We were about three years into cruising, wintering in the Guna Yala in Panama, when my daughter announced: “There’s a little brown dog on that island.”
I was kneading bread at the time. I was sweating. I did a lot of both as a fulltime perimenopausal mother of two and sailor deep in the tropics. I pretended not to hear her, but that never works.
And when I finally got eyes on the little brown dog, I was a goner. Furtive beneath the seagrapes, she had enormous, dingo-like ears, fine white paws, and haunted eyes. Her ribs and hipbones told a story of barely surviving on scraps that drifted downwind off the nearby anchored cruising boats.
When we offered her fresh water and rice, she’d slink from cover, devour everything, then vanish back into the shadows. But when we’d hang out on the island’s windward tip at the end of the day eating popcorn and talking, she’d emerge bit by bit, sometimes resting in the beachwrack yards away, watching and listening.
We’d always been dog people. But adopting a feral, starving puppy from an uninhabited island and asking her to live on a 45-foot sailboat traveling country to country? What could possibly go wrong?
Did she have rabies, heartworm, or some other tropical dog disease? How could we know? At that time, we had to sail half a day just to access a single, solar-powered internet hotspot; you think we could find a veterinarian? How would we feed her? We could barely source chips, let alone kibbles. Given my dubious Spanish, how could I clearly ask the Guna family who owned the island if we could adopt her? How would we still do stuff she couldn’t do, like go diving? How would she manage long passages? What about poop? What about dog fur? How would we clear customs with her? How would we keep her safe?
So many questions. But one evening after we’d returned to the boat, she sat on the point, a tiny form against the vast, indifferent sky. I’d never seen a lonelier soul. And my only question became: How could we not try?
When we finally gained her trust and she came to live and sail with us, and all those questions over time were answered, her presence onboard was the gift I never saw coming. She softens our hearts. She never misses an opportunity to remind us that playing may be more important than almost anything else. She makes us laugh. She’s always up for an adventure. She can spot dolphins better than anyone (it’s those ears, I’m betting, hearing them long before we see them). She’s the best watch mate—comforting, attentive, and always pleased to share a ginger cookie. Now sailing on a 34-footer rather than a 45, she does tend to hog the V-berth, but we all must adapt.
Why do I tell this tale? Because it’s nice to know I’m not alone, and in his wry, sweet story about sailing with his own boat dog, “Old Dog Rules,” in our March 2023 issue, Chris Birch puts it eloquently: “Bill’s good at living in the present. In fact, he never lives any other way. He understands contentment better than we do, and we’re learning from him.”
Not every sailor will agree, of course, and cat sailors have their own stories—who can forget Alvah Simon’s legendary feline crew, Halifax, who helped him winter over in the Arctic, and Kili and Fili, who sailed halfway around the world with Robin Lee Graham?
But for some of us, it’s not a question of whether it’s more complicated to sail with our good dogs (or cats). It’s whether it’s better, and that answer is as easy as a good game of catch with a castaway puppy who’s stolen your heart.
Photos by Wendy Mitman Clarke