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Motorhome Security 2 (Martin Wiltshire) PDF Printable Version E-mail



Martin Wiltshire

The following article by motorhomer Martin Wiltshire was originally published in the MMM (Motorhome Motorcaravan Monthly) in the UK.

Earlier this year our home was burgled as my wife, Clare, and I slept soundly in our bed. Why does that warrant a mention in this magazine? Well, our home is a 21-foot coachbuilt motorcaravan and our bed is its luton. This burglary took place, quite literally, under our noses. Having lived in the 'van (known to us simply as The Bus) full-time for the last five years, and wild-camped frequently during that time, some people would perhaps say that we've had it coming to us for a while and were lucky to have got away with it for so long. Others who have travelled much further and longer than ourselves without incident might think we have had bad luck. We tend to fall somewhere between the two and have taken a fairly philosophical attitude to it, acknowledging that it is one of those things that happens when you live on the road and resigning ourselves to the fact that this time it happened to us.

However we have also been determined to learn what we can from the experience and to make sure that, where we can, we limit the possibility of it happening to us again.As we looked back over the incident during the two or three days that followed we realised that, over a period of time, we had made a number of assumptions, mistakes and oversights which added to our vulnerability. Each on their own amounted to very little but in combination they made the theft possible. Had we avoided any one of them we might have prevented the whole thing happening. In those few days of retrospection we learned nine salutary lessons. The tenth we learned later.

1.   We do very little motorway driving and so it doesn't often arise but we try to avoid overnighting in motorway service areas - they seem to us to be noisy and inhospitable places and we prefer whenever we can to find a village square or even, contrary to received wisdom, an isolated rural spot for peace and quiet. In this case though we had just crossed the border from Italy into France on the coastal motorway, the sun was shining, we were feeling good, and the Agip service station we had stopped in for a cup of tea offered what seemed a pleasant enough location for the night - a level, well-lit parking area for caravans and campers surrounded by grass and trees and overlooked by the observatory perched on the top of Mt. Agel.

By the time it was dark we had even been joined by two other outfits - a small camper and a car and caravan - always a welcome reassurance. In future though we won't allow ourselves to be so susceptible to feelings of well-being induced by sunshine and a cup of tea and we'll continue to avoid overnighting on motorways whenever we can. If it's unavoidable we'll park as near the central building as possible (even if, as here, there is a designated parking area elsewhere) so that people will be walking past the 'van all night. I'd rather be woken frequently by passers-by than only once by an intruder.

2.   There were signs all around the parking area that warned of the risk of theft from cars and advised that valuables should be hidden and that pets and children should not be left unaccompanied. We clearly didn't accord these signs the significance they deserved. Although they are specifically aimed at car drivers who are leaving their vehicles while they visit the restaurant or the toilets, in retrospect we can't believe we were stupid enough not to read between the lines of these notices. We could have learned this lesson thirty-five years ago from Marshall McLuhan. "The medium is the message": if a place needs such signs it's not a good place to stay.

3.   What the signs didn't say but what we have since deduced for ourselves is that stretches of toll-free motorway, as this was, are far more likely to be patrolled by thieves than stretches where toll stations will cost them money and may impede and even record their progress. Again, if we have to overnight at a motorway service area we'll choose one, if we can, on a stretch of toll road and, ideally, one without its own local service roads (much less common on the continent than here) which obviously could provide easy access and escape to people with local knowledge.

4.   Our motorhome is an American C-class built on a Ford E350 cab and chassis. We had always assumed that the E350 cab, being comparatively rare in Europe, would in itself be a deterrent to thieves whose daily bread must surely be made from their familiarity with the doors and locks of Fiats, Peugeots, VWs and Transits. Clearly this isn't the case. This bloke (we are assuming he is a man) undid the lock of our off-side cab door (the passenger door in our case) with something that has damaged the lock internally but has barely made a mark outside and which evidently didn't take time, make noise or require much effort. Fortunately, although it can no longer be operated by key from outside, the lock still functions normally from inside the cab.

5.   Whenever and wherever we wild camp we set the "perimeter alarm" that our Strikeback system allows. This activates the sensors on all the outside doors and lockers but not the internal movement sensors. What we have never done, except on the couple of occasions when we have inadvertently unlocked a door without first turning off the alarm, is test the alarm system and particularly each of its sensors to see that they work properly.

After the burglary, needless to say, we checked the whole system (Something about horses and stable doors comes to mind!) and discovered that everything functioned as it should except for the passenger door which could be opened and closed at will with no effect. He couldn't possibly have known it beforehand but this bloke just happened to break in through the only door which would not trigger the alarm. His good luck; our bad luck. We rang Van Bitz straightaway and arranged to visit them as soon as we got back to the UK but the lesson is obvious: regularly check all aspects of your alarm system.

6.   We have both an external and an internal set of insulated covers for the cab windows and windscreen and, for additional insulation, we have fitted heavy curtains that can be drawn between the cab and the main body of The Bus. When wild camping we always leave the vehicle as ready-to-drive as possible and so never use the external covers, only use the internal covers if it is very cold, and normally just close off the cab by drawing the curtains. This is partly to ensure that we can drive away in a hurry should it be necessary but also in order to leave very visible the flashing red light that is displayed on the dashboard when the alarm is set. We have always assumed this would be some kind of deterrent but it obviously didn't deter our burglar and we now take a different view.

