February 2, 2016

Why pets and boats don't mix

A young couple readying their boat for long-distance cruising want to know what kind of pet would be best to take along on their 35-foot sloop. Well, I have definite ideas about pets on boats, and I couldn’t do better than refer them to a column I wrote several years ago. It went like this:

EVERY SUMMER EVENING, toward sunset, quiet anchorages all over America suddenly become busy as dinghies begin ferrying dogs ashore from yachts. The dogs, cooped up all day on small yachts, almost always stand in the dinghy bows, ears pointed forward, tongues flapping in the breeze, panting with eagerness to get on dry land and empty their bladders.

It’s the poop parade and it’s not pretty. It starts with the dreadful, awkward business of trying to get a dog down into a dinghy in the first place, and ends with the equally dreadful, awkward business of trying to get it up, out of the dinghy and back on deck.

Sailing with dogs is such a lot of bother that you have to wonder why anybody would do it. I love animals as much as the next guy, perhaps more than most, but when I’m cruising I don’t want my choice of destinations and times of sailing to be dictated by an animal whose only ambition is to lift his leg on the nearest beach.

Dogs don’t enjoy sailing. They don’t care if you’re doing two knots or 10. They don’t mind if you hoist the spinnaker or not. They don’t even know what a spinnaker is. People take dogs sailing because they’re lonely for their dogs, not because their dogs are lonely for them.

If you can afford a boat, you can afford to put the dog in a good kennel while you cruise, or to hire a dog sitter. If you really love your animal, you will do what’s best for the dog, not for you. Don’t kid yourself that the dog can’t live without you. Dogs are pack animals and like to follow a leader but believe me, any leader will do. And if a dog’s going to be cooped up with nowhere to go, it surely would prefer to be cooped up on dry land that stays level and doesn’t make it seasick.

In the main, dogs won’t use a sandbox on board, or even a piece of Astroturf on the foredeck or in the cockpit. They’ll hold in a pee until their bladders almost burst. They’ll hang on to a poo until their eyes change color. They only want to go ashore, find a neatly tended marina lawn, or someone’s pretty flower garden, decorate it with their internal debris, and scratch the hell out of it. That’s doggy heaven; and the whole process is repeated again at dawn the next day.

If you must have an animal on board then a parrot makes more sense than anything else. The pirates knew what they were doing. Did you ever hear of a pirate with a dachshund, for goodness’ sake?

And if not a parrot, then a cat. Cats are more compact. They don’t need exercise. You can ignore them and they’ll ignore you right back, with no hurt feelings. And, best of all, you don’t have to take them ashore. They’ll use a litter box. In fact, some will go one step better, and use the head.

I once met one called Pepe who had sailed around the world on a boat called Aqua Viva. His owner, a lawyer, had trained him to sit on the toilet seat by first placing his sandbox there. Pepe never did learn to open the seacock and flush the loo, but nobody was complaining about that.

The trouble with ocean-going cats is that they almost always seem to fall overboard and drown, or else, if they’re females, they run away with some local riff-raff tomcat as soon as they get to port. So, if you have a cat you should try not to get too attached to it because sooner or later you’re going to learn that sailboats and household pets are a very poor mix.

Today’s Thought
America is a large, friendly dog in a very small room. Every time it wags its tail, it knocks over a chair.
 —Arnold Toynbee, News summaries, July 14, 1954.

I would live all my life in nonchalance and insouciance
Were it not for making a living, which is rather a nouciance.

—Ogden Nash.

(Drop by every Monday, Wednesday, Friday for a new Mainly about Boats column.)


SF Powerboats said...

Those are some pretty intelligent advice. I'm also not fond of bringing pets when sailing. You'll see so much animals on the journey that the need to have one along is practically unnecessary. But if someone really wishes to bring one I always thought of having a well-trained monkey aboard. I always thought it would be cool but then again it travelling a lot of work and to add pets to your sailing responsibilities would do more harm than good.

Alden Smith said...

If I want some sort of playmate on board my boat I won't take a dog or a cat or for that matter a parrot - I will take a playmate, much more fun.