by Jody Argo Schroath
illustrations by Jackie Besteman
It was six o'clock on a steamroller-hot Saturday evening at the tail end of August, and Skipper the ship's dog was eating bait hotdog pieces as fast as the seven-year-old fisherman-trainee on the dock could pull them out of his ziplock bag. Clutching his fishing rod in his left hand, the young angler, clearly enjoying the interaction, would reach into the baggie with his right and bring out a new piece of bait, ready for the hook. Skipper would wait until it was halfway to the hook, then snatch the hunk of wiener out of the boy's fingers and gulp it down faster than you could say Oscar Mayer. Not that I approved of this, but while Skipper was concentrating his every fiber on putting a dent in the catch of the day, I was still aboard Snipp finishing up the dock lines.
The ship's dog and I had just returned from a sail on the Potomac that had become a motor back from the Potomac after the wind began its late-summer offshore-to-onshore do-si-do and the long, windless intermission had settled over us like a heating pad. Skipper had sought permission to debark as soon as we caromed gently off the finger pier. I didn't really mind. He had been aboard all the long lazy day, dozing on the relative cool of the cabin sole or trying to stay within the dodger's shifting Band-Aid of shade. Besides, he wasn't much good yet at stowing things away and he was completely hopeless at tying a half hitch. Then too I thought he might have, you know, "business" ashore. Instead he simply returned to his everyday job as dockmeister/doofus, consulting briefly with Molly and Blacky the boatyard dogs-who were themselves busy supervising a do-it-yourselfer's rudder repair-then running off to escort a mildly apprehensive visitor down A dock. He paused on the way back to clean up after a powerboat Westie, who had unwisely chosen to save a little bit of his dinner for later, before streaking back out B dock, and finally braking hard at the sight of young Izaak Walton and his bait baggie. I smiled indulgently from the foredeck and called him back onto the boat. Hey, I'm no Captain Bligh.
Six months earlier I would have reveled in such a happy outcome-grand theft hotdog not included, of course. From a winter of repairs on the hard through an early spring splash and recommissioning, I had watched enviously as other boat pups came and went, mingling amiably or passing each other in quiet disdain. Not so Skipper. While he was content to wait meekly in the open rear end of the station wagon while I worked for hours aboard, up the inaccessible ladder, he transmogrified into a snapping, snarling Baskerville hound at the first sight of another dog. Whoa, I thought as I struggled to bring him under control, this is going to make cruising-not to mention life in general-pretty tough!
Skippy is a 60-pound ibizi-benji-dor-just kidding, but he is some kind of hound mix-the color of a butterscotch sundae, with vanilla ice cream feet, multipositional ears and a curly tail. I had brought Skippy-aged maybe one year, maybe not-home in January from an ASPCA in Virginia. He was cute, didn't chew things up, loved the water and adored people. But dogs? Holy Return of Chucky, Batman! So Skippy and I immediately went into therapy. He was diagnosed with fear aggression and I with pathetic-weak-sister syndrome. Under the guidance of trainer Ira Hartwell in Annapolis, who specializes in aggressive dogs, I learned to act more like the alpha female and Skippy learned that very few dogs actually wanted to bite his head off. And eventually, Skipper was invited to join Jack the Pomeranian's dockside coffee-klatch at our marina-which admittedly is heavily weighted in the direction of dogs the size and aspect of oven mitts, but also includes a sprinkling of fairly amiable Refrigerator Perry-size canines. Now hanging out with his buds and competitive peeing on the dinghy rack have become the highlight of his days. Ah, the good life. But for me, the good life is sailing, and sailing with Skippy is what this story is all about.
When Snipp went back in the water late last March, Skipper hopped aboard and loped from deck to cockpit to cabin as if he had been born in the starboard lazarette. I was overjoyed. Overjoyed, that is, until he had a revelation at 5:30 one morning that great blue herons were actually funny looking dogs. He acted on the information immediately, barking maniacally as he scrambled up the cabin steps and into the early dawn cockpit to get to the one perched on a nearby slip post. He was just about to launch himself off the stern like a clay skeet target when I managed to propel myself up into the cockpit and lay the meaty hand of the law on him before he went extra-vehicular. For the next several weeks, mornings aboard Snipp took on a new and nerve-shattering dimension. Yes, we lost a lot of Good Neighbor points during that period. Finally, Skipper began to lose the chip on his shoulder and I developed a coping technique that is a cross between Mr. Rogers and Mr. T and goes something like this: "Look at the nice dog/bird, Skippy. Isn't he cute? He just wants to be our friend. So stop barking or I'll wring your neck!" Oddly enough, it usually works.
