Skip to main content

A boater's best friend

If there's a canine in your cockpit, there better be biscuits on the boat

The proud little dog on our cover this month is named Pickles. She's a purebred Jack Russell terrier and 100 percent boat dog, with more than 30,000 ocean miles under her paws.

Image placeholder title

Not long ago, Pickles was deep in the Pacific, anchored somewhere off Fanning Island about 1,200 nautical miles south of Hawaii. She is the de facto skipper of Sugar Daddy, a Gunboat 66 catamaran owned by Bruce and Nora Slayden, who are seven years into a circumnavigation, with only the Indian Ocean left to tie the knot.
"She's a great boat dog," says Bruce Slayden, in an e-mail interview. "She's jumped into the water with the sea lions in the Galapagos Islands as they would surface at the transom steps and look at her from 12 inches away." The sea lions would "taunt" Pickles until the feisty 3-year-old jumped in and swam after them.
"Pickles likes to surf and ride on our standup paddleboards," Slayden reports. "She knows the sounds of whales and dolphins and barks to alert us when she hears them exhale. ... She swims very well and has fallen off the tender twice, when she was younger, and slipped off the bow of our catamaran once while at anchor."
Boat dogs - along with cats, parrots and a host of other warm and cold-blooded crewmembers - make the experience of being on the water that much richer. At the very least, they keep things interesting.
"The ones who dive out of the boat for buoys, they can be troublesome," says John K. Hanson Jr., publisher of Maine Boats, Homes & Harbors magazine, which from its inception has featured a Boatyard Dog column, one of the magazine's most popular departments. "It was the best thing we ever did," he says. "Dogs are a big part of the culture here."
When Hanson speaks of dogs jumping off boats at will, he is remembering with fondness Fagin, his golden retriever who debuted in issue No. 1, striking a chord with readers and helping set the tone for the publication.
"Everyone loved him," Hanson recalls. "You couldn't keep Fagin out of the water."
Fagin also appeared in an ad in WoodenBoat magazine back in the mid-1970s, when Hanson worked there. That ad prompted a letter from a reader in Poland, who complimented Fagin on clearly being one of the brighter bulbs on the masthead, but apologized for having to cancel his subscription for lack of funds. What could one do, Hanson recalls, but give a writer with such insight a complimentary subscription?
About five years later, Hanson says, Fagin received a second letter from his Polish admirer, this one explaining how the grateful reader had built from plans in WoodenBoat a sailboat in which he sailed to his freedom. Score one for Fagin and WoodenBoat.
Fagin, alas, has long gone to his reward, replaced these days by a miniature Labradoodle, Penne (a "spiritual descendent" of Fagin), and a Jack Russell terrier, Roger.
The Boatyard Dog went from print to prime time when Hanson's magazine started an annual boat show in Rockland, Maine, eight years ago. One of the most popular events is the Boatyard Dog Trials, which Hanson describes as "filled with a sense of whimsy." (This year's show will be held Aug. 13-15,
Does Hanson have a favorite breed? "You can't go wrong with a black dog," he says. "They look good in the front seat of a truck or in a towboat."
Whether black or golden, purebred or Heinz 57, there's a dog out there for every boat, every salt-sprayed kid and every adult who from time to time talks to his dog and his boat.
Boatbuilder Dick Pulsifer is partial to Pembroke Welsh corgis. Good boat dogs? The builder of the 22-foot wooden Pulsifer Hampton skiff lets go a good laugh. "They certainly are," he says. "Ours just go for the ride and to see who can jump on the dock first. Then they bark at you. None of them are wussies. They don't mind being cold, snowy or wet as long as they're with you."
At the moment, Pulsifer's crew consists of Hudson, Hanna and Eleanor. "Everybody's been at sea, and most of them like to swim on their own," reports the Brunswick, Maine, builder.
A number of years back, a male corgi named Duncan was returning with Pulsifer to Casco Bay from Brooklin, Maine, when he apparently just got tired of being under way. Duncan spotted a cottage on shore, leapt off the stern deck and started swimming for terra firma. "He'd just had too much time at sea," Pulsifer surmises.
Duncan was hauled out of the salt by another skiff traveling with Pulsifer but refused to ride with his owner for the rest of the run home. "It was just funny," says Pulsifer, savoring the memory of the headstrong little dog.
Our own boat dog is a sweet 11-month-old black Labrador retriever whom my daughter named Skipper. We brought her home at eight weeks, and within days last August, she was on the water aboard Clam, our 42-year-old Boston Whaler.
Labs and water typically mix like rum and tonic. But Skipper's breeder had a story or two about the oddball Lab who didn't care for either water or swimming. And a marina owner I know has a black dog who loves boats but gets seasick with the slightest roll.
What were the odds that a dog named Skipper would turn out to be a landlubber?
The breeder knew we wanted a boat dog; she e-mailed us within days, asking: "Is Skipper in the water yet?"
Success. Skipper swam like a little river otter as soon as we lifted her out of the boat and set her in the brine, her tail sashaying side to side like a steering oar. Not long after that, the fat puppy was sprawled out on the foredeck in the sun, fast asleep.
Today, her favorite toy is a tough blue fender, and at the smell and sight of water she races to and fro in anticipation. By the time you read this, she'll be back on the boat, making us laugh and shake our heads, part of the crew, part of the family.

Tiller, a 5-year-old Nova Scotia duck tolling retriever, is often on the Connecticut River with Susan and Cliff Bockard of Duxbury, Mass.
Michele Corbeil captured Dick Pulsifer's corgi Hudson taking in the sights at a WoodenBoat Show.
The Sisson family's Lab, Skipper, took to the water like most Labs do.

See related atricles:

- Send us your pet photos

- Pampered pooches

- A first mate with nine lives

This article originally appeared in the July 2010 issue.