There be Pirates
Keep Track of Your Rack!
By Tamia Nelson
September 28, 2010
It's a sight to gladden the heart of any builder of canoes, kayaks, or sit‑on‑tops. Every weekend, vehicles roll down the roads leading to put‑ins across North America, and the colorful craft on their roof racks leave no doubt as to their destination. But builders and outfitters aren't the only folks to welcome the swelling armada of no‑octane boaters. The pirates are celebrating, too. Pirates? Yes. Pirates. Shakespeare's Shylock was onto something when he lamented the prevalence of "land‑rats and water‑rats, land‑thieves, and water‑thieves." To be sure, most of us associate piracy with Disney movies and the Caribbean — or maybe the Indian Ocean off the Somali coast — but don't be fooled. Light‑fingered brigands can also be found among the hills and rills of Canoe Country. And while these "land‑rats" will always be happy to snaffle an unguarded boat, they've now got their eyes on other high‑value targets of opportunity, as evidenced by the recent rise in…
It shouldn't come as a surprise, I suppose. Few paddlers live within walking distance of a waterway, and fewer still are content to paddle the same waters day in and day out. So we end up transporting our boats to distant places. For most of us, that means mounting a roof rack on a car. And racks have come a long way from the ten‑dollar, auto‑supply store contraptions and bracket‑and‑two‑by‑four improvisations that were the norm when I was starting out. Today's racks are highly engineered systems, painstakingly designed to fit the complex curves and gutterless roofs of modern cars — or intended to supplement the often inadequate factory‑installed racks. This engineering doesn't come cheap, of course. Modern racks are pricey things, and the towers and bars that underpin their structure are only a down payment. Once cradles, rollers, and stackers are added to the reckoning, the total cost can sometimes exceed the price of a boat. Even if you avoid the fancier options, you're talking serious money.
This hefty tariff hasn't escaped the attention of would‑be pirates, who've discovered that stolen racks will fetch almost as much as stolen boats. And paddlers, in turn, have responded by fitting locks to their racks' towers. The logic behind this is simple: Lock your boat to your rack and your rack to your car. Problem solved, right? Well…er…no. Unfortunately. As Florida paddler Julie discovered:
I just finished reading ["There be Pirates"] and wanted to comment because my locked Yakima racks and kayak holders were stolen from my car in my driveway. Thieves just used pry bars and then skipped away into the night. I discovered this at 5 a.m. while standing there with the kayak on my shoulder, wondering, "What's wrong with this picture?" Spitting mad I was! That was a year ago.
The police were less than enthusiastic about recovery because identification can be a problem. With so many of us having the same equipment, what makes yours different from mine? One thing that can be done is to remove the end caps, then insert into the bars an address label or other identifying information. This should be done on both ends, on all pieces, just in case one is discovered and removed and the thieves are not as diligent as they could be. Also, the ID cards could be inserted more deeply so that removal is more difficult. Bicycles also can be identified in this way. In fact, I learned this tip when my son was engaged in BMX motocross.
I never recovered my stolen property, but I now remove my replacement racks all the time. Such a killjoy experience, but necessary. It takes a while to replace everything, and then one is constantly installing and removing the rack whenever one wishes to go out. … But it's necessary, and itis exercise. I can't believe the number of times I was asked if my equipment was locked, by honest folks. Locks prevent honest people from stealing, but they only slow down thieves.
Taken aback by Julie's letter, I did a little searching online and quickly turned up a depressing number of reports from folks who've had racks and fittings stolen from their vehicles. Fairings, saddles, stackers, gunwale brackets… The list goes on and on and on. And where do these thefts take place? Just about everywhere: put‑in and take‑out parking areas, the asphalt deserts around HyperMarts, even — as Julie's experience attests — in the paddlers' own driveways. Some boaters have had thieves steal racks from cars in locked garages.
Which brings me to Julie's main point: No lock will stop a determined thief. All it will do is slow him (or her) down. But there's some good news, too. That's often all you need to do. Pirates are pros. They play the odds. They prefer easy pickings to hard, and they like to work fast. So if your anti‑piracy measures look like being more than a mild nuisance, the pros will often look elsewhere. I'm reminded of the old story about escaping from the jaws of a hungry lion. You don't have to run faster than the lion. You just have to be quicker than the slowest of your companions. What's the connection? Lions aren't fussy about where their next meal comes from, and professional thieves don't care whose gear they walk off with. That being the case, why encourage them to take yours?
