Man’s Best First Mate

After putting 10 years, eight countries and over 30,000 miles under my keel, I was certain I’d learned most of what there was to know about the cruising lifestyle. I could sail into any marina and feel at home. I couldn’t imagine life getting much better, until I met Aduana. In that moment, and with no idea of what I was getting myself into, I became a Boat Dog Person.

I didn’t mean for it to happen. In fact, I used to think Boat Dog People were masochists. I’d sit in my cockpit, coffee in hand, and watch the rain pour down on some poor soul rowing to shore to allow Fido to perform his morning ablutions. Later that night, cold drink now in hand, I’d wince as I saw that same poor soul rowing back again, still in the pouring rain.

I’d seen megayachts with a two-pound teacup poodle allotted a 10 square-foot grass plot in which to do their business; my cockpit is barely 10 square feet. And I’d seen a 21-footer cruising the ICW with two black labs, three pre-teens, two parents and a cat on board. Transferring this crew from the dinghy to the mother ship was so cumbersome I couldn’t bring myself to imagine who slept where.

When it came to Boat Dogs, my instincts said “no”, “ill-advised” or “what on Earth are you thinking?” But what do you do when an 8-pound, two-month-old ball of adorable fluff throws itself at your feet on the dock and won’t go away? This happened to me in Cuba just over two years ago. Though the details of how I got my new crewmember out of Cuba and into the United States will have to wait until the statute of limitations has passed, one thing’s certain—cruising for me will never be the same.

When I First Started Sailing, I Looked forward to getting more exercise in the great outdoors, but I soon found the only exercise I got involved climbing in and out of the dinghy to enjoy socializing on someone else’s boat. Once Aduana (Spanish for “customs”) came on board, I became a rower. Though I carry two outboards on Gypsy Wind, I prefer to row the dog ashore. Twice a day, rain or shine, we row to our Business Trips, and my abs haven’t been this good since I was in my 20s.

I’ve also found that Boat Dogs make for instant introductions. Sailors are a social lot by nature, but get a dog on your boat and everyone is your friend. Even powerboaters will take the time to gam with you on the dock if it means getting some playtime with Fido. In resort anchorages where guests have had to leave their own dogs at home, there’s never a shortage of volunteers willing to walk your dog along the beach, just to get in their canine fix.

Got a boat problem? Bring the pup with you when you talk to the mechanic. I promise you’ll get better service, though they’ll never admit to it. The same goes for marinas and chandleries. I have yet to walk into a boat-oriented business that didn’t have cookies for Aduana. Just wait—when you walk out the door, the last words won’t be, “Thank you for your business.” No, it will be more like, “See ya, puppy!”

You get used to being greeted for your dog. After 15 trips on the ICW—only three with the puppy—there are now people who remember the dog’s name, yet still haven’t asked after mine. I’ve become “the guy with the cute Cuban puppy.” I suppose that’s a step above being “the guy with the red boat,” so I don’t complain.

Still, In The Midst Of All This Tail Wagging, having a dog on board can complicate things, especially if, like me, you sail to several different countries during a single cruise. Ultimately, it’s a matter of having the right paperwork—typically the dog’s immunization records—but regulations vary from country to country.

Some countries, including the Bahamas, Cuba and the Dominican Republic, require a recent health certificate from a vet, dated within so many days or weeks of your arrival. For multi-country trips or passages dependent on weather windows, this can pose a challenge. For instance, the Bahamas requires a certificate dated within 48 hours of leaving the United States. But what if your weather window closes? Given the contingencies of passagemaking, you may want to speak with your vet about leaving the certificate undated.

The Bahamas also requires that you apply for—and have in hand on arrival—an import permit for your pet. Word on the docks is that these don’t always get sent out in a timely manner and you may be forced to arrive without one. In one story I heard, a cruiser paid the first local he met ashore $20 to sign a receipt for his dog, therefore making the dog a local and freeing her of any entry requirements. In many cases, cruisers rely on the nonchalance of Bahamian customs officials, and hope they just won’t ask. It’s not foolproof, but it tends to work.

