August 25, 2005
In our last log entry we described our weekend sail to Put-In-Bay, Ohio, with our friends Paul and Mary on their Beneteau 36 "Winpipe" (August 11th, "Getting Ready To Go"). Paul is looking forward to leaving the salt mine and heading to tropical paradise in around eight years. He plans to take the two females in his life with him -- wife Mary and schnauzer Malibu -- and wants to be certain he's addressed any possible concerns they may have with living aboard full time. We spent most of the weekend answering all the questions he and Mary could think of about the cruising lifestyle. Malibu was content with having her head scratched.
When we left Paul and Mary at the marina in Leamington, Ontario, we thought we had exhausted just about every topic related to cruising. We had underestimated Paul's inquisitiveness. There was a question from him when we checked our e-mail the next day:
"Since you sometimes cruise in remote places, I was wondering if you've ever run into difficulties with wildlife. I've heard that rats and snakes (animals, that is; not the human sort) can board a boat when it's tied up. No doubt you've encountered some 'critter concerns' and I was curious as to what advice you could pass along to those of us who hope to go cruising someday."
We're not sure what prompted the question -- whether it's Paul, Mary or Malibu who is most concerned about intruding fauna -- but we feel it's an issue that may interest other readers so we'll answer it in this space.
We have a "live and let live" attitude towards most animals; they're welcome to thrive wherever they want as long as it isn't in our boat. We haven't had too much trouble with uninvited guests paying us a visit while we're anchored or underway -- the means of ingress are limited. In Guatemala's Rio Dulce we heard stories of water snakes slithering on board anchored boats through the cockpit drains, but never met anyone who had actually had this experience. Anchored off the Trinidad & Tobago Sailing Association, our friend Ed on "Free Radical" had a well-toothed fish leap into his cockpit in a feeding frenzy and attach itself to his ankle. It sounded like just another fish story until he showed us the video he had taken. Despite the documentation, we have to conclude that incidents like these are very rare.
At anchor off the coast of Venezuela we once discovered that the fruit in our string hammocks in the main saloon had been nibbled on during the night. We determined that the culprits were fruit bats. No big deal; we threw out a hand of slightly chewed bananas and made a point of closing the companionway screens at night. Our friend Edwin on the sailboat "Soleil Bleu" didn't get off as easily. He was visited in the same area by bats of another species. He woke up to find his bed sheets bloodied and his exposed toes punctured with tiny holes -- the calling card of vampire bats. He ended up having to endure a painful series of rabies shots. Edwin claims he's now fully recovered and doesn't mind being exposed to bright sunlight.
It's not uncommon for us to play hosts to migrating birds when we're on an offshore passage. Especially in bad weather, our feathered visitors will hitch a ride for an hour or two until they've rested up enough to be on their way. Small birds typically aren't a problem; they're usually quite content to hang around in the relative shelter of the cockpit for a while. Bigger birds such as boobies, however, can be troublesome if they decide to perch on relatively delicate items like the masthead wind vane. This usually causes David to storm up on deck, wave his arms about wildly, bang the bottom of the mast, shout colourful epithets, and generally make a fool of himself -- all of which is totally ineffectual except, perhaps, to stimulate a splattering of guano.
This past spring on our way from Isla Mujeres, Mexico, to the Florida Keys we were joined by a particularly persistent little bird in the middle of the Yucatan Channel. It was near dusk, blowing like stink, bouncy, and no one was having much fun. Our avian passenger wasn't content with sitting under the companionway dodger; he wanted to retire down below. We couldn't really blame him because that was where we wanted to be as well. After we had chased him back out for the fourth or fifth time, it was clear he wasn't getting it; sterner measures were called for. We directed him to a corner under the dodger, placed a small bowl of water next to him, and carefully covered him and the bowl with a broad-brimmed canvas hat. There were no more fugitive forays that night and after we uncovered him in the morning light, he seemed happy to be winging on his way.