Moreover, a lot of land‑rats aren't pros at all. They're just opportunists. They'll steal something if it's offered to them on a plate, but they're not tooled up for serious snaffling. So prevention here boils down to…
Keeping Honest Folks Honest
And that's not too hard. It's mostly common sense. Don't leave your rack on the car when it's not in use. Remove it and store it someplace safe. (Removing the rack will also improve your gas mileage.) Then, when you're on the road with your boat(s), be sure to lock your rack to your vehicle, in addition to using a cable lock to secure your paddlecraft to the rack. But don't depend on any lock for much longer than it takes to buy a cup of java or pay for a tank of gas.
Put‑in and take‑out parking areas are much more problematic. Often isolated and seldom patrolled, they're made to order for both vandals and thieves. A little local knowledge goes a long way here, so any time spent talking to other paddlers and nearby outfitters is always well spent. Web searches can be productive, too. In low‑risk spots with a lot of recreational traffic, it may be enough to remove your rack and lock it in the trunk while you're on the water. At the other end of the spectrum, however, in places where casual theft is part of the local culture and vandals are ready to destroy whatever they can't steal, the only real solution is to park your car somewhere safer and arrange to be dropped off and picked up. Many outfitters now offer this service, and it's worth asking about.
In any event, don't do what this paddler did:
His truck was parked at an "informal" site on a little‑traveled country lane. Broken beer bottles litter the ground, and every road sign boasts one or more shot holes. To make matters worse, the owner left his truck's tailgate down. It would be dead easy for any passerby to walk off with the expensive paddles that were left in plain sight in the pickup's bed. Luckily for the absent boater, I'm not a thief. But who knows who came by after I left?
Now here's another example:
The boat wasn't cabled to the rack, and the rack itself had no lock. Gear was readily visible in the car. I hung around for 20 minutes, and I had the place to myself the whole time. All that was missing here was a sign that said "Free for the Taking."
Are there alternatives to locks? Yes and no. Some folks simply buy cheap gear, assuming that professional villains won't waste time on stuff with little resale value. And this is often true. But a casual, opportunistic thief probably won't be deterred. Nor can you be sure that "distressing" a new, top‑end rack with garish paint and random blobs of duct tape will protect it. That said, there's no denying that rough‑and‑ready DIY improvisations are less likely to attract the attention of light‑fingered folk than brand‑name, big‑ticket gear. Consider this home‑brew rack:
It certainly doesn't scream "Take me!" does it? And the same can be said of commercial foam‑block carriers. They're not trophy gear, for one thing. And they come off the car whenever you remove your boat, for another. They're also easy to conceal in trunk or storage bin. But even these aren't the ultimate in stealth. The least conspicuous rack is the one that isn't there — ever. Is this a contradiction in terms? Not at all. If your chosen craft is a "boat in a bag" you'll never need a rack. That's one of the many pluses of inflatables and folders.
Of course, no trip lasts forever. Sooner or later you have to go home. At least you won't need to ferret around for local knowledge there, will you? You're the expert in your own backyard, after all. But as Julie's unhappy experience demonstrates all too clearly, gear can go missing even in your driveway. The best protection is still a firmly bolted door.
The mention of Julie's misfortune brings up another subject:
What to Do if the Worst Happens
It's a melancholy topic, but a necessary one. Bad things happen to good people everyday. When they do, it's best to have a Plan B already in place. It's much easier dealing with police and insurance agents if your paperwork is in order, and reporting a theft is the first step in negotiating a settlement with your insurance company. So keep a record of all serial numbers and hull IDs. Save receipts. Shoot photos. And follow Julie's lead in "branding" your gear. A hidden card or personalized label could make recovering your stolen property just a little bit easier. Are the odds on your side? Probably not. But it's worth a bit of effort to do what you can to improve them, nonetheless.
And that's just the beginning. Spread word of your loss among friends, family, and coworkers. Post descriptions of your stolen property on online forums. Check the classifieds, in print and on the Web. Take a little time to visit any local street markets. Who knows? You might spot your rack (or boat) on someone else's car. If you do get lucky, however, resist the temptation to take the law into your own hands. Let the police know what you've learned and then leave the rest to them. In matters involving the recovery of stolen property, they are the pros.
Does this sound like a lot of trouble? It is. And the odds against success are very long. Which is why it makes sense to do all you can to safeguard your prized possessions in the first place. It's a small price to pay for peace of mind, isn't it?
Roof racks have come a long way from the auto‑supply store contraptions and bracket‑and‑two‑by‑four improvisations that were once the norm. Now they're hi‑tech confections, with price tags to match. But the new racks' convenience and cool lines carry another, hidden, premium. Some unscrupulous folks have found them tempting targets. Luckily, there's a lot that we boaters can do to keep our gear out of the hands of this light‑fingered brigade. So enjoy the woods and waters by all means, but keep track of your rack, too. It'll make the trip home much, much easier. 'Nuff said?
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