Pets are part of the family, but how does it work out when you take them long-distance cruising? Elaine Bunting talks to two owners taking part in the Atlantic Rally for Cruisers about sailing with man’s best friend

Chester and Awa’s story is a boating bromance. It’s the touching tale of two inseparable buddies who met through sailing and cruised together on their boats. I met them at the ARC last year: Chester, a big, stocky Canadian and his slight-framed young Spanish friend. They were completely at home on each others’ boats and always hung out together.

Chester and Awa are dogs, two of perhaps a dozen that did the transatlantic event with their owners. Our dogs are part of the family, beloved companions, and sometimes it’s too much of a wrench to leave them behind. That was the case for Silke Sommerfeld and Rolf Oetter from Canada, while Spanish sailor Gonzalo Rubio Paris had bought a fox terrier pup partly to keep his two young daughters, aged four and two, company.

Chester and Awa love to hang out together

Chester and Awa love to hang out together

Their story is an amusing one. The two sets of owners had been in touch on an online forum, but only met for the first time last April when they launched their respective Lagoon 450 catamarans two days apart at the yard in Les Sables d’Olonne in France. Chester’s owners have hull No 130, named Next Life, and Awa’s has hull 132, Kazaio.

The two crews and their pets got on immediately and over the months between the launches and the ARC rally they cruised all the way to the Canary Islands “together 80 per cent of the time”. The dogs became inseparable, the nine-month-old fox terrier pup following Chester, a six-year-old golden retriever and more experienced hand, everywhere he went.

Even if the dogs were separated for a day, they would greet each other, Gonzalo says, “as if they hadn’t met for three weeks”. The two boats usually rafted up together. “Awa comes over here to get away from Gonzalo’s two girls and have some quiet time, and Chester goes over there for some excitement,” says Silke Sommerfeld.

Crazy antics

Both have their little quirks. Awa goes nuts when he sees dolphins and has a bad habit of peeing on the flybridge so that it all runs down the sides. Gonzalo says he can be quite useful at times because he’ll bark like mad if there’s a big windshift.

The downside is that he hates flapping sails – “he jumps up and bites them every time I furl the genoa. He doesn’t pierce them so he hasn’t damaged them – yet. And he goes crazy when we use the windlass.”

The Rubio Paris family take Awa ‘walkies’

The Rubio Paris family take Awa ‘walkies’

Chester, conversely, loves dolphins. They are “his biggest joy,” says Sommerfeld. “He watches for them all the time and by watching him we see a lot more wildlife. He loves trips in the dinghy as well.”

Chester isn’t the only pet on board Next Life. Sommerfeld and Oetter are also cruising with Sparkles, a ten-year-old black and white cat “that’s half blind and we didn’t want to leave him with anyone,” says Sommerfeld. The cat once had a bad experience with a dog on a marina dock and ever after has never left the boat when they’re cruising. However, Chester has to be walked and wants to get off the boat regularly, which means he has to be cleared for animal import in every new country.

The pets’ papers run to over 100 pages – “Every country has different rules,” says Silke Summerfeld

The pets’ papers run to over 100 pages – “Every country has different rules,” says Silke Summerfeld

Cruising with an animal adds a new level to the bureaucractic hurdles of cruising. Their owners admit that Chester and Awa each have more paperwork than their boats. “It’s been quite difficult,” admits Sommerfeld. “Every country has different rules. In Europe it’s easier because there is a European pet passport, but there’s a lot of additional work with the papers and expense with the vaccines, antibiotics and vets’ inspections.”

Sommerfeld shows me a large folder that runs to over 100 pages, filled with all the rules and regulations in each country they planned to visit. Before leaving Canada last February, both Chester and Sparkles were chipped with international microchips (“not North American ones!” she adds).

New one-year rabies vaccinations were given to both pets and import permit applications plus required documents were emailed in advance to the Saint Lucia and Bahamas authorities.

“I tried to email other Caribbean veterinary authorities, but gave up after most email addresses researched on government sites were returned invalid. The exception was Barbados. We got a prompt email reply saying: ‘If you bring your cat and dog on a private boat you will not be allowed to tie up on any pier/dock in Barbados. You will only be allowed to tie up for outfitting the vessel, ie water, fuel. Your animals will not be allowed to land.’

Pet passports

In preparation for flying the animals to France to go sailing on the new boat, Sommerfeld got all documentation together for the flight to Europe plus a proper-sized crate for the dog. Once in Europe, she was able to obtain European Pet Passports for both dog and cat after getting a rabies blood titer test (which measures the level of antibodies) carried out more than 30 days after the animals’ most recent rabies vaccination.

