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Rats! Just what you don't need aboard

Nobody invited the rat. So it was good riddance. Maybe he thought he had a general invitation, like some of those people who crash important parties in Washington and L.A. But he didn’t. He probably knew he wasn’t invited and was just doing the rat thing.

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But maybe he figured he was smarter than the average rat and smarter than the average person and that he’d just get a paw in the door, get a jump on the situation and be assured of his place at the table, closest to the best of the food. I don’t know what he figured, but he didn’t figure what happened.

When we lit the grill on the dock we were just going about our routine Saturday night marina business of having a few beers and grilling a few steaks with some friends from the boat next door. The grill was an old one. We, being of above-average intelligence in such matters as cost savings and grills, had bought the cheapest we could find in Walmart years ago and had just left it out on the dock all the time. It was rusty, and we had to light it with a propane grill lighter instead of just pushing its magic button. But it lit, it cooked, and it was the starting point for some very good parties. What more could you want in a grill?

Well, not a rat. And that’s where he was. We didn’t realize it at the time, but maybe we should have. I mean, a grill does sound like a good place for an intelligent, hungry party rat to make his home. It had some incredibly delicious residual odors in its inner recesses (at least to a rat). It had some good lickings here and there where grease had run down and not yet been cremated. It was sturdy metal, rather than some hole in the ground, and it was above the flood plain during nor’easters — unlike a hole in the ground.
In addition to all of the above, it put the rat right at the center of the conversation, at least for a while. He never said much from inside that grill as we got ready to fire it up, but at least he could enjoy our stories and jokes, many of which I can’t repeat here, though I’m sure that if I could you’d enjoy them at least as much as the rat did.
This was a gas grill because we were too lazy to deal with charcoal. So each time we used it we’d hook up the tank, turn it on and start flicking the lighter. It seems that this would have been plenty enough warning for the rat, but it wasn’t. We’d been off the boat for more than a week and hadn’t used the grill, and I guess he’d moved in pretty early in our absence and felt pretty secure about the safety of his abode; even while we were making the preparatory racket he remained securely ensconced inside. Perhaps it was the fact that some really good steak was sitting on a plate on the little plate platform to the left of the hot box.
It doesn’t take long for the flame to start roaring on a gas grill. Actually, it’s almost instantaneous. However, it does take a minute or so for heat to start creeping through the metal into some of the remote corners and cracks and crevices — where sat the rat. Waiting for dinner.
As he enjoyed the smell of the meat beginning to cook I can imagine him beginning to salivate. Until he realized that it didn’t smell like filet mignon. It smelled more like rat. And I can tell you that the smell of cooking rat doesn’t really enhance the appetite. I can tell you this because we hadn’t put the steak on yet. We were waiting for the fire, turned to high, to clean the grill, purifying with heat any stray germs that may have been left by any unwanted creatures since we’d last had a party. So we were kind of puzzled to smell meat cooking so early in the game, especially meat that smelled like that.
The rat realized there was a problem before we did, I’m sure. While we were standing around wondering where that smell was coming from and whether someone should make a quick trip to Walmart (no such thing) to get another grill, we heard this very significant rustling in our grill, down in the right side near the back where the top was attached. And then we heard a very shrill squeal. The first thought that entered my mind was that I like my steak raw, but not that raw. The second thing that entered my mind was that something was amiss here because we still hadn’t put the steak on.
I can’t say for sure what was in the rat’s mind, but it probably wasn’t very pleasant as he bolted out of the bottom of the grill and ran across the dock, dragging his smoking tail behind him. He dove into that very hole from which he’d recently moved and, at the time, was almost full of water from the extra-high tide, the result of a prolonged if not severe nor’easter. We assumed the smoking tail was soon extinguished, from the sound of all the splashing down there.
This entire event taught us several things, although some of the things were just reminders. First, there are usually rats around marinas. No, I don’t mean the two-legged kind; I mean the real rats. I’ve seen rats at exceptionally fine highfalutin marinas. Second, you don’t need to entice them by doing stupid things, such as leaving dirty grills on the dock. They’re going to get into your life, anyway. And rats are not good guys.
The third thing was that the ladies in our group did not display the behavior expected of some “proper” ladies. As the rat ran between our legs, heading for safety, no one jumped up on the picnic table screaming. Actually, this was probably a very good thing because the picnic table was fairly rotten and anyone standing on it might have been dumped overboard. The fourth thing we learned was to shake and rattle your grill before you put the meat on, and be sure the thing is clean.
The last thing, at least the last thing I want to talk about at the moment, is that rats don’t readily drown. They can swim. I know this’ll make you feel much better if you’re a PETA person. They can swim quite vigorously. We know that this rat swam down in that flooded rat hole because we could hear him for quite some time as he did his front crawl while cooling his tail. And, as final proof and much to our relief, we saw a de-tailed rat a few days later.

