Four years ago, my husband, Paul, and I sold our five-bedroom Victorian home in Baltimore, Maryland, with the intention of buying a sailboat to live aboard in the future. From there we moved into a rental apartment in Washington, D.C., across the street from Paul’s office.
Shortly after we’d unpacked the last box, the hunt began for a sailboat, and after looking at several in the Chesapeake area, we found the perfect one—a 2002 Beneteau Oceanis 473. When she was officially ours we renamed her Bumpy Night, after the famous line by Bette Davis from All About Eve.
Over the next three years, we would spend weekends on Bumpy Night, as we were not quite ready to live aboard and several projects needed to be completed before this was a viable option. The greatest obstacle to living aboard full-time were our two cats, Gypsy and Nomad, who had never been on a boat. I scoured the internet looking for advice, but while there are thousands of blogs and articles on dogs aboard, there are scant resources on cats aboard sailboats.
Then, the pandemic struck. While working from home was not new to me—I’ve been self-employed for almost 20 years—Paul started working from home in our cozy, i.e. small, apartment. With little dining out or entertainment options, we decided to do a test run and bring the cats aboard this past Memorial Day weekend, recognizing that being aboard a sailboat was one of the safest places to be. The view in our downtown Baltimore marina is also pretty nice!
We were definitely nervous. Would they panic and be miserable? Would they meow all night long? Would they try to get out into the cockpit or walk around the deck and fall in the water? Would Nomad, who has a serious heart condition, regress health-wise? We decided that if they hated it after 24 hours, we’d take them home, as it’s only an hour drive to the boat. Carriers in hand, we loaded up the car.
Yes, they meowed for 15 minutes in the car, but they do that when going to the veterinarian. The part that scared them the most seemed to be the ride in our dock cart to the slip. Once aboard, we let them out of their carriers and quickly closed the cabin doors. To our relief, they did not panic. Instead, they did what cats do—the sniffed and explored every inch of their new home. Within an hour, Gypsy had flopped down on the saloon table and Nomad made himself at home in the V-berth. It was clear there would be no problem staying the weekend.
Later that same weekend, after a Memorial Day cookout with some marina neighbors, the thought occurred to me: why subject them to the car ride back to D.C. when I can work just as effectively aboard Bumpy Night and the cats are obviously happy? Paul had to return to D.C. to check on the office, but there was no reason why Gypsy, Nomad and I couldn’t stay. So, the decision was made—for the rest of that summer and early fall, our cats would be liveaboards.
After that, we quickly fell into a routine. Paul would drive to Baltimore on Thursday and then head back to D.C. on Monday (along with a basket full of laundry to wash at home). Over time we also slowly brought down some more cat items to allow Gypsy and Nomad to feel at home without turning our usually tidy saloon into a cat den—a delicate balance to be sure. The cats thrived, and especially loved watching blue herons, gulls, ducks and loons out Bumpy Night’s portholes. The large overhead hatches in the saloon created ample sunbathing spots, and they never ceased to be fascinated by the sound of raindrops pounding on deck during the inevitable summer storms we experience in the Mid-Atlantic. When the tide rolls in, and the boat rocks back and forth, they still became uneasy, but it got easier and easier each passing week.
For my own part, I was able to enjoy the breathtaking sunsets against the Baltimore skyline every night, instead of just Fridays and Saturdays. I was also able to get that much closer with our dock neighbors, who are now good friends. Our “J-Dock Gang,” as we call ourselves, became our pandemic “germ circle,” the friends we feel safe hanging out with, as most of us are liveaboards who rarely leave the marina. When we do travel, we made a pact to get a Covid-19 test upon returning.
We have yet to let Gypsy and Nomad up on deck, but as indoor cats, they don’t seem to mind hanging out below. At some point this spring, we hope to get them better acclimated with the sound of the motor running and the feeling of the boat heeling under sail. The plan is to start out with quick cruises around the inner harbor and Ft. McHenry. Eventually, though, we have every confidence they’ll become true salts. In these challenging times, it’s been gratifying to find a silver lining. When we do decide to take the plunge and live aboard full-time, Gypsy and Nomad will be ready to go.
Tips for Living Aboard with Cats
1. Bring down the litter box a week before so it’s there when they arrive. We found one that fit tightly under our navigation station where it won’t spill when we are sailing
2. Clay cat litter is not your friend. The humidity will cause it to clump and end up getting tracked everywhere. We opted for a walnut-based litter that didn’t stick as much to their paws.
3. Our boat has vinyl settees and benches, so we added some small chair cushions and encouraged them to sleep there to avoid claws accidentally pricking the vinyl.
4. Bring aboard some familiar toys, blankets, etc., ahead of time so there will be something familiar waiting for them.
5. If you are going to let them out on deck, buy a harness with a leash and/or small life jacket.
6. It helps to be aboard the first few days with them to calm their nerves.
7. Be patient. They may have an accident or get seasick. But in the end, it’s worth it!
Photos courtesy of Gregory j. Alexander