need to know before you travel by sea or river.

Beach safety

Beach conditions and local safety provisions vary considerably throughout the world. You should check the presence of any flags and/or lifeguards at beaches before entering the water, and familiarise yourself with the signs of a rip current or tide. The Royal National Lifeboat Insitution and the Maritime and Coastguard agency provide comprehensive beach safety guidance.

Boat and ship passenger safety

Boat accidents aren’t uncommon in some countries because safety standards don’t match those of countries like the UK. If you’re travelling on any form of river or sea transport you should be aware of the following:

International river and sea travel

  • although standards of construction, equipment and crewing are regulated globally by the International Maritime Organisation (IMB), levels of implementation and enforcement of these standards differ from country to country
  • safety regulation of passenger vessels is ultimately the responsibility of the state where the vessel is registered (the flag state). This might not be the country where you board the vessel or the destination
  • British-flagged cruise ships are subject to regular security inspections and visits by UK authorities and are provided with considerable security advice and guidance by HM Government. Domestic river and sea travel
  • boats used for domestic services such as excursions are not subject to international standards. They may or may not be licensed or regulated depending on the laws of the country you’re in. So the vessel’s construction, operation and maintenance, crew training, evacuation procedures, and safety equipment may not be of the same standards as you would find in the UK.

Read the sea safety section of the relevant country’s travel advice for more information.


If you are travelling in your own yacht or boat you should be aware of the risk of piracy in some areas. Piracy has recently been reported in the following areas:

  • the Indian Ocean, particularly off the coast of the Horn of Africa
  • off the coasts and on rivers of some South American countries
  • the Malacca Straits
  • South China Sea
  • the Red Sea

Always check the sea safety section of the relevant country’s travel advice before you travel. Further information and maritime piracy reports are available on the following websites:

  • International Sailing Federation (ISAF)
  • International Maritime Bureau
  • Royal Yachting Association
  • Noonsite

Anti-piracy guidelines

  • be vigilant – be wary of any small craft that appears to be going at the same speed as your own on a parallel or following course
  • identify a secure area on the yacht which attackers would have difficulty penetrating and retreat to this if attacked
  • hide a VHF transceiver somewhere on board – radios are often destroyed by pirates to prevent early alarms being raised
  • sound the alarm or fire a flare if attackers approach
  • if the attackers board your vessel, complying with their demands is usually the safest course of action
  • if an attack occurs use the following format for a distress message:

    • Vessel’s name and call ‘Mayday’ ‘piracy attack’
    • Vessel’s position (and time and position of UTC)
    • Nature of the event

If you are attacked

Report the incident to the nearest British Embassy, the relevant naval authorities, the relevant law enforcement authorities and the IMB Piracy Reporting Office in Kuala Lumpur


It’s not advisable to carry firearms. If you do, the skipper must ensure that they are allowed by the flag state and host country. Penalties for the use of firearms can be severe in some countries.

Piracy in the Indian Ocean

Piracy is a significant threat in the Gulf of Aden and the north-west Indian Ocean and has occurred in excess of 1,000 nautical miles from the coast of Somalia. The EU Naval Force Somalia gives up-to-date information about attacks and pirated vessels.

Attacks of piracy and armed robbery against vessels in and around the Gulf of Aden and Somali Basin continue to affect only a very small proportion of overall shipping. However, these are frequent and continuing, proving successful almost exclusively against shipping which has not complied with agreed shipping industry best practice on self-defence measures. All mariners should follow the Best Management Practise for the Gulf of Aden and off Somalia.

Sailing vessels are particularly vulnerable to attack due to their low speed and low freeboard. All mariners intending to sail through high risk areas should consider the necessity of their travel and alternatives, such as transporting the vessel by yacht carrier.

Yacht races and rallies do not have to take place in these high-risk areas and place their competitors at unnecessary risk of attack. These events are often publicised and could draw attention from pirates. We advise mariners not to take part in these races.

Piracy safeguards

You should visit the our travel advice pages for the particular country you are going to and take a note of useful contact details, such as the nearest British Embassy or Consulate and the local emergency services.

The Indian Ocean offers some great opportunities, such as angling, diving, and the use of pleasure craft. Make sure you are insured for all these activities and bear in mind that boats used for these activities may or may not be properly maintained, licensed or regulated depending on the laws of the country you’re in. So the vessel’s construction, operation and maintenance, crew training, evacuation procedures, and safety equipment may not be of the same standards as you would find in the UK.

Likewise, where you stay near the coast can also present particular risks. Be aware of your surroundings and the level of security at your chosen accommodation.

Read the sea safety section of the relevant country’s travel advice for more information and check out our SeaSafe leaflet which highlights some simple steps to follow:

  • we advise against all but essential travel by yacht and leisure craft on the high seas (more than 12 nautical miles from shore) in the Gulf of Aden, Arabian Sea and part of the Indian Ocean bounded by the following latitude and longitude: 15°N in the Red Sea, 23°N in the Arabian Sea, 78°E and 10°S in the Indian Ocean
  • we urge all merchant shipping, including Cruise Ships, to comply with agreed shipping industry best practice on self-defence measures, including on speed, routing and maintaining adequate lookout
  • we urge all mariners to register with the Maritime Security Centre (Horn of Africa) for up to date advice and guidance on passage round the Horn of Africa. They should also report regularly to the UKMTO (email:; Telephone: +971 50 552 3215), giving location, course and speed, and plan their routing carefully so as to avoid placing themselves in unnecessary danger

Useful contacts


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