Cruising with a Dog Pets Aboard

Advice for Freshman Cruisers . . . With Dogs

Friday, October 18, 2013S.V. CAMBRIA

Sally enjoying the beaches of Calvert Island along the Central Coast of British Columbia.


The Monkey's Fist, a website that collects blogs from cruisers on a series of topics, recently posted a request for blogs about the most important things you learned in your first year cruising to share with other newbies.  I’ve been wanting to write about Sally, our dog, for a while now and decided to add my own personal twist to the subject.  And I think that if you change a few words here and there, you’ll find the information translates into cruising in general.  So, without further ado, here are some things we've learned along the way about cruising with a dog: 

Quarantine days in Auckland, New Zealand, 2001.  Ahhh!  The shame!

  • Information is key.  If you’re sailing to another country, make sure you know what the regulations regarding the importation of domestic animals are and follow them to a ‘T’ – your pet’s life depends on it.  When we brought Sally to New Zealand over twelve years ago, we had to prepare six months in advance, microchip her and put her through rigorous testing for rabies.  And she still had to spend 30 days in quarantine (which has now been reduced to 10).  The sad thing is that, even after all of our hard work preparing Sally to move south, FDA sent her to New Zealand with the wrong paperwork (she clearly wasn’t a cat, let alone two of them) and if it wasn’t for the good working relationship between the kennel owner who was charged with receiving her and MAF (Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry), she would have been “destroyed”. 

Sally pounting as we sail along the coast of New Zealand because she has to stay in the cockpit.

  • It’s all a compromise.  It’s not always possible to follow the wind when you have a dog aboard.  When we first embarked on this lifestyle twelve years ago, we had dreams of sailing the world . . . not necessarily a circumnavigation, but close.  Sally changed that.  She was fine cruising around Lake Mead (where we had our first boat) for days on end, but the open ocean turned out to be an entirely different story.  While she could handle short passages, sailing for several days would be too stressful for her (after all of these years she still won’t go to the bathroom on deck – not that it’s possible in 4 metre seas).  We talked about flying her to different destinations but, at the end of the day, importation regulations got in the way.  We tried leaving her behind in a friend’s care while we sailed up to the islands, but that didn’t work for me – I missed her too much.  So we changed the way we do things.  We eventually left New Zealand for “dog-friendlier” waters and, as along as we have Sally in our lives, are happy to post-pone offshore passages.  For us, the important thing is that we’re all together.  The ‘where’ is secondary.   

  • Be flexible (you won’t be sorry).  Carrying on with the previous point, Sally needs have to be taken into consideration when planning a passage, choosing an anchorage or a marina:  When we came up the West Coast of the US in 2008, we had to harbour-hop to accommodate her, which turned out to be a really special way to see part of the country (thanks, Sally!).  When we plan our routes for the season, I choose state or provincial parks as our anchorages as often as I can, so that I don’t have to worry about trespassing when taking Sally to shore.  As it turns out, they’re our favourite spots (thanks again, pup).  And the absolute best marina we ever wintered in was in San Diego and all because the other marinas didn’t allow pets (you’re the best, Sal!).  We may not have always ended up where we intended, but it’s been one hell of a ride thanks, in part, to Sally.   

Taking Sally to shore on a nice day.

  • Having a dog aboard is a lot of work.  Shore trips, brushing, feeding, cleaning, walking . . . it all adds up.  And it’s not always fun.  Ask me after going to shore in the pouring rain if I enjoy cruising with a dog and my answer will be a resounding ‘no’.  But you’ll get the same response out of David after he’s just finished fixing the head for the third time in as many days.   

  • Share the responsibilities.  Sally and I were together before David entered our lives and because of that, I ended up being her primary caretaker.  Not only has David missed out on seeing some amazing things on our walks and trips to shore, but he also missed out on a part of Sally’s life that he can never get back and, now that she’s 17, I'm a little disappointed for him.  But frankly, when it’s pouring down rain and cold outside, I can’t help but wonder why I’m the only one who has to don their foul-weather gear and head outside.  To do it all over again, we’d share the responsibilities . . . just like we do with everything else. 

At it again . . . Sally finds something nice and smelly to roll around in.

  • Be realistic.  Cruising with a dog is no different than cruising in general – it’s not all romantic walks on exotic beaches while watching the sunset (although there are plenty of those):  It’s dealing with the endless bureaucracy associated with government officials.  It’s sprained paws from jumping off rocks.  It’s impromptu baths after your dog rolls around in whatever smelly thing they can find on the beach.  It’s being woken up at 3 in the morning to make an emergency run to shore because your dog has diarrhoea.  It’s having your dog throw up on your head (through an open hatch) after swallowing too much salt water.  It’s the good, the bad and the ugly all rolled up into one.   

  • Pets can be a liability.  They’re lovely.  They’re great friends.  They help enrich our lives.  But don’t kid yourself; having a pet aboard a boat (at one time or another) is a liability.  When you’re out at sea and things turn ugly, the last thing you want is a nervous dog underfoot.  But it happens.  When Sally was younger, we carried a collapsible kennel aboard that we’d set up in the aft head for times just like that.  She hated it and used to howl like a banshee; but she was safe and we could take care of the boat without worrying about her.  Now that she’s a ‘mature’ dog, she’s much more relaxed and only looks up at us with her big brown eyes to ask, “what’s going on?” before tucking herself in behind the salon table.   

  • Be prepared.  Like with anything else associated with cruising, it’s important to be prepared.  Before we leave port, Sally has a long list of provisions to buy which, now that she’s older, includes prescription medicines.  We may go several weeks without access to a veterinarian, so a medical kit aboard for Sally is a must.  And our ditch bag wouldn’t be complete without dog food, her PFD and a spare leash.   

  • We all need our space . . . even the dog.  Over the years, David and I have found ways to be alone, even if we’re in the same room.  But Sally prefers walls between us and has taken over certain areas of the boat – both heads, complete with comfy dog beds.  If your dog isn’t pushy like our Sally, take a look around for a small, den-like space aboard.  It’ll help bring them comfort when they’re nervous, sick or just ready for a nap. 

  • It’s all about the quality time.  We don’t have much time on earth with our furry friends and cruising is one lifestyle that allows us to make the most of it.  Not only do we get to spend 24/7 with Sally, which is exactly what pack animals live for, but our lives have been enriched by the company of this ridiculous little creature who, even at the age of 17, continues to amuse and amaze us every day.

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