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What We Learned While Sailing with a Spaniel

He was more tentative going forward on deck and his sore shoulder made getting out of the dinghy awkward. Would this be his last summer on the boat, especially now that he’s 15?
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He was more tentative going forward on deck and his sore shoulder made getting out of the dinghy awkward. Would this be his last summer on the boat, especially now that he’s 15?

Yes, this is a dog story, but only in the sense that Winnie the Pooh is a bear story. Max, our Brittany spaniel, has sailed with us on Catamount, our Caliber 38, for each of his 15 summers. Much of what we have learned about cruising we have learned from him.

Remember the old chestnut, “Live each day like it’s your last”? Not Max. He wakes up every day like it’s the best day of his life. Hopping up on our bunk in the morning, he looks at us with a goofy grin, wondering when the fun will start. His morning trip to shore is never solely about peeing. Since last night there are new smells to investigate, new hidden paths yet to explore. What joy! His glass is never half empty. How could we not catch some of his infectious enthusiasm?

We don’t fear bad weather, but we have learned to apply the Max Factor when cruising. Very early on, Max became adept at moving to leeward (“Hard a lee” was one of his first commands), but when he can’t get comfortable, when he moves to the cockpit floor and gives us the “What’s this all about?” look, then it’s time to rethink our strategy. Tuck in another reef, find a more comfortable point of sail, maybe even bag it for the day. When Max is miserable, we have to admit we’re miserable, too. It’s amazing that it takes a dog to knock some sense into you.

Little things never bother Max. Jib sheets flung on top of him, a chart landing on his nose, even the time we almost decapitated him with the furling line. While we’re apologizing, Max barely raises an eyebrow. He just sniffs the breeze, looks at the sparkling wavelets, eyes some ducks across the way. No recriminations. It makes us realize that we often fuss about little things. Who left that brush stroke in the varnish? Can’t you point any higher? We’re out of beer? How many times have we exchanged glares at each other when we goof an anchor set or botch a docking? From Max, we have learned instead to just pause, force a grin, and move on.

Max may be laid back, but he can also be decisive. Vacate the padded helm seat, he’s there. Drop a steak, it’s gone. Wishy-washy he is not. We, on the other hand, can dither forever. Shall we tack on this puff, the next puff, or wait until we’re pushed down 10 more degrees? Is the anchor dragging a bit? Do you think we should put in a second reef? Max’s advice would be: if you wonder if something should be done, just do it.

We can tell when it’s 0800 and 1700 because he points to his food dish. He never misses a meal. We, on the other hand, rationalize delaying lunch because the wind is up a bit or settle for canned stew for dinner if it’s a tad rainy or late. Max reminds us twice a day that we are what we eat. Eat well, function better.

He never misses a chance to investigate something, whether it’s sniffing driftwood or poking under a pine tree. His love of exploring reminds us to look more closely at that tiny blue harebell growing in the crack in the rock, or to admire a cedar tree flourishing inches from crashing surf, to follow the mating dance of damselflies or the grace of a tern looking for dinner. The value of such moments is timeless.

We have several sailing friends with dogs who didn’t make it to this summer’s cruise and know one couple who had to put their dog down while cruising. Their heartache was palpable. When we shared anchorages, they came over to our boat and hugged Max a little longer. 

Max is old for a Brittany spaniel. One of these summers he won’t make the cruise with us. When that summer comes we will remember the greatest lesson he has taught us: you can’t sail forever. Until then we will remember when we wake up each morning that this will be the best day of our lives. Thank you, Max.

Photos by Fred Bagley

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