THE GOOD SHIP RAT TRAP: Sure rats can swim, but there are more civilized ways to board a boat.
Rats will go for a trap baited with apple and peanut butter.

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I have many other rat details I’d like to share with you relating to my boating experience, but there’s room here for only a few. For example, many folks don’t remember that very significant detail that rats can swim. Most people learn this when they’re young, as they hear tales about rats jumping off sinking ships and the like. Certainly, a rat wouldn’t jump off a sinking ship if he couldn’t swim, and I’ve never heard of rats putting on life jackets before they jump. Most of us let this fact slide to the nether reaches of our minds as we deal with more important things in life. But like it or not, if you’re a boater, this is, indeed, an important thing in life.
We knew of two friends who were happily anchored in a popular harbor in the Abacos. The village was teeming with cruisers, tourists and locals, some of whom fished for a living. Also anchored in the harbor were several of their fishing boats. These would go out and spend weeks on the Bahamas Banks as the crew would dive up such culinary delights as grouper, conch and lobster — pleasing to the palate not only of tourists, but also of rats. These boats were frequently infested — well, for the sake of political correctness, let’s just say “overcrowded” — with rats. When the journey was over, the boats would come back to the village to offload their catch, and the crews would get some rest ashore for a few days, leaving the boats anchored in the harbor.
Thus it was that at least one rat, apparently not finding enough food remaining on his boat after several days at anchor, jumped off and started swimming across the harbor. It didn’t take him long to find an anchor chain reaching out of the water and extending to the prow of a fine, meticulously kept sailboat. It took only a few seconds for the rat to scamper aboard.
It took at least a few days for the couple aboard to realize that they had company. Rats seldom just come knocking on the door and say, “ Hey, dude, mind if I hang out awhile and check out your stash of garbage?” Instead, they slink around, generally hiding out in the boat’s dark inner recesses in the daytime and foraging at night — and the foraging isn’t necessarily limited to garbage. Rats are equal-opportunity foragers.
Your first notice of the new arrival often will be a few pellets. Initial reaction usually takes the form of mute denial. As you notice more pellets, the denial becomes more difficult to sustain. Unfortunately, quite frequently the pellets are at first hidden, as under a dinghy stored on deck. To give rats their due, they must feel a certain need for discretion, as I’m sure you or I would were we pooping on somebody else’s decks without their consent.
Eventually you’ll also see bites taken out of fruit you may have out. They love apples and, actually, just about everything else. You find yourself in the horror-show situation of wondering whether you have rats or Caribbean cockroaches. I can tell you some things about Caribbean cockroaches, but despite my fascination with that subject I’ll try to remain on point here. The point is that soon the rat becomes so accustomed to your apparent acceptance of his presence that you begin to see more and more large bites out of whatever you’ve left around, not to mention more and more pellets.
You’ll also notice other damage, perhaps to electrical wiring and underwater hoses if you’ve been so unwise as to try to starve him out. Eventually, in what is usually an epiphanic experience of enormous proportion, you’ll see the rat himself. So now you know.