But Skippy wouldn't remain a yard dog forever, as eventually I tired of working on the boat and we had to go sailing. At first, coming and going from the slip, I put Skipper down below. Mainly it was to keep him out of the way, but also, like making sausage, I figured the fewer witnesses the better. As soon as the sails were up I'd take out the drop boards and he would spill out into the cockpit, take a look at the water, water, everywhere, give me a "Jeez, you people are nuts!" look and start climbing up to his favorite Snoopy-on-the-doghouse perch. The Snoopy perch is obviously out of the question, not to mention dangerous, when you are headed upwind, and downwind, while not out of the question, is merely dangerous. So we compromised on a ban on the former and a tether for the latter circumstance. Otherwise, Skipper slowly worked out the best places to settle for various points of sail and weather conditions and, other than an unfortunate propensity to follow me up on deck for every sail change, seemed to settle pretty well into his new occupation of ship's dog. Each time out, I would add a half-hour or so to the sail until I gauged he was ready for a whole-day excursion.
As it turned out, Skipper's first extended trip was not by sail but power, aboard a friend's 17-foot cuddy, on an excursion across the Bay from the lower Potomac River to Maryland's Eastern Shore. Skipper, wearing his bright orange life jacket, happily soaked up the new experience of speed and spray until a nasty chop sent him into the cabin, where he lay, pressed flat against the cushions and exuding a distinct aura of general condemnation of bipeds, until we reached the relative calm of Tangier Sound, where he reemerged and deigned to enjoy himself once again.
Skipper's first all-day sailing trip was not a big success. In fact, if he were keeping a log (and I sincerely hope he's not), it probably would read: "Breakfast late again. Large biped with beard (this would be my husband Rick, who happened to be along) put me below again. No wind. Insufferably hot. Then a ravenous pack of biting flies. Wanted to jump into dinghy and row ashore. Oh, if only I had opposable thumbs!" There would have been a lot more, but you get the gist and it's tiresome writing like a dog-even a smart one like Skippy. Happily, later trips-sometimes with friends and family and sometimes alone-would get better reviews. All in all, it was a big year for Skippy . . . and for me. Skipper's first season also included lessons on getting in and out of the inflatable, what to do when you unexpectedly fall off the dock, and the singular pleasures of lunch on the hook. For my part, I talked with dozens of people who have cruised with dogs (and from a few who haven't) and got plenty of advice. I read the blogs and read the books. We've both had a lot to learn, and I know we still have a long way to go. We have yet to join the fleet of dog dinghies that puts out from anchored boats each morning and each evening. And we've yet to take an extended cruise together.
Here are a few of the things that Skippy and I have learned this year-by ourselves and with the help of others.
Does Skippy fit on a 27-foot boat? Well, yes and no.
"He's grown!" my husband Rick, the serial alarmist, exclaims each time he hasn't seen Skipper for a while-say six to eight hours. "No, he hasn't!" I counter. (Godzilla's mother probably used to say the same thing.) Okay, so maybe a 60-pound tall skinny dog isn't the ideal size and shape for a sailboat under 30 feet. On the other hand, you always know where he is-which turns out to be right behind me, particularly when I go forward to change the head sail or complete some other crucial task in a brisk wind and stiff chop. So we installed sturdy netting on the lifelines suitable for quiet water walks and a tether in the cockpit suitable for heavy weather. And we use the heavy-duty bright orange doggy life vest with a jolly strong handle on top, or in good weather the padded three-section harness with jolly strong handle on top. We also worked out a DOB plan, which currently is to hook the vest/harness with a boathook, then use the main halyard to help bring him back aboard, or alternatively using the inflatable, which is closer to the water, to get him back aboard. This year, however, we're adding a floating doggy ramp so he can climb back up himself. And then we're going to practice, practice, practice.
