Boats, Dogs, Cruising and Training

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Baxter the dog in his lifevest, waiting to go ashore

Baxter in his vest, waiting to go ashore

Dogs are dogs and boats are boats, and somehow the twain must meet

After persistent lobbying from daughter Lucy, who is crazy about animals of all sorts, we recently adopted a dog, and I’ve been confronted with the problem of introducing it to the boats in my life.

Thinking about this, I realized there are long strands of both boats and dogs in my family line but in alternating generations. My great-great grandfather was a crazy boat guy, of whom it was once said he’d buy a boat as thoughtlessly as he would a morning newspaper. His daughter, my great-grandmother, in her prime, kept more than a hundred dogs and today most likely would be branded a criminal animal hoarder. My grandmother always had boats, even lived aboard for a while, but kept no dogs. My mother meanwhile raised me in a menagerie that at its zenith included 10 dogs, a flock of swans and ducks, two otters, a gibbon and a civet cat.

Now it’s up to me and Baxter, a 2-year-old rescue dog from Georgia, to somehow fuse these opposing forces together.

I started with a small boat, Mimi, our 13ft sailing skiff. Holding it firmly against the dock while sitting in its cockpit, I invited Baxter to join me, and he looked at me like a prisoner condemned to the gallows. I tugged on his leash to encourage him, and he firmly resisted with all 40lb of his taut fighting-dog physique.

I didn’t push it that time, but I did the next. I just picked him up and put him in the inflatable, and when we got out to Lunacy, our 39ft cutter, we heaved him onto the transom like a piece of luggage. We took him sailing for a day, and at least he never panicked.

The big test came early this past summer when I took him out alone for a week’s cruise up the Maine coast. I brought along a bag of kibble, some toys and what I hoped might serve for a toilet: a brand-new welcome mat for the foredeck, plus a bottle of special spray to mark it with.

Baxter was nervous at first. Returning from his first walk ashore, he frantically leapt overboard as I landed the dinghy on Lunacy’s transom. Even with his life-vest on, he sank like a stone. The following day he started climbing in and out of the dinghy on his own and soon was more confident. Whenever I picked up his life-vest, he wagged his tail tentatively and waited calmly for me to put it on. When we were sailing he lay quietly on the saloon settee.

He evinced little interest in the welcome mat, however, even though I sprayed it liberally with marking solution every morning and evening. Eventually, he did lick the mat to see what this tasted like but showed no sign of wanting to relieve himself on it. Thus I plotted a strategic, if somewhat tedious, course up the coast, making quick stops each afternoon for toilet runs ashore.

At the end of the cruise, I had an old sailing buddy aboard and told him of this problem. He laughed and told me the tale of a boat dog he had as a young man and of the terrible ordeal it suffered. It never did its business onboard, he said, at least not until it went out on its first ocean passage. Then it was bottled up for days holding everything in and in the end only relieved itself when it was frightened out of its mind on a spray-drenched foredeck in the midst of a roaring gale.

I immediately realized how delusional I’d been. Training the dog to go on the boat during a coastal cruise with land always in sight obviously would require great discipline and also perhaps a sadistic eagerness to watch an animal suffer.

So, for now, I think I must bide my time and resign myself to pit-stop cruising when sailing close to shore. It seems the ultimate reckoning, the final fusion of the diametric energies in my family’s history, will have to wait until that fateful day when I take Baxter sailing offshore.

SAIL’s Cruising Editor, Charles J. Doane, sails his Tanton 39, Lunacy, on the Maine coast and down in the West Indies whenever he gets the chance. He is the author of The Modern Cruising Sailboat, published by International Marine, and is a contributing blogger at

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