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Next comes the issue of what do you do about it. We always carry a stash of very large rat traps aboard. But our friends didn’t. Besides, there was, at least at that point, some liberal vestiges of love for “all of God’s creatures” floating around in their hearts. So there was some discussion of the cruelty of this type of extermination, not to mention the mess it might make. Poison was obviously out of the question because this simply leads to a dead rat somewhere deep in the innards of your boat, a problem that pine-scented home fresheners won’t begin to touch. And you’re hardly going to be able to use lethal injection. Who would want all that picketing around the boat?
So my friends, being highly civilized, decided to go on a hunt for the rat’s nest. I’m not sure what they thought they were going to do when they found it, but they did undertake the project with great vigor. The vigor began to wear thin after a few days of uprooting everything in the boat and finding no rat. But they continued. They even began a whispered campaign of inquiry among their closer friends, asking for advice. After all, the fact that you have a rat aboard isn’t something you want everyone to know, so you can’t just start broadcasting it on the VHF in the hopes that a retired rat exterminator will show up from the boat upstream. Alas, still no results.
Then came a rather unusual circumstance. The guy went into his head one fine morning and did something I don’t think I’ve ever done in my head. Instead of looking down, he looked up. This head was well-ventilated by a very fine dorade vent. As is true of any well-designed dorade vent, there was a heavy screen at the base of the round hole through which air passed into the head. This, as you will see, is a very critical feature.
I don’t know why my friend looked up (and he won’t tell me) but as he did so, instead of feeling the cool flow of sea breeze on his face he felt nothing much at all. But it’s what he saw that gave him a start. It was the proverbial rat’s ass, but there was no proverb involved here. There above him, pressing tightly against the screen, were four pink feet and a large chunk of rat hair and rat. Eureka! He’d found the nest. But his euphoria was short-lived.
First, there was considerable issue taken when he told his wife about what had been lingering over her during her private moments in the head. After that trauma had abated somewhat they next began trying to decide what to do, peeking into the head every few minutes to make sure that the rat was still in residence.
If you’re familiar with the construction of dorade vents, you know that the vent scoop on deck takes in the air, which then passes in the vent box over a watertight partition and next down the hole to the below-deck area. This allows you to have the vent open in reasonably heavy seas. Water boarding the cabin top and entering the vent will theoretically run out the drain holes in the first section of the box. The partition must be rather high to ensure that no water comes below during normal usage.
It was behind this high partition that the rat sat, hunkered down over the screen protecting the inner hole. After only brief thought, they stuffed towels into the deck vent to keep the rat from escaping. Then they turned their thoughts to what to do next. I understand that there was first some brief discussion as to whether they should let the rat come out to see if he could see his shadow since the weather forecasts had been somewhat inadequate that year. But this idea didn’t gain a majority vote.
Cutting out the screen and letting the rat fall into the open head and slamming the lid wasn’t an option. The rat was far too big to flush. Letting the rat fall into a bucket was no less of an option. There was simply no way they could guarantee that the rat would remain in the bucket until they dumped him overboard. And this was a BIG rat. No one wanted to try to throw something over the bucket and hold tight to keep him inside.
Finally, the guy came up with an idea. He got his spear (they did a lot of spear fishing) and started trying to spear the rat through the wire mesh while the wife remained on deck to be sure that the towels stuffing the vent didn’t start bulging out, swearing even as she did so that “there’s not a damn thing I’m going to do about it if that rat pushes aside those towels except to jump over and swim for the shore.”
As it turned out, there was no need for the lady’s concern. The head space was rather limited to spear a rat overhead, the holes in the wire mesh weren’t quite large enough, and when the guy did manage to get the sharp spear tip through, the rat just bustled his butt to this side or that, as if he were doing the samba, avoiding serious injury.
About this time the wife, having thought about what might be in the water in that harbor should the rat burst forth and force her to swim ashore, started telling the husband in no uncertain terms that she wanted no more of the job guarding the vent. So, knowing that the rat couldn’t escape through the mesh, the husband took his spear and went on deck. Those passing by in other boats had the dubious pleasure of seeing the gentleman — bending over the dorade vent, his butt gyrating far up in the air — jamming a spear inside, trying to spear the rat over the partition. To this day, I don’t know how he did it, but he did.
He then fished the impaled but still very much alive rat out of the vent and threw it, still on the spear, overboard. Rat and spear sank beneath the waves. Spears at that time cost around 20 bucks, so the next day the fellow and a few friends went diving to try to find it. It was nowhere in sight, meaning that the rat had swum away with it and sold it to some tourist on the beach or, more likely, that a shark or barracuda had enjoyed a nice meal of rat and carried the spear away in the process.

