My pirate safe haven runs gambling rings, horse races, and trades contraband but no one can find it or penetrate it. Why?

I've got a story revolving around pirates and a rescue. The pirates have a large organization and hide in a haven like the Barbary Coast. In addition to , they bring in rich people to gamble and run numbers, do many corrupt activities. But the location remains in an uncharted region.

I want the haven protected from being found out, and from being overrun if they are found out.

The world is unique. It is post-apocalyptic steampunk, with a single government per this question, and there is no sky, so celestial navigation is out. The region is dessert wastes of an alien planet, so landmark navigation is out. Civilized society uses radio beacons and lighthouses to navigate. There are no lighthouses marking the areas by the haven. So, keeping hidden is pretty easy so far. But:

Trading/Gambling: The pirates run many money making schemes such as horse racing, playing numbers, casinos, and dealing contraband. So civilian crew are reaching the haven; the pirates only allow you in if you let them pilot your ship, and your crew stays below. No one gets to see how they got there.

Generally, the pirates can feel safe with this arrangement, but the Captain is paranoid. It's a matter of time before some large navy comes rolling in to try to shut them down. Relying on hiding alone won't do.

Why wouldn't a small navy be able to penetrate the haven?

I need to lay the haven's defense perimeter out in a way that protects them from a sneak attack by a single small navy of the civilization, which consists of five well-organized and maintained cities. I originally went with a walled fortress, but that stopped making sense because it's so easy to spot from a distance. Then I got stuck, and this question came up.


The world is 19th century tech in a post-apocalyptic wasteland. Food supplies don't exist outside artificial habitats like cities or this haven, so time on a ship has serious logistic limitations. Fuel is everywhere however, ore is mined and it reacts with the toxic air to release plenty of energy. This powers everything from their engines to their air conditioning, and electricity.

The navy:

It is steampunk, all ships are airships. There are no seas. If attacked the navy would be using small, quick frigates with light guns designed mostly for ship-to-ship battles. They would bring a couple "long tom" big guns, which could do a lot of damage to only a few targets (they have to choose wisely). They would be so far away from support that a battle could not last more than 3 days realistically. That would only change if the navy dragged out a floating battery or resupply ship; which would quickly become targets they would need to defend. Generally not a net benefit.

Pirate Defenses:

Pirate ships are evenly matched with the navy; mostly frigates. There will be fewer of them and crews will be not as well trained in naval combat. So the haven needs to offer support.

Cannons can be mounted on turrets or towers. Big cannons are slow to load and slow to aim, difficult to hit a running frigate. But they are the only thing with stopping power because smaller weapons don't do much damage to gas bags. A well-placed cannon round can knock out a whole section of the gas bag, and it has a medium range of effectiveness.

Trebuchet has multiple sharp spears that hope to break windows and contaminate an intruder ship. Very short range and the shot scatters randomly.

Fouling shot has a long length of cable wadded into a cannon. It spreads out in the air and hopes to foul any ship screws or engines. Really just luck, you can't aim one. But a fouled ship is a sitting duck.

Walls have limited use except in the event of some ground vehicle attack. Anything like this would need to have the vehicles carried in by airship because there is little hope of crossing the wastes. Walls can reduce the effective range of long range weapons, and prevent ships from targeting whatever is behind them.

Camouflage would only be effective in hills or low mountains. The only way to hide in the barren wastes would be to look like a mountain. Or a big rock. They don't have the tech for big cammo; or at least, finding a real set of hills would be cheaper (and cheap is good for greedy people)

Lookout towers can be manned, but it's horrible work, and the guy you send there will likely be unreliable. Probably something you just leave empty until an attack is suspected. They can radio signal back to the haven.

How do the pirates use these tools to defend their haven?

A good answer roughly paints a perimeter with these tools that a small navy won't get through. The answer is a worldbuilding answer, so limitations on the navy beyond what I gave are fair game. However, the assumption is that a small navy can reach the haven and carry out a battle for three days, but What enables them to hold off the navy?