We figure we're most at risk of animal invasions when the boat is at the dock or on the hard. Ports the world over are notorious for harbouring rodents and our biggest concern whenever we come in contact with land is that we'll be boarded by rats. The most gruesome story we've heard came from a couple we met at the municipal marina in Vero Beach, Florida. They had taken their boat to the dock in order to go land travelling for a month. Concerned about the high humidity and not having enough ventilation down below, they left their fore hatch propped open a couple of inches and, to keep the rain out, sheltered the hatch with their upside-down dinghy. Rats entered the boat in their absence and, since it was locked up tight except for the overhead hatch, had no way of leaving. Ravenous, they gnawed away at virtually everything they could sink their teeth into: cushions, plastic containers, electrical wires, water hoses, even the knobs on the radio. Upon returning, the unfortunate couple trapped no fewer than 27 of the stowaways. It cost them thousands of dollars to reupholster, rewire and replumb their boat.
Another couple we know thought their boat was safe from intruders when they left it propped up on the hard in Grenada. Unfortunately, it was parked under a palm tree and coconut rats entered from above after dropping down from the overhanging fronds.
With these horror stories in mind, we thought our worst fears had been realized when, in a boatyard in Venezuela, we discovered our galley trash receptacle had been overturned during the night. There was a rat-sized hole in the screened portlight above the galley sink. More troubling than the garbage strewn all over the saloon sole was the fact that the intruder had taken a four foot drop coming through the port, which suggested it had been a one-way trip. "The varmint is still on board," David said and hurried off to the nearest hardware store to buy some heavy duty spring traps.
David returned with a large bag full of the store's entire stock of traps. He stopped dead when he spotted a contented looking cat licking itself at the bottom of our ladder. It gave David a guilty glance and slunk off towards a nearby storage shed. We reinforced our screens and gave the traps away at the next cruisers' flea market.
Our advice to Paul, Mary, Malibu, and anyone else with critter concerns, is to avoid going to the dock; if you must make contact with land, keep everything closed up.
In eleven years of full time cruising we've had only one alarming incident of an attempted boarding by an unwanted animal. It occurred at the visitors center in the middle of the Great Dismal Swamp in North Carolina. We had stopped there for the night on our way north on the Intracoastal Waterway because the lock near Great Bridge was undergoing repairs. Several other boats were caught by the same delay and we were rafted three deep against the center's courtesy dock, "Little Gidding" on the inside. Just as we were enjoying sundowners in the cockpit, Eileen cocked her head. "I hear an odd rattling sound," she said.
David looked over his shoulder. "I guess that's because there's a rattlesnake on the dock," he said.
"A RATTLESNAKE! What do you mean a rattlesnake?" Eileen yelled. Eileen does not care for snakes of any variety and rattlesnakes in particular are near the top of her personal serpents-to-be-avoided-at-all-costs list.
Sure enough, there was a five-foot long snake equipped with a rattle about ten feet away from the boat. It was vigourously shaking the rattle.
"I think they rattle when they're upset," David offered helpfully.
"Omigawd! What are you going to do about it?" Eileen demanded.
"I suppose I'd better take its picture," David suggested.
"Are you nuts? It's about to kill us and you're going to take its picture?"
"Don't worry," David said. "I don't think they like water so I'm sure it'll keep its distance from the edge of the dock."
By the time David got his camera out, a crowd had formed on the dock. The snake didn't seem to like all the attention and began moving towards our boat. David followed close behind it, looking through the camera lens. "I wish it would stay still so I could get a good shot," he said.
The snake slithered faster, straight towards Eileen in the cockpit. "Stop chasing it this way!" Eileen cried.
"I'm not chasing it," David protested, "It just seems to prefer going in that direction."
In a second the snake was at the edge of the dock adjacent to our cockpit. It kept right on going, dropping into the water between the boat and the dock, and swimming off into the swamp.
"I thought you said they didn't like water," Eileen gasped.
"Well, I guess you learn something new everyday," David said.
About a year later we met a guy at a beach potluck in the Bahamas. He thought we looked familiar so we started recounting where we had been to determine if our paths had crossed before. "That's it," he said suddenly. "We were both in the Dismal Swamp last spring. Remember that rattlesnake and the idiot with the camera?"
He took a second look at David and blushed. There was an awkward silence.
"Don't worry," Eileen said. "You described the occasion perfectly."
David & Eileen