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Old 04-28-2004
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Mark Matthews is on a distinguished road
Critters Aboard


Sailing is both a bit more work and more rewarding than most imagine. Surprise stowaways keep things interesting.
The lessons I've learned aboard sailboats struggling against the elements and/or the ravages of neglect have left me semi-equipped to handle a variety of situations. Among the various scenarios I've experienced at sea, my sailing career has seen waves that came crashing into the cockpit, a handle that came off a seacock, a backstay that came dangerously loose, a prop shaft that exited the boat to jam in the rudder, an exploding head, and so on. When a wild animal makes your boat its home, as one recently did mine, however, sailors will find a different set of skills is needed—a set they may not have.

Projects seem to multiply like rabbits in the brush when it comes to preparing a boat you are unfamiliar with for an offshore passage. This is especially true when it comes to dealing with a boat that has laid nearly dormant for a year, in our case a 1965 Sparkman and Stephens-designed Chris Craft Sail Yacht. Five days of boat projects flew by as we prepared for what would end up being a three-day trip from Daytona to Charleston, SC recently. A cleaning that would have made Martha Stewart proud gave way to an archeological sifting through the previous owner's belongings, and multiple trips to the trash can. Old epoxy, bottom paint, and other toxic products worthy of a Superfund site needed to find a good home somewhere else. There were several rounds of wrestling with an old engine hose and replacing it, followed by a climb to the top of the mast to replace standing rigging.

Long periods of time were expended slithering into the recess of lazerettes to reroute new propane hose—to say nothing of riding around Daytona while seeking out parts in a borrowed pickup and surviving the speedway mentality of many of its drivers. While there is nothing like realizing the boat of your dreams, the challenges of pre-purchase agreements, financing arrangements, finding insurance, and having the boat hauled and surveyed had lasted several months. With the details now completed and behind us, we were ready to cast off and start our northward journey.

But not before stowing a load of diesel and tacitly accepting the fact that the port water tank seemed to be leaking slightly. Provisions had to be bought, the dinghy had to be loaded on, charts purchased, the weather consulted and re-consulted—you get the idea, sailing off into the sunset brings more work with it than most landlubber romanticized versions. Owning a boat is, at the very least, a two-person project, and it helps if those two people are half-crazed workaholics with a dash of the immortal in them.

So when we started the engine to warm it up, checking to see that water was coming out of the exhaust, and began taking away the spider's web of docklines that held the boat in place during the absence of an owner, there was momentum that was difficult contain. Charleston was that way, north, and the journey was about to begin. So the gecko I spied scurrying across the deck of the boat should have served as a warning of larger animals further up the food chain to come. While he proved relatively easy to catch (he seemed to recognize his mistake and clambered onto my arm—or perhaps it had a clairvoyance I lacked), often in boating situations the about-to-be-surprised are given some foreshadowing of what lies ahead.


Snakes are happiest in their natural environment, but a boat sometimes makes a tempting home.
The gecko scurried off, and I hastily grabbed the last item to stow aboard—the long, yellow, cylindrical sailbag containing the dinghy's boom and sail. This had spent the last year on a rack, partially obscured by tropical flora, a bit moldy, fading in the sun and collecting leaves, but otherwise seemed to be in good shape. "I should probably hose this off before putting it aboard," I remember thinking. But by then a small gathering of well-wishers had assembled and were untying the remaining docklines. I placed the sail aboard, and began making preparations to get underway.

The tide was ebbing, pinning the boat to the dock, and with a large powerboat attached to the end of the dock, there was little room to maneuver between us and it. There was both coordinated and free form heaving on the stern line and some pushing on the bow, the boat spun off the dock and lo and behold our journey had begun. We waved, buoyed by the fact we were free from shore and its demands.

The channel markers began their procession, the engine churned merrily along, life was good. I sorted docklines and fenders while my better half piloted us north. I began tying up the dinghy sail bag, when something—a yellow and green three foot snake sunning itself—caught my eye. Screaming and simultaneously retreating I made it back to the cockpit saying the only thing my adrenaline-charged brain, which had defaulted to its neanderthal parts and could only muster: "SNNNNNNAAAAAAAAAKKKKKKEEE!!.There' s 8&**#*$@ snake up there!!" I informed my likewise screaming crew mate.

"Shut the ports, shut the ports!" she implored, once again proving when it comes to dealing with slithering things, women have an advanced crisis management gene.

There was little to delay me. If the snake were to make it down below, forget it. Who knows where it could have gone, hidden, only to emerge during brief feeding cameos in the night.