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    $\begingroup$ Isn't there a contradition between the pirates having customers and nobody being able to find the pirates? Shouldn't at least their customers be able to find them? $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Mar 4 at 9:41
  • $\begingroup$ I think you should have split your question in two : one for hiding, one for protecting in case of attacks. As it is I'm equally split between answering one or the other, with quite different answers, too #_#. $\endgroup$
    – Tortliena
    Mar 4 at 11:11
  • $\begingroup$ @AlexP you found the problem. It's not two separate problems, It's only a problem because they need to do both: "My problem is I need to do x and y which seem to contradict each other." Anyway, the question already spells it out: "the pirates only allow you in if you let them pilot, and your crew stays below. No one gets to see how they got there." $\endgroup$
    – Vogon Poet
    Mar 4 at 14:40

13 Answers 13


I think the answer is hidden in your setting as you've explained it. The fact that there is no visible sky will, I think, severely limit how air travel is done. The pirates won't need to defend themselves; they just need to be far enough out of reach that no one else could find them without already knowing their exact location.

To travel long distances, a ship needs to be able to know where it is, how fast it is going, and what direction it is pointed in. This generally requires comparison with a fixed point - and for real life sailors in history, almost all of these were found in the sky. The obvious ones are the stars, but the sun was also very important. A major technological leap in naval navigation happened when a clock was invented that would keep time while at sea. By comparing the time on the clock with the local time indicated by the sun overhead, pilots and navigators could better identify their position, and were able to sail more complicated routes as a result.

I am assuming, from 'there is no sky', that the sun's position is not immediately obvious. This will remove vital positioning information, and likely reduce travel to a handful of known routes. The most commonly used routes are probably going to have to pass by some kind of largely visible landmark that navigators can compare their position to in order to know if they are on course to reach their destination before running out of supplies. However, a few routes will exist simply because the pilots know the measurements. Suppose there are two cities with no major landmarks between them - if the distance over land is a known quantity, a flight plan can be made between the two objects to fly for that distance in that direction, using machines like a clock and compass to try and keep on course. Another way that a route might be set would be to create landmarks to give pilots the information they need. This could be as simple as giant mile markers propped up out of the land, or complex structures like lighthouses or semaphore towers that send detailed information to ships about how to manipulate their vessels to arrive safely at their destination. Still, these routes, once made, would be set in stone, and most ships would only travel along set paths around these landmarks, leaving a lot of blank space on the map.

Radio technology will solve some of these problems, and probably be what the navy uses. Rudimentary radio scanning might allow for limited exploration, but mostly, the use of radio will still rely on infrastructure - radio towers, emitting on specific frequencies, would provide a fixed point to ships with radio receivers, allowing them access to the information they need in order to travel safely. This may expand the routes beyond the use of visible landmarks, but it still has its limits and and its blind spots.

The other issue with radio is that it is extremely easy to jam. Beyond the pirates, if there are any factional disputes in this world, say cities or nations that are or have been at war, or merchant groups that are in competition, relying on radio would make you extremely vulnerable to opponents. Air routes that stayed close to permanent landmarks that could act as back up if your guidance frequencies got jammed would probably be a necessity.

So, all the pirates need is for their location to be out of sight of any normal air routes, and maybe to be constantly jamming radio frequencies. An actual island would be perfect - travel over water in conditions as you've described them would be very difficult. However, any desert, unmarked flat land, or homogeneous forest/swamp would also provide a large area which airships would treat as a dead zone and not fly over. As long as it isn't near a mountain or other obvious landmark, this alone would make it more or less impossible to find; I'm assuming that ships are expensive to maintain, so people won't be taking risks with them - they'll stick to known air paths where they know the distances and landmarks to sail by. Even the navy would think twice before sailing into uncharted territory, especially if their radio communications were compromised in that area.

All that remains is for the pirates to be able to reach their location when no one else can. This may simply be a matter of them knowing the actual exact location, and doing the math to know how long to travel and in what direction. It can also be the case that there is one secret radio frequency, probably changed on a regular basis, that broadcasts clearly from the base while all other frequencies are jammed. The pirates tune in to that frequency and sail towards it. You can also give them access to older sailing techniques - maybe they are on a firm north/south location, and use a compass when nobody else does anymore, or maybe they know that, with the right kind of telescope, you can actually see the stars, and they guide by those. All you really need is one fixed point to compare themselves with, a piece of information they have access to which tells them where their ship is, how fast it is traveling, and in what direction. As long as the navy doesn't have that information, they won't sail into uncharted areas.


