Monday, February 16, 2009

Cruising With Pets Aboard

Charlie enjoys a good sail.

Jack, at ease in the cockpit

My new friend Beverly asked about how we deal with pets aboard our 32' Bayfield, Puff, when we're out cruising. The answer for me is "with pleasure." I love, love, love animals and my life would be a little empty without my cat Jack and my dog Charlie. Brian's answer would be, "I love them, but they can be a pain in the ass on the boat." Everyone is different. I can tell you how we handle it and the issues we run into with pets aboard and you can judge for yourselves.

We take Charlie everywhere with us.

Charlie is a 52 lb. Spaniel/Retriever/Border Collie mix. He needs the type of exercise he can't get on the boat. We have to be fairly active people to deal with this, and we are. Charlie does not love living on a smallish sailboat. He likes big rooms to spread out in and play with his toys. He likes a dog bed and a yard to go out in whenever he pleases.

But he loves us and he has lived aboard Puff since he was 6 months old. We walk him several times daily and if we're landlocked for awhile, we try to bring him to work if possible. Brian is in construction and until this year, Charlie went to work with him at every job he was on. His current job doesn't provide a good place for Charlie, so he stays home during the day. Good thing for Charlie that we are renting a house for a few winter months, but next month it's back to the boat.

Charlie buried in the sand

When we are living aboard, Charlie likes to stay outside up on deck when weather permits or he may laze about on the dock when we are home on the boat. He loves the water, seabirds, dolphin, otters, fish and other creatures that visit our boat. When we are underway, he hunkers down in the cockpit or down below. Sometimes the motion of the boat is uncomfortable to him, and to us, but we all bear it and do the best we can. It usually doesn't last long.

Sometimes we try to secure Charlie in a tight spot so he's not sliding and bouncing around. We try to keep him comfortable and unafraid. We are trying to teach him a new command... "TACK!" At the sound of this word, we want him to switch sides of the cockpit like we do, so he can sit on the "downside" because he slides off the seat if we are sailing on a heel and he is on the "upside."

Charlie loves the beach

Long passages are a problem. Many dogs will relieve themselves on the boat. Ours will not. They say any dog can be trained to do it, so far... Charlie just will not. This is our biggest problem. We cannot really go for more than 12 hours without stopping at a port for him to walk. This seriously cramps our sailing style and longer passages are out, meaning it takes even longer to get anywhere. A lot longer. And it's hard to find good places to stop every 12 hours. You get the picture.

I will try again this year to train him to go on board. Many people have a fake grass mat or a piece of carpet or litter box for their dog to go in. They usually put it on the deck up at the bow. If it is a carpet or mat, they put a hole or grommet in it and run a rope through so they can put it overboard and wash it in the sea. We had a couple of friends with a larger boat and their 2 dogs just went up on the deck and they had to thoroughly clean and disinfect it every day!

He loves to swim, too

Also, if the bow is where they're supposed to go potty when you're underway and the boat is pitching and rolling... they probably won't be able to keep their balance up there and it's not safe either. So, i'm still searching for the best solution. When you are underway, especially offshore, you and your pets need to be wearing a harness and be tethered to the boat.

Harnesses are important for everybody

The harness is an important, life-saving advice. And pets are in danger of choking themselves on a harness, so you have to supervise them at all times if they're on one, especially cats. A way around this is to lock pets below during offshore passages. We thought this was mean and a pain to keep removing our hatchboards to go in and out. We usually put Charlie in the cockpit on a nonskid mat or towel and teach him to stay there, (except for tacking.)

Jack the cat is allowed the run of the boat during the day, we only put his harness on him if it gets rough or he gets crazy and starts leaping around and risking his life. Usually, he's pretty calm. Every night that we are underway, he gets harnessed and whoever is on watch, watches him too. This is without exception. Cats like to wander at night, and we know the harness is why he is still with us today.

Jack in the dingy with a conch

Back to the potty issue, Jack goes to the bathroom in a litter box that is secured in an upright position tightly under the nav station. Trust me, you do not want this spilling over. We don't use litter because it is not available to buy in most of our destinations and we don't want to waste valuable storage space. We use two plastic dishpans from Wal-Mart instead of a litter box. Smaller and cheaper. You take one and drill 1/4 inch holes in it all over the bottom. Then you drill two holes in each of the short sides, near the top of the pan and about two inches apart, this is where you want the handles to be. Then you put a long enough piece of rope through the two holes, and secure it by tying a non-slip knot.

