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Feline Friends on Board

Cats are popular pets on board. In their versatily, they seem uniquely suited to life at sea.
Many boats have pets, intentional and not. I've seen cats, dogs, birds, and even ferrets, snakes, and monkeys cruising aboard different vessels, as well as uninvited creatures such as rats and roaches. While the inconvenience of vermin is always clear, the pros and cons underlying legitimate pet ownership on a boat can get fuzzy. I once sailed with cats on a small boat so I know that the romantic benefits of feline companionship can be often challenged by the logistical reality. Because of the nuisances of quarantine restrictions for pets in some countries (mainly former and current British colonies), food considerations, kitty litter issues, hairballs, and dust bunnies, I wouldn't do it again. But, this isn't to say that others will not feel the same way, nor does it mean I regret my youthful choice to sail with cats. Having had them along for the ride added a whole other dimension to the adventure.

Recently, a book was published called Ships' Cats in War and Peace, a compilation of anecdotes about a popular pet that seems uniquely adaptable to the sea. Cats can live in small environments much better than their popular rival, the dog can, and as this book demonstrates, nautical cats have been gallivanting about for a long time. Their roles on ships have ranged from being mascots on warships, to stowaways, beloved cruising companions, and desperate last meals for shipwrecked sailors. In fact, the author, Val Lewis, claims that cats are ubiquitous in households around the world because for thousands of years they have been sneaking aboard ships, deserting, and subsequently, colonizing new lands. From my own book, Lewis excerpted some of her cat stories, and so she sent me a complimentary copy. Coincidentally, it arrived in my mailbox only a few days before I left for Florida to talk about my singlehanded travels to a gathering of veterinarians and dog and cat lovers.

To this group, I recounted the usual tales of storms, calms, mechanical breakdowns, friendships, and loneliness. For once, though, I also had an unusual audience that wanted to hear more about the cats themselves, one of whom who is now 15 years old and lives with me still. His name is Tarzoon, the only cat in town who gets introduced as the cat from Vanuatu in the South Pacific, the one who sailed halfway around the world.

Among the possible fauna with whom to share your cockpit, cats rank high among cruisers. At least, here's a mate that doesn't criticize your piloting skills and can provide plenty of entertainment.
Enlisted as a replacement for another cat that died, Tarzoon spent the first year of his life in the self-contained world of my 26-foot boat. Between the lack of dockage and strict quarantine regulations, from Vanuatu to Egypt, two countries that are separated by half a planet, he never once stepped ashore. Well, almost never. In Djibouti, he had one dinghy ride ashore to get neutered, a visit he'd probably rather forget. Other than that, outside of the boat, his was a world of flying fish and squid, skies and water, and the smells carried aboard from the vistas we had at anchor in a variety of harbors.

Every new experience in his life had to come to him from over the water. I have a picture of him encountering his first bird, a largish, gray, ocean type that landed on the solar panel attached to the stern pulpit. This happened when Tarzoon was of toddler age, in cat years, and like a toddler in a toy store, there was no containing him. As we were screaming downwind at the time with the main and jib poled out with preventers, I knew that if he jumped up onto the solar panel, he would become history. One bump from a wave and he would bobsled right off that slippery slope and there was no way I could take down all the sails and turn around to get him in time. So, I put him into in a little red and white-striped harness meant for a miniature dog and cleated it off in the cockpit, got out the camera and watched, capturing a great action shot that audiences always love, reagardless of whether they like animals.

There wasn't much real comedy out there on the ocean and this moment looms large in my memory as one of the good shows. Tarzoon crept closer to the winged wonder ever so cautiously. Then he sprang onto the panel. The bird turned and lunged, pecking him in the face. Tarzoon yowled, jumped down and made a beeline for the companionway, only to be pulled up short by the harness. Until the next morning, when the bird left to find some other boat with a cockpit it hadn't soiled, Tarzoon cowered. He wouldn't venture out of the cabin until the coast was clear, which became a source of worry for me because the cockpit also contained the kitty litter.

"When the  bird pecked  him in the face, Tarzoon yowled, and made a beeline for the companionway."
Underneath the tiller, there was a box filled daily with fresh sawdust collected from woodworking shops in different countries and stored in a waterproof sail bag. Too often, waves would dump on the litter, and my clothes, books, boxes of vegetables and ultimately me, would suffer the consequences. Cats can be picky about where they go and nothing is a better substitute for wet litter than a pile of clean, dry clothes.

I've heard stories of Type-A cats trained to straddle and use the head, but on a boat where the head was disabled on every passage, it was all I could do to keep the litter dry. Sometimes, in stormy weather, the box would be brought inside, a condition barely more bearable than smelly clothes on such a small boat, especially with sawdust. Shavings were better. Yes, toiletry issues were a major bone of contention between us, unpleasant and unavoidable. For this reason alone, these days, my older, wiser and less tolerant self tends to discourage feline or canine pets on a cruising boat. Back then, though—young and lonely—I put up with the messes and odors, almost happily. At the time, I couldn't have imagined what life without Tarzoon would be like, and that in itself was another problem because of the propensity for pets to go overboard every once in a while.

Tarzoon did go over, twice actually, and both times we were in the middle of the Indian Ocean. The first time, I saw it happen. We were heeled over, beating, and when he slipped off the sprayhood, I was able to tack and turn the boat around to save him. The second time, I only found out after being awakened in the middle of a flat calm and moonless night because he was shaking water all over me and clamoring for a snack. If there had been even the smallest of breezes, it would have been curtains for kitty.

Still, the author says, cruising with a cat requires plenty of patience. Kitty litter and provisioning issues demand high tolerance and plenty of ingenuity on your part.
Cats also need to eat—both wet and dry food to stay healthy—and that adds an entirely different dimension to provisioning. When the going was good, we would be visiting a country with a market for cat food. When times were lean, he ate rice, tomato paste, and tuna stews with me. We also ate other things straight from cans that he liked: asparagus, sardines, wieners, and certain soups that helped him develop a fairly open mind about food. In between meals, he maintained a constant deck watch for stranded flying fish and squid to supplement his dietary needs. Once, in the middle of the North Atlantic, he even caught and devoured an exhausted and unsuspecting canary.

Certainly, I would have survived without a cat, but for a young girl sailing alone on the ocean, there was no better companion than Tarzoon. Despite that outlook, and knowing how seemingly vital he (and his predecessors) were to my happiness back then, when people ask my opinion of pets on boats these days, I say: "Unless you are hopelessly attached and are blessed with lots of patience and time, leave them home." This is precisely what I said the other day to a man who confessed to harboring dreams of cruising with a cat. Although the call of the sea hasn't let me go that easily since that trip with Tarzoon, I told him, the cat has never set paws on a boat since. There is no question he likes it better this way. And me too. I'm thankful for the stories that I have to share of our adventures together, but when all is said and done, I'm glad it's in the past. The lessons were learned and turned into words for books, and now, sharing a boat with a pet is history for this sailor.

Tania Aebi is offline  
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