We're inclined to think that the virtue of the insulated covers is that a would-be thief can't see what they're getting into - there may be a dog in the cab, it may be right- or left-hand drive, beds may extend into the cab, etc. - and in future we'll hope that that's a greater deterrent than the red light. Incidentally, under the impression that our alarm system would function as it should, we had never bothered with a fixing between the cab doors as many people do. Now that our alarm is fixed (more of this later) perhaps we won't again but, following the burglary we ran a ratchet strap between the two door pulls and hung a windchime from it. The door pulls are obviously not strong enough to withstand a determined effort to open a door but the windchimes would certainly ensure that we were awake before it happened.

7.   The curtains that draw behind the cab are held together (for warmth primarily) by five press-stud fixings all of which the burglar managed to find and undo in complete silence. Strips of Velcro would perhaps have presented a more difficult and noisy challenge. Having drawn back the curtains (silently again despite the rattly aluminium curtain rail and runners) he found his way partially blocked by the ladder up to our bed but he managed to move this out of his way, lifting it out of the bracket that prevents it from slipping when in use.

What is amazing about this is that none of these fittings is a standard item. The ladder, the bracket, the curtains, curtain rail, press-studs, etc. are all things that we have made and fitted and are all idiosyncratic in the way they work and are used, and yet none of them appears to have delayed this bloke's progress even in the dark. As yet I have not decided how to do it, but I plan to fix the ladder so that it can be 'unlocked' and shifted only from the living area and not from the cab.

8.   Having got himself into The Bus, which I'm sure has taken me longer to describe than it took him to do, he was able to pick up our mobile phone (left on the table), Clare's handbag (left on the dinette seat) and our clothes (also on the dinette seats) and transfer all of them to the cab where, from the comparative safety of outside, he could look for wallets in the clothes (there were none) and take the paper money from Clare's purse (which he then put back in her bag). Fortunately he didn't find my bum-bag which had our passports, credit cards and more money in it. His bad luck; our good luck. Now our bags and the phone all spend the night up in the bed area with us and, as far as possible, nothing of value is left lying around.

9.   I had always assumed that if we got robbed it would be by an opportunistic thief who would be clumsy in the way he went about the task - breaking windows or whatever. I had also always thought that I was a fairly light sleeper and that if there was a person in The Bus their noise, movement and proximity would wake me. I hadn't imagined that somebody could achieve all of this in absolute silence and without giving away their presence at all and, in a perverse way, I admire his skill. (I suppose in some ways I'm grateful for it as well because it meant I was able to avoid the middle of the night confrontation between him, fully-clothed and alert, and me, half asleep and naked!)

It's easier now for me to understand those letters and reports, in this magazine and elsewhere, from people convinced that their caravan or motorcaravan was filled with narcotic gas before they were robbed but I'm still equally convinced that the physics of that are impossible. In the end what woke me was not the smell of gas but that of aftershave as this character moved back under the bed and left The Bus. Having realised what was happening, as I climbed down from the luton he closed the cab door as quietly as he had done everything else and disappeared in a car. His total swag: our mobile phone, about 30 euros, a shirt and tee-shirt of Clare's (We wonder why?), and a snotty hanky and a pair of pants of mine. (We really, really wonder why!?)

When we eventually got back to the UK six weeks later we visited Eddie Jones at Van Bitz in Shoreditch as we had arranged. Although initially he looked a little perplexed, Eddie had found and solved our problem before we'd even had time to finish a cup of his excellent coffee. We're grateful to him for all of that - the coffee, the diagnosis and the fix, all provided at no cost to us - but we're also grateful to him for not making us feel too stupid as we learned our tenth and most humiliating lesson: the failure of our alarm system was self-inflicted.

10.   On the E350 cab pulling the door handles, even if the doors themselves are not opened, turns on the cab courtesy light. It's this facility that the Strikeback system exploits, sensing the voltage drop as the bulb comes on and, if armed, triggering the alarm. Years ago, probably within weeks of buying The Bus, I replaced the bulb in this light, originally rated at 10 watts I think, with a more sensible 5-watt one. At least I thought it was more sensible: we just didn't need that bright a light in the cab and, if the doors were left open for any length of time, the lower the drain on the battery the better as far as I could see.

Bulbs, however, darken and dim with age and use and this one had done so to the point where it was no longer drawing sufficient voltage to trigger the alarm even though it was still illuminating the cab adequately. Eddie did explain to me why the problem affected only one cab door and not the other - something to do with cable length I think - but I'm afraid I got lost on the way. Sadly it's not just bulbs that get dimmer with age! My simpler explanation is that Sod's Law applies: if it can happen, it will. Now, to be on the safe side and thanks to Eddie, we have a very brilliant 21-watt cab light and the alarm works as it should.

I'm reminded of a nursery rhyme we used to read to our kids:

For want of a bulb the voltage was lost;

For want of the voltage the alarm was lost;

For want of the alarm the phone, 30 euros, a shirt, a tee-shirt, a snotty hanky and a pair of pants were lost;

And all for the want of a 10-watt bulb!

Martin Wiltshire