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Cruising with Cats

I'm not a cat fanatic. Actually, I've been a dog man all of my life. Sit, stay, rollover. You know, that kind of stuff.

When Sue insisted on cruising with cats I was skeptical, but I finally agreed. After two years of having Endicott and Hinckley aboard with us, I've found that you'll never find a more adaptable, lovable, as well as entertaining, pet to cruise with than a cat. We don't have a TV on board Safari, but we do have what we call the Cat Channel.

Like people, though, cats take to sailing with different levels of enthusiasm. Our cats are certainly prime examples of that. Endicott was born to be at sea. He's aware of every change that occurs on the boat, be it a sail luffing, the engine cranking up, or simply tacking. Sometimes we think he's checking up on us to make sure we trim the sails just right.

Every time we anchor he follows me to the bow to make sure I put out enough scope. If I touch a piece of fishing gear, he's beside me in a flash, ready to offer advice as to which lure he thinks will be the most effective. When we're underway he seems to have an innate sense of boat balance as he perfectly wedges himself in place while Safari heels. We often have a hard time keeping him in the cockpit when under sail. He's always trying to check out the foredeck or hang over the rail to watch the water splashing by.

Hinckley, on the other hand, takes a day or two to get his sea legs back after we've been at anchor for a while. He tucks himself away in a cubbyhole under the helmsman's seat and watches our wake through a small opening, wondering where we're going now.

But he's a trooper. With very strong hunting skills, he keeps us bug-free on the boat. And he also loves fishing. One time we left a two-foot-long eel-shaped fish on the swim platform while we were below cooking up a fresh sea trout. It wasn't long before Hinckley came struggling down the companionway steps, dragging the long fish in his mouth. I guess he wanted us to cook that one for him.

One primary concern is what to do with the litter box? It's a subject that comes up often. In fact, we were at a pot-luck supper one night talking to a couple about the cats when another cruiser suddenly jumped in and asked with great enthusiasm,

"Excuse me! Cat or dog? …. Sorry to butt in, but I heard you talking about litter. My wife and I have a cat on board and are about to come to blows if we can't solve the litter-box problem!"

Sue and I laughed, and were happy to tell the man his worries were over. Not wanting to deal with cat litter ourselves, both the problem of keeping a supply on board and then having the cats track it all over the boat, we trained our cats in a simple, no-nonsense method. We use a piece of plastic Astroturf type grass. Actually it's one of those green doormats with the daisy in the corner. We cut it to size and placed inside the bottom of the existing litter box. We attached a string to both in order to facilitate dunking overboard and cleaning. Our cats scratch this synthetic turf just as they would real grass. Depending on our location, when it comes time to clean the box we either empty the contents into the head or dunk the whole box overboard and allow it to soak a while.

We're often asked, "Do your cats ever fall overboard?" Well, the answer is, yes, they do, once in a while. But don't worry, cats can swim very well, and they usually fall over when you're at the dock or at anchor, not underway.

We introduced our cats to swimming the first day we took them home from the pound. Even at 10 weeks old, their little feet were dog-paddling furiously before they ever touched the water. Next we trained them to always swim to the transom of Safari, where they could climb out of the water themselves via some coiled line that we have place there. They have come to learn the boat as their home. Once, as we were dinghying back to the boat at anchor, they suddenly jumped out of the boat and swam to the transom.

When they were kittens we tried putting harnesses on them. Their reaction was amazing. It was as if they were drunk. They both immediately fell over on their sides, then when they tried to move it was as if they had no sense of balance. They really didn't like the harnesses so we gave up on that idea. We now have a policy that they stay below when we're sailing at night (about which they complain loudly). We also have a sturdy, long-handled fish-landing net handy in the event of a "cat overboard" while sailing. Luckily, we haven't had to use it so far.

Since the early days of just hanging coiled line off Safari's transom, we've done some fine-tuning to our cat self-rescue package. This was a result of watching Endicott turn our solar panel into a water slide one afternoon. After he hit the water with a big splash, we watched as he struggled a little to fight the current. He made it OK, but we realized swifter current might present a problem.

To see if our fears were founded, the next day with the flood tide running at max, we dropped both cats into the water by the bow to see what would happen. (No, they were not willing participants but it was for their own good.) As we suspected, 50 percent of our test subjects (Endicott) could not make the turn at the transom and were quickly swept behind the boat.. Hinckley's always been the better swimmer and he just barely managed to reach the coiled line. Poor Endicott made the turn, swimming as hard as he could, but just kept getting farther and farther away from the boat. I had to rescue him in the dinghy.

What we determined through this little experiment was that we needed something longer trailing behind the boat for situations when the current was strong. If that had been in place, Endicott could have safely made it back to the boat himself.

We went ashore that afternoon and found some discarded commercial fishing net. After cutting a three-by-15-foot piece, we doubled it over to make it thicker. Then we attached small floats along each edge. This now trails behind our boat at anchor. We supplement this by a smaller piece of netting hanging from each midships cleat. We've been accused of looking like a shrimper, and once a woman actually thought we were fishing. But now our cats are always able to rescue themselves.

Cats have gone to sea on ships for all time. Just as our sailing lives are easier than those of our new-world-exploring predecessors, the life of the cruising cat today is pretty plush. He's not likely to be pushed into service of catching rats and mice. More probably, he'll spend his days fascinated by the constant array of birds flying around, and have his curious nature fulfilled by the ever present fish and dolphins.

It's not been at all difficult to have Endicott and Hinckley aboard cruising with us. In fact, they have added to the experience. I've come to really love our two little sailing buddies. They entertain us, love us, and provide great companionship. So if you have any worries about bringing your cat along on the cruise, put them aside and add Fluffy to the crew list. You'll be glad you did.

Tips for Cruising with Cats

Introduce your cat to the water before he accidentally falls in. Although he or she won't need lessons to know how to swim (they all swim naturally), he may be more comfortable when he knows he can pull himself out of the water himself via a cat self-rescue system.

Rig up some kind of self-rescue system that will allow your cat to climb out of the water and back onboard himself. In light, or no current anchorages, a coiled line hanging over the side and reaching into the water will suffice. If you encounter stronger current situations, try our trailing self-rescue system as described in the article.

Keep a fish-retrieval net handy (with a pole that is long enough to reach into the water from your highest deck) for potential rescues underway.

If you're not comfortable letter your pet run free, life jackets for cats and dogs are available. If we were to start over, we would work harder at making our cats comfortable with the harnesses so that we could tether them in. In fact, after writing this, we're going to try them in harnesses again so that we are more comfortable with them offshore.

For a litter box use a small piece of Astroturf type grass, cut to fit inside your regular litter box. Attach one corner of the mat with line to the box in order to keep the two pieces together when dunking overboard. Attach another, longer piece of line to the box to allow dunking and soaking, overboard. If your cat is used to real litter, you may want to try sprinkling a bit of litter on top of the Astroturf to begin with, but you'll soon be able to eliminate this.

Glue down inside another plastic box your cat's food and water bowls (a cat litter box works well here also). This will help contain spills when underway.

Your cat needs some kind of scratching post. We use multiple pieces of corrugated cardboard that is glued together so that the cut edges are up. This is placed in a rectangular box. Then sprinkle with a bit of cat nip. (You can buy commercial versions of this in pet stores.) It works great and our cats both use it regularly.

Best play toy on the boat is just a balled-up piece of aluminum foil.

Most cats like to curl up inside a cubbyhole or box of some kind. Many boats have natural spots in the cockpit for this. If you don't have one, the addition of a small box for this purpose will be much appreciated by your pet, and it will likely become his favorite spot.

Sue & Larry is offline  
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