Your Floating Roach Coach

By Tom Neale, 8/12/2004


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The great thing about my boats is that they’ve always given me that feeling of the great outdoors without having to sleep outside with the bugs. I can sleep inside with the bugs. Some bugs on a boat are virtually useless, like the mosquito, but some are very practical. Your boat's cockroach is the most practical piece of equipment that you have aboard. You can't break it no matter what you do, and there are always plenty of spares.

This is an important boating subject, especially if you like to go where it's warm. Cockroaches do have a tendency to have a tendency: they seem to be very adept at getting aboard, whether it’s a boat sitting in a backyard on a trailer, or a mega-yacht at a resort pier. And once they’re aboard, they find in abundance that proverbially perfect cockroach country oft described as a “warm moist place.” This is such an important subject that I considered interviewing a panel of experts but I couldn't find anybody who would admit to being one. So I thought I'd say a few expert-like things myself.

The first is that WE DO NOT HAVE COCKROACHES ON CHEZ NOUS. At least as far as I know, and we’re fanatical about the subject. But I have had occasion to make observations relative to other people's boats.

One of those others, a scientific type, once told me that there are around 3,500 known species of the cockroach. I’m not sure how he knew, because he didn’t look old enough to have been counting that long, but whatever the true number is, it seems that a lot of them like to cruise.

In southern latitudes, where we like to hang out, these things are much much bigger. They’re so big that some folks call them by special names such as "Palmetto Bugs" or “Cockaroacha,” or “747s.” Whatever the name, it doesn't improve the creature. When you feel something really heavy walking over you at night, and when that something is also pulling the covers along with it, you know it isn't just an ordinary northern cockroach. This is the stuff that dreams are made of.

The Threat

All cockroaches have a few things in common that make them dangerous as well as disgusting on your boat. They eat just about anything, including hoses below the water line and electrical insulation. They can cause short circuits, fires, and even sinkings in the right circumstances. They’ve also been known to bite in the night, and they certainly aren’t sanitary. They multiply in astronomical proportions and they don't die easily (if ever). Compton's Encyclopedia reports that female cockroaches typically lay 16 to 45 eggs at a time which take 4 to 12 weeks to hatch. Their success rate is notable; fossils date as far back as 320 million years. Those of us with old boats will not be comforted by the fact that a 300 million year old 4 inch long fossil was found in the Midwest. A female Palmetto bug will produce about 150 young in its lifetime of about a year. The brownish egg cases are purse shaped, around 3/8 inches long, and are either laid loose or glued walls or bulkheads. After the immature cockroach emerges, it takes several months to mature and begin repeating the process.

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The dreams usually fall into the category of nightmares. But no matter how badly you’re lying there perspiring, you never want to get up. It’s not that you’re afraid of what might be under the bed. These things are too big to get under the bed. It’s because you’re afraid of tripping over them when you’re walking in the dark. True, you can turn on the lights and hope they do what they’re supposed to do and scamper into your boat’s secret places, but there’s never any guarantee about exactly which secret places they may choose. So you lie there dreaming and praying. Usually you’re praying that they don’t all decide to go into a secret place on the same side of the boat at the same time. Cockroach induced capsizes are difficult to explain to your insurance company.

We used to think that we were fairly safe from cockroaches because we’re poor and can’t afford marinas and therefore usually anchor out. But then one day we discovered that cockroaches fly. Yes, they do. On at least two occasions we’ve seen them land on boats, anchored far offshore. But this is the preferred way to get them. When they stealthily creep up a dock line, you don’t know they’re coming. But when these big guys fly aboard you can always tell. You hear the thump when they land and feel the boat suddenly heel with the weight.

A good thing about cockroaches in warmer climes is that there are better methods of pet control. One friend (we’ll call him, “Bill”) solved the problem handily by bringing a few island geckos aboard his fine yacht. These friendly lizards would crawl out from under the cockpit cushions during cocktail hour, particularly when sat upon. They also liked hanging out in the head, and would peep out, usually at guests, at some rather inopportune times. Bill quickly found out who his real friends were. But he also found out that soon after the lizards' arrival, the cockroach population noticeably decreased until it ceased to be a problem--as he defined it. When I visited him in another harbor a year later, the geckos were still there, and had grown rather fat and happy. No, he wasn't sure what they were eating at the time.

Another friend got a cat. He reasoned that the plan would work since many "Palmetto Bugs" are at least as big as mice. The cat died. I am not sure how the cat died, and, come to think of it, I don't recall a funeral. But if your cat eats "Palmetto Bugs" and lives, I am sure a lot of people would like to know about it. You might also consider breeding it.

We’ve read some very impressive cockroach advertisements, and the claims are heartening, with methods and devices even designed specifically for the big southern brand of roach. The only problem is that these are all designed for your typical household scenario. The advertisements speak glowingly of cockroaches carrying the poison back to the nest to share with their friends and thereby laying thousands and thousands of the creatures to rest. I'm not too sure that this would be exactly what I would want in my warm moist places. So I’m hoping that maybe they can come up with some chemical that will give cockroaches an insatiable urge to go swimming.

When I was a small boy we would tie a thread to the leg of a June bug and watch it fly around in circles. I’ve often thought about doing this with large cockroaches. I’m not sure how I’d catch one, since they’re usually the ones doing the chasing, and I'm not exactly sure about tying a string to its leg. But a cockroach hunt would certainly add some excitement to the next foray ashore. If you could do this, you could have a lot of fun and also reap certain practical advantages. A dozen or more cockroaches on long strings circling around my boat would be a pretty good way to discourage those folks who insist on anchoring too close.

Copyright 2004-2005 Tom Neale