To sail or not to sail, that was the question. Fed up with urban living and its hectic schedules, unimaginable traffic and soaring property taxes, my husband and I were desperate for a change. We had saved enough money to retire early, provided we sold most of what we owned.
Our dream of sailing off into the wild blue began with a cross-country trip in a diminutive pop-up camper, a test of how well we could endure confined spaces and how the dogs would adjust to travel. At the time, we had three rescues: Kismet, an elderly Tibetan Terrier; Roxie, an active middle-aged Border Collie/Corgi/Heeler mix; and Chance, our “foster failure” Bichon Frise. We dubbed ourselves “3 Pups in a Pop-up” and spent months promoting pet rescue while camping our way across the U.S. and Canada.
But still, we lusted for an even more liberated way of life, and after chartering sailboats with friends a couple of times, became hooked on the sea. We signed up for a week of liveaboard sailing lessons; once we passed the written and practical tests, we were certified to skipper our own sailboat with confidence. Perhaps a little overly enthusiastic, we sold our home and most of our furniture and other possessions, moved into our lake cabin, and began our search for the perfect boat.
Cruising full-time (or long-term) with pets is not to be taken lightly. Some dogs never adapt to this lifestyle and have to be rehomed, at least temporarily. We also knew the boat had to be accessible for the dogs, both on deck and below. Luckily, we found one that fit our needs and began taking the dogs for overnights, then progressed to short day sails and anchoring out.
During the initial phase, we assessed practical details, such as getting the dogs on and off the boat, into the dinghy, onto the dock and below deck. We found a key piece of equipment—a transom, which allowed the dogs to step off the back of the boat— and bought a retractable ramp for dock access.
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Once we began taking longer excursions, it became obvious that we (well, the dogs, anyway) needed a place to pee. Which brings us to boat-training. This was a challenge. Our dogs always had access to a yard, and were well-trained not to go in the house. Once on the boat, however, all the rules changed.
After surfing the web for ideas, we bought a Potty Patch, a plastic tray topped by a piece of synthetic turf. No dice. I begged, I pleaded, I tried reasoning with them. But they knew that if they held it long enough, we’d cave and take them ashore. Following a 36-hour offshore crossing, Roxie developed a bladder infection. Now I was desperate.
We purchased a square of live sod and took it to the picnic area at the marina. On a tree above the sod, I posted a note: “Dogs Please Pee Here.” I know. Dogs can’t read. But I figured their owners would take heart and help us out. After several days, we placed that smelly sod on top of the Potty Patch and went for a weekend sail. On the second day, we had a breakthrough when Roxie—such a brilliant girl —peed on it. Chance, who always has to cover her scent, followed closely behind. Pooping took longer (after six years of cruising, Chance is still reluctant, but will go when absolutely necessary).
The following season we took the big plunge and sold our lake house, then spent a few years sailing along the East Coast and around the Bahamas. At this point, we decided we were ready to splurge on a bigger liveaboard boat —a catamaran. (We still tell people we bought it “for the dogs.”) After finding one in California, we drove across the country to seal the deal, then sailed south to Mexico. We named the boat El Gato (The Cat).
It’s been nearly seven years since we untied the dock lines of the landlubber life. Thus far, we have not regretted a minute of it. If our dogs could speak, I think they would agree. As part of the family, they don’t have to be the anchors that keep us from realizing our dreams. Indeed, when properly prepared, they add so much joy to the adventure.
dogs on Board: Tips For Sailing with Your Dog
Here’s a cheat sheet, points to keep in mind when getting ready to hit the high seas with canine sailing buddies.
Prepare your dogs. Take them ashore frequently in the beginning, with plenty of play time and treats. Initially, our dogs were terrified of the dinghy (a big rubber raft) pounding behind the boat. But once they made the connection between dinghy rides and shore excursions, they looked forward to climbing aboard.
Anxiety can be a problem for some dogs. A Thundershirt helped Roxie, who was afraid of loud noises, rough seas and any flying insect. A snug-fitting doggie life vest works well, too. We also created a “safe space” for her, a place to which she could retreat while we were underway. Check out homeopathic remedies and dog-specific CBD-infused products, which can be helpful as well; research and ask other dog owners what works for them.
Safety always comes first. Each dog should have a well-fitting life jacket with handles on the back; they come in handy when you need to pull the dog out of the dinghy (or out of the water, should they fall overboard). Until your dogs are at ease in their new surroundings, make sure they wear them during rough weather, while riding in the dinghy and at night.
Consider dog-proofing your boat with gates and closing off access to steep companionway stairs. Nonskid floor mats or rugs will both save your floors and give dogs better traction.
Food & Water
To keep kibble dry and avoid mold or insect contamination, store it in airtight containers; dividing the supply into multiple containers reduces the risk of losing your dog’s entire food supply if some of it goes bad.
Your dogs should drink the same water you do. Water that will make you sick will affect them the same way.
Preparation is key. Before traveling to a new area, research vets in local Facebook groups or online forums, and identify common health problems. In Mexico, regular worm treatment is essential; tickborne disease is also prevalent and potentially deadly, so preventive measures must be taken.
Fortunately, in Mexico, we have found veterinary care to be both good and inexpensive (many vets also groom dogs). Most medications are available here at a lower cost as well, but if your dog has ongoing medical needs (pain relief, ear/eye rinses, and so forth), bring them with you.
Plan your route. Not all countries (or islands) are pet-friendly. Research thoroughly and well in advance, as customs and quarantine laws vary greatly and can be extremely confusing. On some islands, it is not advisable to take your dog off the boat, especially if you are just passing through.
Be a good steward. Respect the rules and always pick up after your dog!