She also stocked up on heartworm, tapeworm and tick medication, as some countries such as Saint Lucia, require a Lyme disease and heartworm test.

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To an extent, their cruising plans have had to be formed around animal import procedures. “Chester already had a rabies vaccination, but that was before he was microchipped, so we had to do that again. He will have to be vaccinated yet again because by the time we get to Bermuda it will be 11 months since it was done and they only accept it up to 10 months.

“Some islands we’ve had to avoid: there’s quarantine in Dominican Republic and Montserrat so we’re not going, and in Jamaica you can’t import animals at all. In the Turks and Caicos you need two rabies vaccinations and another blood titer test.

“The back up is always that you can go, but don’t take pets ashore.”

Doing their business

What about the more day-to-day practicalities. How do they do their business? Do cats and dogs get seasick?

“Oh yes,” says Sommerfeld. “Sparkles gets seasick for the first two or three hours and he pukes, but then he goes to his bed and he’s OK.” The dog never gets seasick, in contrast to his young buddy Awa, who throws up at the start of passages.

Sparkles the cat (mostly) uses a litter tray. Sommerfeld tried to train Chester to poo on a piece of carpet, but he decided by himself to pee and do his business on either of the catamaran’s two bows and will do so on command.

Ten-year-old Sparkles doesn’t like to leave the boat

Ten-year-old Sparkles doesn’t like to leave the boat

Chester usually sleeps under the saloon table, but he will get up and keep his owners company on night watches.

Sommerfeld takes care that he doesn’t go to the bow when it’s rough. He wears a harness all the time to make it easier to handle him. “He’s a big dog; he weighs 40kg,” she says. Chester wears a lifejacket if conditions merit it, but it is cumbersome.

“He’s the one who gets the Raymarine Life Tag,” Sommerfeld declares. “That gives me peace of mind. But he’s never gone overboard.”

Despite all the hassles, both sets of owners love having their pets on board. Gonzalo Rubio Paris agrees that the paperwork is a nuisance, but says “the girls really enjoy him”.

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Sommerfeld muses: “Would I bring a dog on board again? As much as I love it, I wouldn’t recommend buying a dog to take cruising, but if you already have a dog it’s doable. A dog is family and he’s happiest when he’s with us, and when he is it doesn’t matter where he is.

“Walks are not always possible, but I’ve never seen him not content. He’s got lots of toys and stuff for him to chew on. I know he’s happy. He loves it. It’s more complicated with a dog, but it’s absolutely worth it.”

Silke Sommerfeld’s tips

Dogs

In general:

  • The dog will learn to do its business on board, even if it takes a few days. No worries.
  • Stock up on food when you have the chance.
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  • Have some games for the dog so that it doesn’t get bored on the boat. I felt that I had fewer opportunities to walk/exercise my dog than at home, regardless of the trips to the beach. We played ‘kick it and find it’ with Chester – kick it is when he sits at the top of the steps, kicks a ball down the stairs for me to catch and throw back to him. Find it is where I conceal a ball somewhere on the boat for Chester to find and return it.
  • The dog will bring a lot of dirt, especially sand, on the boat.
  • Bringing any pet requires internet research. A really helpful site is www.pettravel.com. They sell documents, but most documents can be found online at no cost. Search for Department of Agriculture and Pet Import Permit.

In the Caribbean:

  • In Saint Lucia many locals are afraid of dogs or don’t like dogs. I kept Chester away from them unless they approached me.
  • On the other hand, dogs seem to be very welcome in French islands such as Martinique, Guadeloupe, etc. People here seem to like dogs and it is no problem to take a dog to a restaurant.
  • Any non-French island: I would never bring a dog to a restaurant.
  • Avoid beaches with people as a courtesy.
  • Do not take a dog to National Park beaches, eg St Thomas, USVI.
  • So far, no vet has checked the microchip. I wouldn’t recommend going without it, though.

Conclusion: Will bring my dog again. It’s a blast.

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Cats

  • The cat uses litter box only most of the time. Not fun to wake up to a mess inside or outside the boat.
  • Cat distributes litter all over.
  • Not fun having a litter box close to cockpit/dining area owing to rain protection requirements.
  • Cat gets sick with waves, upwind and downwind.
  • Cat uses scratch pad some of the time. Now we have so many holes in our cockpit cushions. Not fun!
  • Cat hair all over the place. Really sticks to the gelcoat.

Conclusion: Will leave cat at home next time.