The problem is in having one location that can be attacked. Pirates work best when nobody knows where they are based.

Instead of having one base, have a multitude of locations that coordinate. Horse racing is one place. Casinos are spread out over multiple places. Contraband never is collected into one warehouse. The navy has a very difficult time dealing with a diffuse enemy. It knows how to put massive power against one place. This is why smuggling has always occurred - the navy can't defend a long coast against small boats.

So, the politicians trying to change people's behavior will send the navy against one casino and boast about its destruction while the pirates will simply keep running the rest of the casinos (which will collect enough money to build more). The destruction of one will allow you to raise the percentage that the casinos collect.

  • $\begingroup$ This reduces the problem to one of covert travel through the wastes for routine activities. A fortress just didn't make sense; well put. $\endgroup$
    – Vogon Poet
    Mar 4 at 15:28

I don’t think the outward defenses are what really matter for keeping this place hidden. The most important things to consider are Money, Misdirection, and Mobility.


These pirates are running a gambling business, correct? So they have control over some extremely rich people who probably owe them a lot of favors. I would imagine many of those people would have enough influence to have an impact on this navy.

For example, a high-ranking member of the navy could be deep in debt to this gambling ring. Because of that, he has a vested interest in keeping this place a secret. He gives the illusion that he is helping by giving the crew fake directions.

“What? The pirates weren’t there. How strange!” “What? The pirates escaped because they knew exactly when we were coming. How unfortunate!”

The pirates are rich enough that they can probably afford to have inside men. If they have powerful enough people in their corner, then they don’t even have to worry about getting caught. The navy might be on their side.

There’s also bribery, which can buy loyalty pretty quickly. Wave some gold coins in front of these navy people and they’ll probably shut up pretty quickly, and pretend they never saw a thing.

Money can also buy good weapons and strong warriors. Buy some ruthless mercenaries and these navy fellows might be walking into certain death.


If the pirates have spies inside this navy, like people they have bribed or corrupt officials that are deep in debt due to gambling addiction, then the pirates can easily give people the wrong location.

If I was trying to hide a secret base, I’d have multiple backup bases with multiple decoys.

Basically, have one place that’s more or less operating in plain sight. It’s not exactly public knowledge, but there are enough people who know about it that the navy knows it exists. The navy busts it, wipes their hands clean and say “Well, the pirates are all eliminated. We can go home now.”

In reality, that place was only a decoy, so the real base is hiding somewhere else, operating perfectly fine.

The best way to protect a secret is by putting a lot of red herrings in the way of the truth. Lure the navy into a false sense of security by getting some inside men and feeding them false directions.

When they reach the decoy base, you can set an ambush for them, like rigging the whole place to explode or burn down, or you can just have a bunch of actors hold their hands up and say “Oh no, you caught us. We will never recover from this defeat.” All while the pirate leader is sitting in his real base sipping expensive wine as his rich donors gamble themselves further into debt.


The secret base needs to be constantly on the move. Have the pirates be trained to set up shop anywhere, any place, any time. In rain or shine, cold or heat. The pirates are used to busts, and they have an early warning system to get up and leave as fast as possible. They’re trained to not say a word if they are caught, and they are also trained to scatter in all directions and regroup at the secret location as soon as someone sounds the alarm.

Rather than having one location, I am imagining this base being a nomadic camp that is constantly on the move. Everything in this place is made to be dismantled and put back together as fast as physically possible. It would almost be like a traveling circus, with a bunch of tents they can easily set up, and gambling games that are also easy to set up. The camp is self-sufficient and constantly on the move, never staying in one location for long to avoid detection. Everyone is sworn to secrecy. The only people allowed in have to have a special invitation and know a password. The only people who learn the location for the next setup will be the rich investors and people who pay for this knowledge.

This place needs to be super adaptable, prepared for anything that the navy can throw at them.