All dogs seem to fall overboard sooner or later, I've been told, even short ones with a low center of gravity and no spirit of adventure. So far, Skipper has only fallen overboard trying to get from the boat to the dock. It happened early one morning. As Skipper was stepping off the boat and onto the dock, the gap suddenly widened and he went vertically where he meant to go horizontally. Splash! I heard the noise and dashed up on deck to find Skipper looking up at me rather frantically. Since ours is a militantly third-world boatyard, there is no ladder up the dock, but there is a low work barge in a nearby slip. I walked over there, then called him in as perfectly-normal-happens-everyday a tone as I could muster, and soon afterward pulled him aboard. In the future, this will be a fine application for the floating doggy ramp. On the whole, I feel this experience has made Skippy a more cautious and perhaps overly introspective dog.
My husband makes another appearance and asks "Where does Skipper sleep?"
"V-berth, Skippy!" I shout. It's his favorite training command. And if it is bedtime, anyway, Skippy is usually happy to oblige. He tucks himself between the sailbags and the tub of spare line and is generally not heard from again until 6 a.m., which-in the absence of blue herons-is the hour when everyone should wake up and start drinking coffee, which he knows is a prerequisite to his breakfast and a walk. Anyway, animals onboard like to find secure spots in which to insert themselves, and the V-berth with its nice cushy sailbags works just fine-except that every time we make a headsail change everyone downwind with pet-dander issues has a sudden allergy attack they are at a loss to explain.
Where does Skipper "go"? The short answer is that he doesn't. So far, our cruises-by sailboat and motorboat-have been made in short enough increments to make onboard elimination a moot point. And I haven't pushed it. After all, this was his first season on the ship's roster and I wanted to make sure he was cool with this whole boating business before presenting him with a square yard of AstroTurf and the suggestion that this would be his best bet for the next few days. But this is not going to last forever. Doing the "doo" is a favorite topic among cruisers with pets and the source of nearly endless discussion. One evening, during a boatyard sundowner gathering, I brought up the question myself. Among this small group were sailors with thousands of miles of cruising experience, as well as two dogs, one cat and a parrot. One of the dogs was of the oven-mitt variety, living on a boat the size of a smallish aircraft carrier, so I zeroed in on the other, a Refrigerator Perry-size black Lab and his owners, who together sail on a Westsail 32. Yes, the Lab's dad replied, he had put their tame galoot into the dink in all kinds of weather to go ashore on business. And, yes, he and the Lab mom admitted, they had tried getting their dog to go on the boat using a plot of artificial turf. It didn't work. "We tried everything we could think of. Why, we even peed on it ourselves!" Now, readers, this may strike you as an amusing but isolated act, but the dark secret of boating is that at any given time somewhere in the world there is at least one man desperately peeing on a piece of bright green plastic as his dog looks on in horror.
But let's hurry past this disconcerting, yet strangely fascinating image. There are other methods that may or may not work and among them is the one that I am currently trying with an eye toward the future: Teach the dog to pee on command. There is a whole book about it, which I haven't read yet, but the gist as I understand it is that over the course of several weeks each time the dog starts to pee, you quietly say some word that will become his pee-on-demand command. I have chosen the word "pee" because it's easy to remember, which is important to me. (So if you pass a woman quietly saying "pee" every time her dog lifts his leg, that will be me.) The theory is, of course, that eventually the dog will associate the word with the action so that you will be able to get the desired response whenever or wherever you want to. The downside is that you won't be able to say things like "peanut butter" anymore-at least within earshot of the dog.
Does Skipper like boating? This is the famous quality of life question to which the answer always seems to be yes and no. Skipper, as I have indicated, is only one season into this project and so far the answer is yes and no. Yes, he would be totally put out if he didn't get to come along, no matter what the destination or the mode of transportation. No, he doesn't like hitting his head on things in a roughed-up sea. Yes, he likes being able to get up on all the "furniture" and he adores sleeping onboard and being the dock-meister/doofus of the boatyard. He thinks sometimes it gets too hot out on the water, and he absolutely hates bitey flies (like who doesn't?). Also, he's not yet comfortable transitioning between boat and dink, and he completely misses the point of sailing to weather.
Finally, do I like sailing with Skipper? Same answer. The drawbacks are pretty self-evident; I think I've already mentioned several of them. On the other side, I'll make just this one point: When I'm single-handing and on a long reach and Skipper jumps up on the cockpit seat and stretches out with his head in my lap and goes soundly and ecstatically to sleep, the drawbacks seem hardly worth mentioning. There is only the goofy and heartwarming companionship that is the payoff of the pet/person relationship. I sigh happily and wish I had a plastic baggie full of bait hotdogs sitting next to me. I'd willingly give him half. In other words, I can't wait for another season on the water with Skippy.