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There’s an easier way of doing all this: Don’t get rats aboard. But if a rat really wants to come aboard, there’s not much you can do to stop it. Ships put guards over their mooring lines to keep rats from running up from the dock, but they don’t seem to work. You can restrict yourself to only the finest marinas, but this doesn’t work, either. One of our worst rat boardings was at a very fine marina, and we were far removed from any restaurant, garbage can or fish-cleaning station.
The first step in rat avoidance is to resign yourself to the fact that you’re vulnerable anywhere, even far at sea, although in that instance any rat that’s aboard probably came aboard near shore. So the main course of dealing with all of this is to be prepared to take anti-rat- attack countermeasures.
Never leave anything edible, including flowers, on deck. Common errors are hammocks of bananas, apples, oranges and other fruits. If you’re anchoring for a while, leave your garbage in your dinghy, tied with a long painter far behind your boat, until you come to a village where you can “properly dispose” of it. Although it’s not a guaranteed solution, you can lessen your odds a little if you avoid dirty harbors, dirty marinas, dirty waterfronts and anchoring near dirty boats.
Whenever you’re in an area where you think the odds of rat attack are high, keep your boat tightly closed up. Even a large rat can get through an incredibly small opening, but it doesn’t hurt to discourage this. We stuff towels, for example, tightly into our dorade vents and anchor rode openings. A rat certainly can get through this, but for whatever reason we’ve never had one do so, even though we know they’ve been aboard temporarily by their droppings. Inspect regularly under dinghies, kayaks and any other hiding space on deck. We once got halfway across the Gulf Stream and realized we had a stowaway rat under a dinghy. Among the other issues this can cause, be assured that Customs and Immigration frown on this sort of thing if you’re honest enough (i.e., crazy enough) to report it.
One of the most important things to do is seldom done. Keep at least several big rat traps aboard. Don’t figure you can go and buy one when the occasion arises; be prepared. Rat traps work well, despite the fact that the basic design hasn’t changed for a long time. However, they are dangerous if you let one snap on your fingers or toes. Be very careful. Normally you’d set it outside, so anyone who is accustomed to going on deck at night barefoot has to be very much aware.
We’ve tried various baits. We think rats most prefer a special concoction of something like a piece of apple or bacon spread with peanut butter. Don’t ask me why. Ask the next rat you meet. In a marina, we don’t set the trap on deck unless we’re sure that someone has already moved in. Frequently rats will roam, visit your boat and, finding nothing of interest (because you’ve followed the advice above) will move on, leaving only a few pellets as calling cards. If you do put a rat trap on deck with some delicious morsels under these circumstances, you may attract rats from the dock or nearby boats, enticing them to move in.
When you hear that lethal rat trap snap in the night, don’t assume that the rat is dead. Proceed with caution. Wear shoes and decide on some method, other than your hands, of picking up the rat and trap and throwing them both overboard. If someone from the EPA is on the next boat and says you can’t throw them overboard, just throw them on his boat.
We once caught a rat in a trap and threw them overboard. We were immensely relieved when we heard rat and trap make the splash. But then came a moment of utter disbelief and horror. Despite the fact that the rat trap had tightly pinned the rat, crushing his neck, he began furiously paddling, using the trap as a raft. In panic, we pushed him away from our vessel with a boat hook. The last we saw of him, he was vigorously paddling the raft off toward a nearby large and fancy yacht.
It had a cat.

The rats aboard the infested Bangun Perkasa, which was boarded for illegal fishing, had to be eradicated before the Coast Guard could bring the ship into Alaska coastal waters.

Tom Neale is technical editor for Soundings and lives aboard a Gulfstar 53 motorsailer. You can buy his book, “All in the Same Boat,” and his two-disc DVD, “Cruising the East Coast With Tom Neale,” at

This article originally appeared in the January 2012 issue.