They don’t care about fighting. They’re pirates. The only thing that matters to them is survival and money. They’re not going to stay and fight, their philosophy is “run away to see another day”.

Also, why not have the base be on a massive pirate ship? A constantly moving ship which never stays in one place for long sounds like the perfect base of operations. It’s speed is what keeps it away from detection. You could even combine the ideas by having both bases. The pirates have one massive ship AND a constantly moving nomad camp. That way they can conquer both land and air.


The secret ingredient is danger.

The danger can be nature(fauna or flora), topography, weather or a combinaison of all three.

The haven has to be placed somewhere really dangerous, where pirates knows how to deal with the danger, knows secret entrances and knows the code to not be attacked by defensors. The Navy doesn't have those informations, their only valid tactics would be to use a trojan horse or create discord inside the haven. You can find solutions to those tactics.

The Navy can't siege the place because it's dangerous out there, and can't peacefully find supplies. You need people to run the Haven, defending it, producting food and fuel, proposing accomodations, confort and maybe pleasures ;)

  • $\begingroup$ This is good. It is easier for the pirates to fight off attackers on their home turf, where they know the dangers better than the navy. This in turn makes it harder for the navy to scout the place properly before getting attacked. $\endgroup$
    – Daron
    Mar 4 at 15:30

The Base is Underground

How it solves your hiding problem:

By being underground you can make a large based very hard to find. Since all people live in artificial habitats, this is already not much of a handwave since underground bunkers are already a staple of post apocalyptic worlds like this. The trick to hiding while still being findable will be to use natural signals instead of man-made ones.

The area of the desert where the pirates live could be rich in naturally magnetic or radioactive ores; so, instead of following beacons, the pirate navigators would follow variations in these natural emissions. To a casual observer, it's just normal rock, but if you turn up the sensitivity on your beacon tracking navigation equipment, it is as good as any map... you just need to know where you are going.

Furthermore a lot of natural electromagnetic activity in the area could help to interfere with communications which would make espionage more difficult since they would be cut off from easy radio communications.

How it solves your defense problem:

The pirates could not outgun a proper military fleet, but they don't have too. Their whole base is basically a nuclear bomb shelter; so, all those ship to ship guns, would be utterly useless. The navy could try to use their artillery to collapse the entrance, but this is no big deal, the pirates expect this to happen and have the excavation equipment and reserve of supplies needed to wait out the fleet and just dig their way out when done.

This leaves the navy with only 1 option: send in ground troops. While the backing of a national government's economy can ensure that a proper navy can outgun any private fleet, small arms are a different story. Compared to warships, rifles and revolvers are dirt cheap; so, for the price of just a few ship-to-ship cannons, the pirates could arm every man, woman, and child inside their base against the navy's ground forces. In the 19th century, the firearms used by militaries, and those used by civilians were one-and-the-same, and in a town of pirates, you can expect your average "civilian" to be relatively good with one. So forcing a ground war will do a lot to level the odds.

Furthermore, this is not going to be an open battlefield for the navy troops. Attacking an underground bunker means that you have to get passed choke points, murder holes, and any other nasty surprises the pirate have put in your way. Without the advantage of modern infiltration tools like smoke bombs, tear gas, flashbangs, etc., the navy ground forces would be at a huge disadvantage and would need a significant numerical advantage and a ton of bravado just to get through the front door.


Flying Castle

Since this is a Steampunk world, your Haven is a flying fortress. The pirates have used their ill-gotten gains to build a ship that's so large, its ceased to be a vessel and become a floating citadel. Horse races occur in the courtyard, gambling in the towers, etc.

The pirates could deviate from a traditional castle structure but still use the terms for flavor if you'd like.

Like Google's project Loon, it's too expensive to use engines to control Haven's motion, so it mainly drifts. It changes altitude to take advantage of the wind moving in different directions at different heights, but otherwise it just travels where it travels.


Haven puts out a coded radio message. If you know the code, it directs you to Haven's current location. If not, it's just gibberish. The code changes periodically, and if you've dropped out of the favor, Haven's representatives will not give you the new code.