Trying to bring your boat and your pet together in a mutually rewarding way? Here are two books that are dedicated entirely to pets and boating. Doggy on Deck, Life at Sea with a Salty Dog, by Jessica H. Stone and Kip McSnip (that's her dog and, really, that's the way it's listed); Penchant Press, www.doggyondeck.com. If your nautical pet is a dog, this is the book for you. Stone deals with everything from seasick dogs to where to store the kibbles. And she has a list of resources at the end of each chapter. Terrific. If your furry passengers fall into the dog and/or cat category, look for Cruising with Your Four-Footed Friends, The Basics of Boat Travel with Your Cat or Dog, by Diana Jessie; Seaworthy Publications, www.seaworthy.com. Dogs get the treatment here, too, of course, but they have to share with those other guys. A good book nonetheless and Jessie includes a lot of good advice on pet safety and equipment. A third book, while not aimed at boating pets, is potentially useful for the reason explained in its title, You Can Teach Your Dog to Eliminate on Command, by M.L. Smith; Seaworthy Publications, www.seaworthy.com.
As you might guess, there are a number of resources available on the internet. One of my favorites is at www.sailcharbanneau.com. The Parks family's website includes not only hints, suggestions and boating anecdotes about their golden retrievers Max and Bailey, but a very useful list of pet-friendly anchorages on the East Coast, including the Chesapeake. Another useful site for pet questions and answers is the Cruisers Forum (www.cruisersforum.com), which has a number of discussion threads under Cruising with Pets. Also helpful for finding pet-welcoming destinations are www.dogfriendly.com and www.petfriendlytravel.com.
Locally, good sources of information include your veterinarian, dog trainer and marina neighbors. The last suggestion will not necessarily net the most accurate information, but it will almost certainly be the most entertaining.
For pet boating gear, some of the best sources are those that specialize in equipment for hunting dogs, like www.hunterk9.com, www.gundogsupply.com and www.cabelas.com. Ruff Wear (www.ruffwear.com) makes especially good sturdy products for boating pets, such as float coats, clip-on safety beacons and first-aid kits. Their products are also available on many retail sites, including those just mentioned.
There are several kinds of pet ramps available, either for getting pets on and off the boat or out of the water and onto the boat. I haven't made up my mind which one will work best for Skipper, so I'll just give you three sites and let you work it out, too: Doggy Docks (www.doggydocks.com), Paws-A-Board (www.pawsaboard.com) and Pet Step (www.petstep.com). Some are available through retail stores and others only online.
Sooner or later-the chances are nearly 100 percent on this, so listen up-your four-footed boating pal is going to end up inadvertently in the drink. To reverse this unfortunate turn of events you will need to have more than a plan, you'll need to have a drill that you both know backwards and forwards. And that means practice. This goes for cats too. Sure, a wet cat is a deeply resentful cat, but what's that compared with the alternative?
Crucial to the whole business is a good-quality, well fitted pet PFD that has a strong handle on top. Make sure that the float coat will take the strain of your pet's full weight and that it distributes the weight evenly. When hot weather and smooth water seem to make a PFD unnecessary, make sure you substitute a harness, ideally one that has three sections-two for the belly and one for the chest-and a good metal ring or a handle.
The rest of the drill depends on your boat and your equipment. If you have a swim platform and a boat hook, your job will be fairly straightforward. If you have a boat with a high freeboard, you may find that a boat hook and then the mainsail or jib halyard will work. If you are towing a dink or have one on davits, that might be the best answer. As I mentioned in the story, this year I am going to try using a folding doggy swim ramp that I can put off the stern so Skipper can climb back onto the boat on his own. Then we'll see how it works in practice, practice, practice.
CALLING ALL BOATERS WITH PETS!
Now it's your turn: Do you have an amusing story about your boating pet? An interesting experience? Some hard-won practical advice? We want to hear it. Make it as short and informal as you like. We'll gather together some of our favorites and print them in an upcoming issue. Do you have a favorite photo of you and your pet onboard? Send us that too. Mail your pet stories and photos to:
Jody Argo Schroath,Chesapeake Bay Magazine, 1819 Bay Ridge Avenue, Annapolis, MD 21403;
or e-mail them to firstname.lastname@example.org. Please include names and contact information.