Other countries have vastly different requirements and some even insist on a quarantine period. I’ve heard horror stories about bringing pets into South Pacific islands, Australia and New Zealand.

No matter where you go, research your intended destinations before leaving. Spend some time at, which lists the requirements for bringing pets (and yourself) into various countries. Consider calling the embassies of the countries you plan to visit. Look around on Caribbean Property Magazine (, which publishes pet policies for 21 Caribbean nations. Of course, if the only border you cross is between the United States and Canada, and your best friend is in apparent good health, you should have no problems.

Remember that most countries do not cater to pets like we do, so you need to be self-sufficient in certain respects. Pack adequate food, treats and medications, including tick and flea treatments, de-worming pills and heartworm pills. Keep the prescriptions in a safe place in case you are questioned about them. Veterinary care is usually available, even on the islands, but it won’t necessarily be close at hand.

Think About Sleeping Arrangements early on, and train your dog to follow a pattern that works for everyone on board. I know of one couple whose very large German shepherd insisted on sleeping with them in the V-berth. Aduana likes to climb into the V-berth with me after I’ve fallen asleep, but at just 33 pounds, she fits nicely. As for the aforementioned three-kid-two-dog family on the small boat, I think the cat must sleep in the cockpit. Smart cat.

Then there’s the unavoidable question: how do you conduct puppy kindergarten on a 13-foot-wide sailboat? How do you train the pup to come running from across an island when her training space is the other side of the cabin, just five feet away? It’s an arduous task, but it’s doable. At least when you’re on board, you can be sure that when she ignores your call—and she will—you won’t have far to go to chase her.

Potty training itself varies from pooch to pooch. I once sailed with a friend’s full-size poodle on board. This dog had powers of retention that are the stuff of legend, not to mention the envy of most octogenarians of my acquaintance. We’d been out for two days without any—ahem—movement of any sort, and were sipping coffee in the cockpit when I suddenly found I was sitting in a puddle. Pitou had chosen that moment to do his thing on the sidedeck right above us and down it flowed.

“Good Pitou,” we praised, just like the book says. There is a certain irony to training a dog.

With Aduana, I was incredibly lucky, as she somehow trained herself. She’s only once made a mistake, and that was at two months old in 8-foot seas during her first trip across the Gulf Stream. Even that was forgivable, as I was about ready to join her, figuratively, at the rail. My Florida Straits chart now gives a new meaning to the term “paper trained.”

Training your dog is largely a matter of patience and practice. There are some tricks to learn (see “Train Your Dog to be a Boat Dog”) and there are some universal truths: dogs don’t like doing their stuff in the rain, nor are they inclined to go on those squares of fake grass. However, take them to shore on a sunny day, let them run free, and they’ll finish their business in minutes. It doesn’t seem worth the effort to force it to happen any other way.

Sure, There Are Challenges To Having a dog on board—lots of challenges. But take another look at that poor soul rowing his dog to shore in the rain and you might be surprised. Look closer, and listen as he rows past. You’ll hear him talking to the pup, sometimes just silly stuff, nonsensical banter. He doesn’t care what it sounds like, and neither does the pup. They’re both happy just hanging out together. Once they reach shore, you’ll notice the pup’s owner is smiling, throwing sticks for the pup to fetch in the pouring rain. He’s in no hurry to get back and stay dry. While the pup, tail wagging, explores the dunes for that perfect spot, his owner looks for shells, or just gazes over the anchorage, completely at peace with their world.

There’s no hurry for either of them—they’re each spending quality time with their best friend. What’s a little rain and a long row back against wind and wave, compared to that?

I’ve got to run now. My coffee is only half-finished, but it’s time to row ashore and walk the pup. And yes, it’s raining.

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