It's a flying castle. It's got thick walls, cannons, and the pirate fleet to defend it.

Maybe it can also break apart into smaller craft - the Courtyard falls to the earth below, but each Tower turns out to be a Battleship! Some parts of Haven flee, while others fight to buy time.


The Navy can find Haven either because they decrypt the radio message themselves, or because someone gives them to key.

The nice thing about this setup is: if Haven survives the initial assault, they can continue to operate - the pirates change the code, re-build Haven, and start over.


Range, Wind, and War Kites

There is a limit to how large a gun you can put on an airship, especially since after a certain point, you can't mount a gun because it'll blow itself out of its own mooring. That means that land-based defenses can always outrange frigates. If the pirates have defenses and manage to create a few land batteries, that means that any frigate will have to fly through an arsenal of flack first.

Now, normally this wouldn't be so much of a problem. Air has three dimensions and long range cannons aren't exactly accurate. Which is why the pirates did something rather clever - they built their base near geological structures (i.e., inside a mountain range) that has wind patterns which force ships towards a particular flight path. An incoming army will need to brave flak and winds shoving them into said flack.

You can also supplement this with spiked war kites. If the ships are going to go with the winds, the guns get them. If they go against the winds, the pirates launch war kites, viciously spiked kites that tear through sails and gas envelopes and get blown into the ships through the wind. Very terrifying.


Two ideas come to my mind:

1. The pirate haven is actually a huge mobile fortress

Be it a huge ship or a floating building, the locations is in constant movement, and only the pirates know its itinerary. That way it's really hard to find without knowing where it will be, and this ship/building can also carry everything it needs to defend itself.

2. The way to access the place changes with the weather/seasons

The pirates found a place that has different ways to be accessed (both by sea and land), but most of these paths become innaccesible when the weather changes. Rain floods most of the land paths and make the surrounding sea unviable to sail, but a specific, intrincated path is still able to be used. Spring/Summer could make certain dangeorous flora and fauna populate most of the land around this place, so sea is the most viable way in; and so on and so forth. The pirates are very aware of all these changes, so they know how to access depending on the weather.


The pirate casino is on a navy base.

The small navy will not get through. It is already there. The people who run this particular base are in cahoots with the pirates. The base is big and the pirate activities take place in a "disused" area with older ships in storage, hulks kept for salvage, weapons practice ranges and the like. Fancy ships from customers are kept out of sight in hidden docks. Navy personnel based elsewhere who are visiting have no reason to go to that part of the base.

Pirates have more to worry about than navy. They need to worry about other pirates coming to get their stuff! There are rich people betting money here! There are loads of contraband and proceeds from selling it. Being on a navy base is great for that. If other criminal groups want to come get their stuff they have the navy to contend with.

Using a military base as a base of criminal operations is not a radically new idea. Persons living on the base pretty much know what the pirates are up to. And the pirates make sure visitors from the base get special rates and have a good time. Of course the military commanders and other officers profit from the scheme.

The loser is the civilian government who does not get tax proceeds from pirate activities and cannot stop illegal activities undertaken by the pirates.

  • $\begingroup$ There is actually another asian pirate faction - an analogue to the historic Red Flag Fleet. I actually brushed that technicality aside. $\endgroup$
    – Vogon Poet
    Mar 5 at 0:28

You said that customers can't get to the haven without a pirate captain pilot. This is essentially like modern ports, where there is a pilot supplied to each large ship that wishes to dock, but obviously in the reverse direction.

You also said that navigation is being done by radio beacons.

Solution: Coded Beacons

So a solution could be that there are "good" beacons and "bad" beacons, potentially used in a sequence or are only "on" for a predetermined time. So the pirate pilot knows when to watch for/pay attention to certain beacons and when to ignore them depending on the time of day or day of month. This allows for installation of simple beacons that are activated in a timed manner (i.e. Easy to program and Re-program), but unless you "know the code" of what and how to follow them you will never end up at the haven.

This also fits in well with your available technology, as it can be setup with a simple clock and calendar to turn on/off beacons in a fixed manner. It's also cheap to build and maintain, and doesn't require experts in each beacon's location.

