Sunday, December 14, 2008

Sailing With Dogs

East Hollandes Cays. San Blas, Panama, Thanksgiving 1999.

We got a dog shortly after we got married. My wife started to get faxes at work (we didn't use the Internet in those days if you can imagine) and pictures of dogs started to appear. We went to the pound and I found Emma, scheduled to be executed Sunday because her three weeks in isolation were up and her kennel cough wouldn't go away. It was Friday evening and I left her in jail to return Saturday to save her. We lived together for almost 14 years. we sailed together too:
On passage Mexico to El Salvador. 1999

After we'd had Emma Goldman for a while, a neighbor's dog came visiting while we were gardening at our Santa Cruz, California home one summer afternoon and he flopped in my wife's lap. Eugene Debs belonged to a neighborhood teenager (he called him "Bullet") whose single mother was exhausted and hated us for loving her dog more than she did. Eventually they agreed he was better off with us than with them and Emma Goldman got her soul mate Eugene Debs. They were inseparable till he died five years later of liver cancer. Sea of Cortez, Baja California, Mexico November 1998.
We decided to take off sailing in our Gemini catamaran and clearly we weren't going to be crossing the South Pacific not least because the distances are vast, requiring weeks at sea. Then when one arrives on some micro-speck in the middle of nowhere... every single country except the French Islands (and Palau, oddly) enforce an animal quarantine prior to entry...besides we speak Spanish so Central America was our goal, by default. The dogs? They had to come too of course. So off we went, leaving Santa Cruz, California in August 1998, bound for Key West.
Cuba's North Coast Inside The Reef. February 2000
It was tough sailing with two large dogs for a number of reasons. The Pacific Ocean is enormous, stretching ten thousand miles at it's widest and this distance, even when one isn't crossing it, produces a monstrous swell that crashes on American beaches in huge curling waves. Landing the dogs was an operation constantly fraught with peril. We tried to seek out coves and bays where we could find a quiet spot to rush the dinghy ashore with a chance of landing safely. Our arrival in the Caribbean after transiting the Canal was a relief as even though sailing weather got tougher there was the prospect of much easier beach landings.
Approaching Miraflores Locks, Panama, Summer 1999
The other thing about sailing with dogs is that they hate peeing on the boat and we tried to re-train them to go in the cockpit or on the deck- anywhere! They resolutely refused. Thus we tried to keep our hops as short as possible making it tough to drift under light winds and take our time. each passage was carefully timed requiring the use of the engine every time our speed dropped. Landings in new countries required we find a quiet spot to anchor first so the dogs could get ashore and relieve themselves so that later when we waited for customs they could snooze, relaxed and relieved on the boat. Frequently in anchorages we found ourselves going ashore no matter what the weather to walk the dogs while our neighbors snugged down below decks and watched in wonder as we tramped around amusing our animals.
Rinsing Debs Off. Cuba February 2000
The other thing was we had to sail with a watermaker. We had a six gallon per hour (24 liter) machine that made fresh water from salt consuming a fair bit of our meager electric supply. We used the water to rinse the dogs every time they came back on board from any trip ashore. We also cooled them off with fresh water sprays on hot days. Once a week they got proper baths with Head and Shoulders shampoo which kept them smelling fresh. People will tell you wondrous things about pet husbandry, like showers and chocolate are bad for dogs but ours thrived on both. Then again they thrived on sailing.
On The Beach For Maintenance. Costa Rica Spring 1999
The truth is Debs hated sailing and Emma wasn't too keen either. Debs slept during passages curled up under the table in the main cabin or in my wife's arms in bed. Emma slept in the cockpit where the motion was less. But they both adored arriving and they had the time of their lives. I met another couple with a German Shepherd and they were extremely fussy about letting their dog off leash. I gave up early on with the leash fetish. Mexicans think leashed dogs are fierce ("Bravo?" They'd asked fearfully) and if i walked these two monsters on leash they'd empty sidewalks for blocks. So we let them ramble at our heels and what they found and ate they ate. We tried to be philosophical about it. Someone remonstrated with us once as Emma snacked on gutter food and I said: "Do you want to put your hand in there and get it out?" They thrived as did we on street food, though ours was paid for...We never got a stomach ailment nor did our dogs.
Emma Was Always Hungry. Miki G's cabin. Somewhere.
We carried four twenty-pound bags of dry dog food and discovered Pedigree was available everywhere in Central America. It wasn't the organic frou frou food found in the US but it did fine for them. We had tremendous adventures in thirteen different countries, riding buses, renting cars, visiting cities and sites all over the place. The dogs swan in Lake Aititlan, Guatemala, in Lake Nicaragua and Lake Miraflores, Panama. Debs loves to chase monkeys in their trees and crabs on the beaches. Emma sat in the surf cooling off while he ran himself ragged in the tropical heat. Every landing was an exhausting marathon of dog walking.
I don't write much about our dogs. Debs has been dead about seven years and Emma three but I find thinking about them still painful. We kept on keeping on after Debs came down suddenly with cancer, and I saw with my own eyes how Emma mourned him for a year, sad and lonely and nothing I could do would cheer her up.
Emma And Our Solar Panel. Gun Cay, Bahamas. Spring 2003
Emma got old, happily for me, but our last trip to the Bahamas was too much and she suffered frightening heat stroke seizures. We sold the boat and installed our love in a house where she tottered gamely through her final years to the inevitable appointment with the vet's needle. I'm starting to miss cruising again after several years away from sailing, but not a day goes by I don't think of Emma and Debs and our crazy adventures in Central America. One day perhaps I will be able to write about them without feeling them so much. For now I keep them stored in my head where they float around threatening still to cause me pain when I think about how much I miss Emma and Debs.
Miki G, Gemini 105, Hull Number 529, Warderick Wells, Bahamas.
My current fantasy is to get a small cheap boat and take off some February for six months drifting through the Bahamas. I want a relaxed cruise next time, not a marathon, and if I can't have Emma and Debs along for crew I don't want to go with a dog. Not next time, not until I can get over how glorious was the time we four spent together, and how unrepeatable.