In undertaking my move aboard, my crew didn't get a vote on this new lifestyle, though it has many implications for them. My "crew" is made up of two cats, 10 year-old littermate brothers, Maximus and Hunter, and a 6 1/2 year-old yellow lab, Buttercup. Their antics, hijinks, challenges, and silliness are often regular tidbits among my blog posts. For The Monkey's Fist I am taking a moment to focus on the experience of having cats aboard.
My guys are older and cats in general do not like change. I have moved often and work hard to minimize the stress of moving on my guys. We've lived in some small digs, but the boat would still be quite a downsizing for us all. But cats love to find nooks and crannies to explore and small, cozy spaces to snuggle up in. For that, boats can be perfect. My guys enjoyed having their cuddle cups atop the lockers in the stateroom; they were up high and also next to port lights to peer outside. Even as I reorganize the boat as I settle in, they never have trouble finding a spot to nap. The dog and cats are fast friends, and in the close confines of the boat the cats seem more apt to snuggle up with the dog and not mind sharing space with her.
Just shy of one month aboard we rode out the edges of Hurricane Sandy. While all my shore-based friends were telling me to abandon ship, and I was out in the wind and rain every hour or two adjusting lines, the cats (and dog) slept through the whole affair. The cats had gone through several hurricanes and tropical storms when we lived in Miami, so the noise of the wind whipping outside was at least not a new experience. But I figured the boat's rocking would upset them. Nope; they just curled up napped.
The two biggest challenges I have had are litter boxes and escapes. The litter box presents a few issues aboard: space, litter type, and dog-proofing. Space being at a premium, it's crazy that I have two litter boxes aboard. I would like to "wean" them down to one, but I feel the combination of two litter boxes and the litter they prefer has kept us from having "out-of-box incidents" that made life afloat very unpleasant at times. I don't think I can fit a litter box behind the companionway steps as s/v Dos Libras does, but I may see if I can make it work. Right now we have a "top-entry" Clever Cat box that is on a small settee so the dog can't reach to get in it, but it needs to find another home because it blocks access to a locker I need into frequently. A litter pan with a small raised rim to help lessen (but definitely not eliminate) litter being kicked out is located under the navigation desk...in some prime storage space I could really use for tool boxes or provisions. I am hoping that eventually I will work out a better space-saving solution.
Not wanting to lift heavy clay litter onto the boat, I switched to corn-based World's Best Cat Litter. Unlike the clay I use, it is not scoopable. In theory, the corn absorbs all the pee and you just scoop the poop. Ditto for the Feline Pine. Both left the boat smelling like a litter box, the cats regularly protested by going outside the box, and just as much (if not more) litter was tracked outside the box. As heavy as the Fresh Step clay is, and as big a carbon footprint as it has, it simply does the job and keeps my guys happy.
Keeping the dog from getting into the litter boxes looking for "treats" is much more difficult aboard. Ashore, the litter box was in a utility closet with a door ajar enough for the cats to get in but too narrow for the dog to access. Now I have to either find ways to keep litter boxes up high enough that the dog cannot get into them or create barricades so she cannot access the boxes. A tower of random items blocks the dog from getting to the one under the nav desk, but also makes it very inconvenient for me to clean that box or get to anything in the nav station. I have a fledging plan to use wooden garden trellis to close off the area under the nav desk and cut an access port for the cats. The trellis will keep the dog out, but allow ventilation.
The other challenge I have had is escapes. My guys have been inside-only cats their entire lives. It doubles their life expectancy when they do not face the cars, illnesses, cat-fights, wild animals, and other dangers of going outside. I was hoping perhaps they would stick to the boat and be able to experience the outside, with all the smells, bird-watching, and patches of sun to lounge in. Unfortunately, both cats now seize opportunities to head topsides, wander down the dock, hop on other boats, and generally make me frantic. Cats don't exactly "come" when called, and they prefer to go on walkabouts when I'm urgent to leave the boat for something or other, so I run below cursing and rattle a cat food bin until they come running back in expecting dinner or a treat. When the weather is mild, I would much prefer to be able to leave the hatch open, but will need to make a screen dropboard to prevent escapes.
My experience so far has only been one of marina life. I expect I will face additional challenges when we hit rough weather at sea, ports that don't have our preferred food or litter available to purchase, and whatever other surprises may arise when cruising with cats. Pets aboard definitely make cruising more difficult due to the space taken up with provisions, bedding, toys, et cetera for pets, and due to the restrictions on entry of pets into various countries. But I made a commitment to my pets for their lifetimes and they give me their unconditional love.
With all the hassles and compromises, why bother having ship's cats? Well, in the winter they are great little space heaters. It never hurts to have a mouser aboard. But most of all, they are wonderful companions who listen no matter how many times I've told them the same story and who come nuzzle me when they sense that I'm down.
There are also the little surprises... the other day I came aboard and found water all over the galley floor. The sink half-full of water for dishes couldn't have been rocked enough by the winds to spill all over. I wiped up the mess and cast it off as another boat mystery. About fifteen minutes later Hunter appeared on the dinette and one look told the story:
I guess someone went for an accidental swim in the galley sink; oops!
Bottom line considerations:
- Having pets aboard will limit your ability to travel; I can jump through some hoops and take them to the Bahamas, but my beloved Barbados is a no-go due to quarantine requirements.
- Finding a pet-sitter is more complicated aboard--you need someone who knows enough about boats to at least "do no harm" aboard.
- There is no better mouse (or rat) trap than a cat; they'll have more than earned their keep if they keep vermin from chewing through hoses!
- There are safety risks for boat cats, from osprey to cat-overboard incidents.
For more posts on this topic, visit The Monkey's Fist.