"This was beginning to look too easy. I suddenly had control over my slithering adversary. But it was an all too brief moment. "
After shutting the ports I had to devise a plan of action. Taking my cue from animal tamer shows on television (perhaps a dubious source when it comes to dealing with wild animals) I decided the boat hook was the closest thing I had to a snake-catching apparatus. I grabbed a five-gallon bucket, hoping I could persuade the snake into it. If you haven't already guessed, I'm not a snake expert and every snake not clearly identified from a distance in some kind of snake authority book, to my way of cautionary seamanship, should be treated as a potentially lethal. Initially the plan went well. The hook part of the boat hook worked well to scoop the snake up. This was beginning to look too easy. I suddenly had control over my slithering adversary. But it was an all too brief moment. The snake made it known that it had no intention of going into a bucket, unraveled himself from the boat hook, and made tracks over the deck toward the nesting sailing dinghy tied on the bow.

"Throw it overboard," came as more than a suggestion, but by then the snake—and it was a beautiful creature, vibrant yellows and greens—had disappeared. A brief debate on whether all snakes could swim ensued. One party maintained they could. The other maintained they couldn't. In the meanwhile the snake was doing what snakes do best, slithering around unseen.


There are some kinds of critters worth having around.
For the snake, the nesting dinghy turned out to be a pretty ideal habitat, and who knows what was going through its tiny brain as it got out of the sun, away from screaming people and boat hooks, into the dark, eventually finding the centerboard trunk filled with pine needles. Probably something like "Ahh…". For its pursuer, life was slightly more challenging. The nesting dinghy is a nine-foot, not exactly lightweight, sailing dinghy that has been cut into a big half and a little half. The design is held together by bolts that run through the bulkhead on each section. I heaved and lifted the larger section off, expecting the snake to fall out at any moment. It didn't, prompting more mystery on its exact physical properties and capabilities. Finally, I peered into the recess of the centerboard trunk, and there, cozy as could be, it lay coiled up on a bed of pine needles.

How to capture a snake? In a flash of not exactly genius I remembered a tupperware container holding screws, ran to the aft cabin, hastily emptied it, and took it back to the snake. Luckily, a piece of foam had been left in the centerboard trunk, designed to keep water from shooting up in the centerboard trunk when underway with an outboard, and the snake was essentially cornered. I carefully placed the tupperware on top of the centerboard trunk. It wasn't easy, but I managed to flip that part of the dinghy over and began shaking it. A few pine needles started falling into the tupperware. A few more. Where was the snake? Some more shaking. Finally, it fell out, roused from whatever state of transcendental bliss it had previously known. There was a small gap in the dinghy's hull and where the tupperware wouldn't reach, and with bliss over and escape on its mind, the snake was ready to make a run for it. Quickly I introduced the lid of the tupperware, and before the snake or myself knew it, I had the snake under wraps, and a feeling of relief and triumph found only in the euphoria of man over animal washed over me.

We quickly transitioned  from the neanderthal back to the domestic, named the snake ‘Snakey', drilled air holes in the top, and set it in a safe place. Ground rules were quickly established—Snakey was not to go down below. Snakey's cage was additionally well duct taped to ensure he wouldn't be going anywhere, till we were ready to release him. We anchored out that night, and the next day dropped Snakey off at a marina, prompting puzzled looks from the dockhand when I asked him if there was a good place to release a snake.

Keeping Critters Off


Birds are relatively harmless, although can make a fair mess of things if given enough time.
It's always easier to avoid the problem in the first place, rather than try and fix it, which in this case means capture or worse, after whatever critter has come on. Whether you're dealing with cockroaches, spiders, wasps, snakes, racoons, birds, or other animal, a few precautionary steps made early on can help that wild beast decide to keep searching for another boat.

Birds are relatively harmless, but can make their home in the ends of booms and masts when boats are on the hard. Stuffing foam or whatever else might be handy to block birds for making nests in your vessel's spars can keep them keeping on in search of more suitable habitat.

Cockroaches are a cruiser's nightmare, and many a sailor has battled these resiliant insects. Keeping cardboard and paperbags off the boat will keep egg casings that are sometimes found in these paper products from getting aboard. If you do find yourself battling cockroaches, know that a case-by-case squish fest is the least effective and messiest technique to get rid of them. Mix boric acid with honey or jam and set this out in small trays made out of aluminum foil. Disperse the trays throughout the boat and repeat as necessary. Sooner or later you'll be cockroach free.


Time in the yard presents a tempting opportunity for a variety of animals to move aboard.
If you leave your boat unattended for long periods of time on the hard, make sure all lazerettes, hatches, and ports are well-secured, and that you plug any gap between hatchboards and the hatch to keep wasps,bees, and other insects out, as well as put dorade covers on. Close the seacocks, or better yet, bung them from the outside.

Finally, it's always a good policy to give anything a little grungy looking a thorough freshwater rinse with the hose before it—and any surprises—make its way aboard.

 


 


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