The Reluctant First Mate

Woman and dog sail the Atlantic Ocean.
By Melody Coulter, January 2014

Zach didn’t want to go. I was about to embark on the sailing adventure I’d dreamed of for 20 years when the first mate jumped ship.

It was 1991 and we were going from Key West to the Mediterranean by way of Bermuda and the Azores. Departure day was the culmination of weeks of preparation. I had made lists of the lists that had to be finished and things that had to be crossed off. Supplies, new equipment, bottom painted, sails double-stitched, on and on. Finally, it was all done. Friends were on the dock wishing fair winds and bon voyage, but we couldn’t sail because the ship’s dog was on the other side of the marina, dodging the captain’s every effort at capture.

There have been few times in my life that I have been madder at another creature than I was that day at him. This was so unlike Zach—he loved to go sailing, would go into a barking, wiggling, tail-wagging frenzy when the lines were being untied and we were pulling out of the slip. Throughout his whole seven years with me, I had run a charter boat business; he’d been going sailing many times a week since he was a pup.

Finally, he surrendered. I think he finally realized how much trouble he was in. I carried him back to the boat, put him below (not in irons) and closed the hatch. Saying my good-byes, we got underway. It wasn’t until later, when the sails were up, course was set and I had calmed down, that it dawned on me that my crew was saying in the only way he could, “I don’t want to go.”

I’m sure he wasn’t objecting to sailing the Atlantic Ocean. After all, he didn’t know exactly where we were going; he sat on charts, he didn’t read them. It was going offshore—which always happened after this kind of preparation—that he didn’t like. Offshore meant leaving trees, dock pilings and a host of vertical things he could heist his leg on. Zachary did not believe in peeing where he lived. It was, I think, a moral issue with him: You don’t soil your nest. He would hold it into the next day and finally, when he couldn’t stand it any longer, would go stiff and let urine run down his leg. After that, it wasn’t okay, but he was resigned.

This would, of course, make me frantic, since I worried about bladder infections. There are no vets offshore. I would offer an example, squatting myself and peeing all over the deck. “Look, honey,Mommy does it.”He would cut me a look and go below. It was truly no big deal. A bucket of saltwater—god knows we had plenty —one whoosh, and it was out the scuppers. Tell him that.

We also went round and round about his pooping. All sailboats have extra sails tied down at the bow, ready to go up if a change is needed. And this is where he’d choose to poop. To raise one of these sails, you turn into the wind, and the sail flaps wildly going up. Which also sent the poop flying and caused me to swear like a sailor at top volume. I learned to keep my potty mouth shut when, one day, some of Zach’s “offerings” flew into it!

A Close Call
We weren’t always at odds; actually, it was rare. I loved that dog beyond reason. I could look at him and know how I was feeling.We both loved to sail, and he was a wise and wonderful companion. Though people were fascinated by the idea of me single-handing the Atlantic, I never felt that was the case. First of all, I didn’t get to singlehand the whole trip. I took a charter (a father and son who had tried to sail to Bermuda before and hadn’t made it). They went a quarter of the way, to Bermuda, and that helped pay for the trip. I always tell people that I wasn’t alone for the other 3,000 or so miles; I had Zach. They usually brush that off as though he didn’t count, but I couldn’t have made the trip without him, and wouldn’t have wanted to— it wouldn’t have been any fun. And truthfully, I wouldn’t have survived it; he saved my life.

One beautiful afternoon, about 400 miles out from the Azores, things were perfect—the wind was just right and the skies were blue, with puffy tradewind clouds.We were rocking along making good time, right on course. I decided this called for fixing my favorite lunch—yellow food. Eating out of cans is monotonous even when, like me, you can’t cook, but I never got tired of macaroni, tuna and peas.

As I was fooling around down below, waiting for the water to boil, Zachary, who was in the cockpit, started a low, mean-sounding growl. I glanced up at him and saw the hair raised along his spine. He was always on watch for dolphins, gulls and great big imaginations. I said, “Take it easy, big guy, there’s nothing around here for hundreds of miles.” But he kept it up, so, to please him, I popped my head up to see what he was looking at. There was a gigantic sea monster! It was headed right for us.

There are sea monsters in the world, and for small sailboats, they’re called freighters. I dived for the engine switch, pushed the throttle down hard, threw the tiller over and got the hell out of there at a 90 degree angle. I watched the freighter’s wake and saw that it never changed course or speed. The big ships are run by computers, and the lookout, if there is one, is watching for something big enough to hurt the ship. This one wouldn’t even have noticed running us down. The thing was huge; it was like a city going by. The flag of registry—red with a hammer and sickle—flying off the back was as big as a house. She was a Russian ship bound for the Americas. I could’ve used a jolt of vodka myself about then.

When my heart rate returned to something compatible with life, I was able to fix and eat my yellow food, but the crew dined on a large can of chicken breast, a meal befitting the best lookout and first mate in the whole Atlantic Ocean.

Dog Star
When we made landfall in the Azores, we were treated like royalty.While I was completely surprised by this, Zach took it as our due. There were invitations to a different boat every night for drinks and dinner, and to swap sea stories. A local family had us to their home in the hills for a magical mid- summer’s eve party and bonfire.We had so many offers that if Zach wasn’t invited too, we could always hold out for one where he was welcome. For 11 days, we played, explored the island, met lots of interesting people and dogs, and just had fun. Then we were rested, the galley was restocked and it was time to push on. Europe waited.

Zach wore a bandanna (regular collars stayed wet too long) and it was a measure of his charm that someone was always adding to his collection. He had all colors and designs. As we started to motor out of the Horta, Azores, marina, someone I didn’t know came running down the dock behind us, yelling in a heavy accent, “Come back, come back!” Now, sailboats are not made for backing up, there wasn’t room to turn, and we were surrounded by multimillion-dollar yachts, but this guy was excited. I slowed, shifted into reverse, and made a wobbly, nervewracking retreat to the dock.He wanted to give Zach a bandanna and have one last chance to pet him! I didn’t remember the guy, and don’t think I made much of an impression on him either. He barely spoke to me, but he was sure sorry to see Zach go.

Something similar happened later when we were in Spain. An older English couple on holiday had heard about us and knocked on the boat late one night after we had gone to bed. I sleepily went on deck to see what they wanted; Zach, for once in his life, stayed below. They chatted me up briefly about the Atlantic trip, and then there was a long, awkward pause. Finally, the woman said, “Really, luv, we came to see the dog.”

The dog and I had many more adventures; he was always up for anything new, always in a good mood, never borrowed money, never got drunk. Zach was truly the best first mate on any ocean.

Melody Coulter is a dog trainer, artist and one of the founding members of Dog Star Animal Sanctuary, which uses training and a natural living environment to rehabilitate abused and abandoned dogs.