Sailing south on the Intracoastal Waterway, I happened to tune in a Carolina swap show on the AM dial. Someone there was looking to trade three steel-belted radial tires for a dog.
An intriguing proposition on so many levels! We didn’t need the tires, but a little part of me did like the idea of trading away our dog, Bill. He’s more of an albatross than a dog, and he makes our liveaboard sailing life complicated.
Bill is an 11-year-old blue standard poodle. His favorite place aboard is under the shade of the dodger on the leeward side of the cockpit, preferably with a pillow to lean on. Everyone knows that’s the best seat in the house, and on our boat Bill commands it with authority. He is the captain of the ship.
In the nine years we’ve owned our 36-foot Morris Justine, Sundance, we have never gone sailing without Bill. In his youth, he handled the sailing motion well and moved around the boat with ease. He even once climbed the companionway ladder out of the cabin like a circus dog to join us for breakfast in the cockpit. (Bacon motivation.) But now in his elder years, his legs don’t work as well, and he struggles to move around the boat when the boat is moving around him.
Fortunately, he’s trained us well, and we stand at the ready to provide for his every want. “Bring me drinking water,” he commands with a paw, and we do. “Move me to the shade,” he insists with a huff and a nod of the snout, and we do. “Put a reef in for God’s sakes, mate!!” he scolds with a cocked head, and we do.
Swapping him for something would be a mutiny of sorts, I suppose, but sometimes it’s tempting.
When underway, we have developed a division of labor: I run the boat, and my wife, Alex, manages the dog. With the call of “hard-a-lee” on Sundance, I attend to the wheel, sheets, and traveler, while Alex hauls Bill from the old leeward corner under the dodger to the new leeward corner under the dodger and gets him set up on his pillow. Gangly dog legs sometimes catch on the flailing lazy sheet, and it’s taken practice to learn how to stay out of each other’s way. Occasionally, when Bill’s in need of some shade, Alex will be tasked with tacking the dog even when we don’t tack the boat.
The Kibble Economy
Keeping Bill fed is a never-ending project that a swap could resolve once and for all. I hike for miles on treacherous routes to find heavy bags of expensive dog food far too often.
Recently, a woman pulled her car over in Chatham, Massachusetts, to tell me that I was a danger to myself walking on a busy road completely unfit for pedestrian travel. She wasn’t wrong. I was about to ask her if she might have some jib sheets she’d be willing to trade for a dog, but she drove off before I could get the words out.
Safely back aboard with dog food and the satisfied feeling of a task completed, I was just getting comfortable with my book when Bill spotted a seal. His bad legs suddenly weren’t all that bad anymore, and he shot from the cockpit to the amidships lifeline gate in an instant. Standing at full attention, tail up, he was locked in a staring contest with his brother from another mother bobbing in the harbor only 10 yards away.
Time stopped for a bit, then a single dog bark, and the seal was gone. I lost interest in my book and found a seat at the rail alongside the dog. Together we surveyed the anchorage and waited for over an hour for his pal to resurface. Alex eventually joined us with a bowl of grapes to snack on. Bill likes grapes. One for me, one for the dog, repeat.
We searched and waited and snacked in near silence in the blissful waning light of day. And then the seal returned to the same spot just as Bill knew he would. This time it was the seal’s turn to bark. In reply, Bill spoke for us all, delivering a full-throated howl of delight—a wailing tune that we had never heard from him before, a sound you would expect more from a cello than a dog. I gave the tired jib sheets we were sitting on a closer inspection and concluded that they had plenty of life left in them.
Family paddle trips are a favorite activity for everyone on Sundance. I row the dinghy and Alex paddles the SUP. Bill will ride with either of us but makes it perfectly clear he prefers the paddleboard. These trips always have a shore component and are a hybrid between voyaging and dog walking.
We never have taught Bill to relieve himself on the foredeck on a piece of fake grass like many dog-owning sailors do. The mere thought of it is just too undignified for our stately beast. As such, regular shore excursions must be a part of our schedule. The combination of a long paddle followed by a walk and a swim is my favorite sort of triathlon, and I’m thankful for every one of these trips.
Then we get back aboard Sundance, and Bill’s brought half the beach back with him in the kinks of his fur. Sand is everywhere, and I’m less thankful. We rinse him as best we can after a visit ashore. Sometimes there’s a helpful hose on a nearby dock. One time in Provincetown, we even found a marina with a dog washing station.
But when none of these modern conveniences are available, I’ve developed a technique of wading out into waist-deep water with the dog cradled against my hip. We stand there and spin and agitate for a bit, thinking positive thoughts about gravity pulling the sand out of his coat. Then I plop him up and over the rail and into the dinghy that Alex has positioned next to us. It’s no good though: No matter what de-sanding approach we implement, the sand clings to him like Velcro, only to release its grip as he dries and shakes back aboard the mothership.
Bill has his own dog bed on the boat, but he’d rather sleep in a human bed. Alex and I sleep amidships in the two narrow settees, and just after we doze off to sleep, a dog nose will inevitably come poke a human shoulder or cheek. One of us eventually caves to the pressure and ends up with a wet, sandy dog dominating the space in our bunk. Bill has poor toileting skills and manages to soak his front legs in urine daily. I’ve spent many a night tossing in bed praying that my legs are wet with just seawater. Either way I know they are wet. And sandy. Not so dignified for this not-so-stately yachtsman.