If you couple this with the answer from @headax (Danger/Boobytraps) and with @Nosajimiki's Underground locations, you've got a pretty resistant setup.

If a location only opens its doors for a predetermined time range on specific dates (e.g. 1-2, 6-8 on Tues/Thurs, 3-4, 9-10 Mon/Wed/Sat) , then even if someone arrives in the correct location, they won't see an open door and will assume it's the wrong location or they got lost. If the people operating the doors don't open them when a ship was too early (i.e. They don't know the schedule), or didn't broadcast a light signal properly, that adds to the safety for the haven.


Mountainside funneling, turret defense, and temperature venting

While a walled fortress makes it easy to spot, but if you start the "Wall" of it rather far away from the center of the hidden base, then you could start utilizing that terrain advantage to force them into specific approaches.

If you add a few airship sized tunnels through the mountains for quicker access in and out, you can force them to enter one at a time, and funnel their numbers down.

Once you make safe passageways, you can essentially guard those a bit better with cannons, or cannons aimed at anyone entering through that passageway, or partroling ships on the inside of the mountains - numbers mean nothing if you have to fight your enemy one at a time.

This does run into the issue that, to an extent, ships can fly higher and above these barriers, but providing enough of them, and by potentially turning them into your mining operations and venting the heat out above will help reduce air temperature - strategic use of that could cause "No Fly Zones" by effectively making them harder to fly through - and this could be used in-between mountain range gaps as well to force them to take specific paths - which would reduce the amount of aiming a cannon would need to do to catch them - you could lead your shots based on where the air currents will naturally take them, or where they'll naturally aim towards to get out safely.

Once you do that, it's a matter of setting up potential cannon turrets aimed at these various corridors, and you've got secured entrances that means that you don't need a given cannon to take down a ship - any number of them can work, and take them down slowly.

Basically, the pirates are set up in such a way that it's basically Switzerland mixed Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End's Shipwreck Cove.


Fun question. It's hard to answer though because some of these things can't happen together easily. Pirates almost never existed alone. They were mostly sponsored by a nation waging war on another since it's nearly impossible to provision a ship without a nation's resources. This is especially true for weapons/quality powder/projectiles which were tightly controlled.

However, assume that you now have a city/base that the rich are visiting often enough for it to be a going concern. YOU ARE NOT A PIRATE ANYMORE. You are a businessman/merchant. You have employees/retainers/merchants/craftsmen. A pirate with a peg leg, eye patch, parrot on his shoulder is not running the dice table. He's not serving the type of food that the rich will eat.

As for being hidden, that doesn't really work. If the rich can find you, then so can your enemies who tend to be the same type of rich. A large part of the skirmishes were just your competitors stamping out the competition.

Lastly, if you can defend yourself, why hide? And if you can defend your slice of civilization, you definitely are NOT a pirate. You, at the very least, are a city/state and a fairly successful one. One last point is that virtually no wooden sailing vessels were successfully defeated by cannon fire. It took boarding action.

  • $\begingroup$ Pirates are merchants, yes. The story evolves in the direction you talk about, but at this point in the story it can be considered the Barbary Coast haven of my world. There are no national sponsors (those were privateers - slightly different concept). The question defines how “customers” find their way to this venue, which is well hidden. $\endgroup$
    – Vogon Poet
    Mar 4 at 21:46
  • $\begingroup$ Zheng Yi Sao- a brutal pirate - ran the largest pirate ring in history - the Red Flag Fleet. Over 400 ships and 60,000 pirates at one point in 1805. She began as a prostitute and married a merchant trader in the promise of mutual control over her husband's business. $\endgroup$
    – Vogon Poet
    Mar 4 at 21:52

The Pirate Safe Haven is too small to 'see' normally.

The Pirate Safe Haven is physically too small to be detectable by normal means, i.e. it is microscopic, and its visitors are also proportionately sized while they are present. It could be anywhere, and it wouldn't matter.

  • $\begingroup$ That's an interesting plot twist but my world does not have any magic, so this really isn't an option for my story. $\endgroup$
    – Vogon Poet
    Mar 6 at 4:10

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