Do this on each side and you've got your handles. You're going to dip this into the sea by these handles so make sure they are long enough where you don't have to risk your life by leaning way down near the ocean. You fill this top pan (the one with all the holes in it) with rocks that are non-porous (no limestone) and big enough not to fall through the holes in the bottom, but small enough that kitty can scratch them around a bit. You simply then place the pan with the holes and rocks in it into the identical one you bought and voila! you have your ocean going cat litter solution.

Jack in his harness watching B filet a fish

You can train kitty by replacing his old box with this one and gradually replacing litter with rocks. Rocks are not oder absorbant, so it will smell if you do not clean it right away. We did not find this to be a problem. Jack would go, I would take the box to the deck and lift the top pan out of the bottom one and rinse it in the sea over the side. The poop would float off the top and the rocks were heavy enough to stay in the box. The pee would be rinsed off. The bottom pan would be full of pee, so you either need rope handles on this one too, or just rinse it out with a bucket.

I got this idea from Australian single hander Jill Knight aboard Cooee. She had an article on it in one of the cruising mags. It really works great.

Jack in the salon helping B with a fishing reel

Jack has a sisal rope wound around the deck stepped mast that runs through the salon for a scratching post. He loves life aboard. He loves fishing and sushi. He kills bugs and moths for fun. He finds offshore passages very exciting and often leans into the wind and salt spray, shaking it off and leaning into it again for another wave to spray him. He collects flying fish from the deck for his breakfast and he and Brian split them up, so Brian can have some to use for bait.

Jack get salty dreadlocks in his long belly fur from running around on the salt encrusted deck, that's how he got his pirate name, Jack Dreadbelly! Best of all, Jack loves navigating. When Brian sits down at the nav station to program the GPS or chart a course, Jack begins purring very loudly and sits on the nav station attentively.

Jack with a flying fish tail sticking out of his mouth

Charlie the dog and I don't usually feel so well at sea, so we are probably lying down together somewhere as much as possible when we're offshore. Charlie and I eat a little less during passages, but Brian and Jack eat regularly. It depends on you and your animal's personality how well the boating life will work for you both. One more thing I almost forgot, Jack can swim and he has fallen overboard numerous times while at anchor. We keep a knotted rope hanging off either side of the boat for him to use as a ladder to climb out.

Charlie can swim, and sometimes chooses to jump off the boat or dingy for fun, but we have to help him back on board, not all that easy. There is alot of lifting involved with Charlie and living aboard. Some people use a harness and outboard engine lift or the mainsheet to lift their large dogs onto their boats. If you're at a dock, a ramp is also an option.

Jack lounging, always finding a comfy place aboard

Charlie on the dingy, going for W-A-L-K

Dogs on boats do discourage theft, but they must also be well behaved as it is really rude to have dog barking loudly and repeatedly in a nice, quiet anchorage you are sharing with other boaters. One last thing, some countries do not allow animals ashore even with their medical records up to date.

Check Jimmy Cornell's site before you go. We usually go to the Bahamas where we are required to pay a seperate fee for the pets upon entry and show proof of immunizations to the customs and immigration people when we clear in.

Charlie and Brian with a new friend in Green Turtle Cay, Bahamas

I love cruising with pets! But that's just me. I'll try to find pics of the cool sea-going litter box. Any questions?


  1. Jeannette, Great post! Bev and I are very concerned for our Blue boy. He is getting quite old now and it has become very difficult for him to climb out the entry way or up and down stairs. There have been many occasions where simply sitting at the dock, Blue has tripped and gone overboard. He may have to do this years trip from the arm chair of grandmas lounge (I don't hear him complaining). Grandma spoils that dog rotten and I am assured to coming back to a fat (but happy) Cattle Dog next year. We will see.
    It looks as if both Charlie and Dreadbelly are having a wonderful time aboard. You obviously love them very much. I have a tender spot in my life for old Blue, he has been my backpacking companion on the Appalachian Trail for many years, but like Brian, dealing with old Blue on the boat is a bit of a PITA! =)
    Scott and Beverly

  2. I've looked everywhere for live aboards with pets! I'm so glad I found you. Just before we moved aboard our boat this summer we ended up with a 4 month old pit bull puppy (my daughter is a vet tech, need I say more) along with our 14 year old cat. Don't hate me but Wilbur learned to poopy on board within a week! We have no idea how lucky we are, I know! Our cat did not survive the trip and I will always feel guilty about it. She jumped off at dock one night and fell in the water trying to get on another boat. She survived the ordeal but died in my arms later that night.
    Our boat is now on the hard until Nov when we're going to head out again.