One foggy row ashore in Maine brought us past a lobster boat that provided some inspiration. Perhaps I could arrange a swap with these lobsterman, one poodle for two lobsters? Then I could stop the endless task of vacuuming sand out of the boat and sleep with dry legs for once. But they were busy with their labors and moved out of range before I could sell them on the plan.
As we roamed ashore, I noticed the telltale squirt of a clam diving deeper into the finely ground shell beach. I dropped to my knees and began to dig. Bill supervised and every now and then gave a digging demo for my edification. Before long, I’d produced dinner from the beach with my bare hands. I love steamed clams and so does Bill. Especially dipped in melted butter.
Later, we burrito-ed him in a towel in the cockpit because he was cold in the foggy Downeast evening air and shivering after a swim. He was good though, as long as we kept close and kept feeding him clams. And so we did. I transferred them from pot to butter to snout with half a clam shell carefully cupped below to catch the drips. One for me, one for the dog, repeat. Shellfishing for ourselves negated the need to barter with the lobsterman, and my mutiny plans were once again cast aside.
Dealing With the ’Do
Like all non-shedding dogs, Bill needs a regular haircut. We keep him cut short partly to keep him cool, but also to limit the amount of sand his coat can carry. After much trial and error, we’ve developed a viable system for onboard grooming: We pick a breezy day and flip the boat around so that she’s hanging from a stern anchor. Then we muster forward of the mast with Bill and all his dog-grooming gear. Why else would you install a 3,000-watt inverter on your boat but to power all your dog-grooming gear?
We settle in on a yoga mat and have at it. Thanks to the stern anchor, all the dog hair blows off the bow and not back into the rest of the boat. Bill nips at the clippers and his groomers as we go. He likes the outcome but hates the process.
It takes hours to get this work done. All the while, Alex is convinced that we are in violation of some law and is mortified by the general spectacle of us hanging backwards with all the hair blowing into the water. So when a passing boat comes by, she insists that we stop cutting and pretend to be a happy family busy varnishing our dorade boxes. (One time a boat stopped to fish right next to us and our varnish charade dragged on unconvincingly in the hot sun for a dog’s age as Bill rolled his eyes with disgust all the while.)
Eventually the haircut is as complete as it’s going to get. The dog is hot and angry, and his groomers are sweaty and plastered in poodle hair trimmings, so we call it done. We spray the remaining hair off the foredeck with the anchor washdown hose, haul the anchor snubber line from stern back to bow, then dive over the side for a family swim. Strapped into his life jacket, the freshly sheared dog gets hauled down and back up the swim ladder like a suitcase.
Bill likes swimming, but we suspect he won’t go to the bathroom while doing the dog paddle. So, for our canine sanitation system to work effectively, we need to regularly find dog-friendly anchorages where we can get him ashore. These anchorages can be hard to find and sometimes we need to lower the qualifying bar. Like the time when a small beach amid the grassy marsh in coastal Georgia known to be popular with alligators, snakes, and wild boar was also determined to be a viable place to walk the dog.
An encounter with a wild boar isn’t what anyone needs after a long afternoon of dog grooming. If I had swapped Bill for a new badger hair varnish brush back at that posh marina in Thunderbolt, I wouldn’t have to cut my poodle’s coat and pretend to varnish things with a dog brush. And I wouldn’t have to fight wild boar! I could settle in for a romantic sunset in the cockpit with my wife instead of clambering into the dinghy for a potential battle on the beach. But I like rowing, and once we’re all in the dinghy and evenly loaded for balance, I find the rowing rhythm to be a tonic for my end-of-day lethargy.
Bill’s schedule has me at the oars around sunset and sunrise daily. These are the best times of day for a row, and I’m thankful for the routine. On the beach that evening in Georgia, we scouted around the marshy periphery brandishing an oar as a weapon. I had hopes of moving our foraged dinner accomplishments up the food pyramid from clams to pork, but no boar, wild or otherwise, was found.
Old Dog Wisdom
The truth is, we’ve swapped a lot for the dog. The boat would be cleaner, our range would be farther, and life would be easier without him aboard. Life without Bill would also be painfully dull. His thought bubble guides our onboard conversation. His face is pepper. His contentment is contagious.
We’re not out here to go faster and win races literally or metaphorically. Just the opposite—we’re out here to enjoy whatever water we happen to be floating in. 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.
We left our land-based life and moved onto the boat for the promise of adventure. We also hoped to establish a new, slower pace of life with a new set of more basic priorities. Bill’s a pro at this pace and these priorities, and he’s leading by example. We’re swapping the old for the new and our dog is central to that. There will be no mutiny.
Bill likes pistachios. One of us has to shell them for him, and we do. After the evening row, we often laze in the cockpit with a sundowner and a bowl of pistachios, watching the remaining color fade from the sky. One for me, one for the dog, repeat.
Christopher Birch and his wife, Alex, are cruising aboard their 36-foot Morris Justine. Follow their voyage at eaglesevensailing.com.