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A first mate with nine lives

Richard T. Griffiths is a fixture at Oxford Boatyard in Oxford, Md. The English-born 70-year-old has lived a life of adventure aboard his converted 1903 lugger, Rosalind. Griffiths writes about his escapades regularly for Soundings.

Animals have been carried aboard sailing ships since humans first began taking long voyages. Not dogs or cats, of course, but something a little more edible, such as pigs or a cow or two. Chickens, in particular, were easy to keep and delighted the officers with fresh eggs for breakfast at the far sides of the world.

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The exception to these sensible traditions were pirates, who obviously thought dining on bacon and eggs for breakfast was somewhat sissy for people in their line of work and, for some quite unfathomable reason, appear to have favored parrots. Now, I have nothing against birds, but I would have thought that in those days before radio a few homing pigeons could have been of greater use than parrots. You could, say, send one to inform your wife to not wait dinner, as your yacht was on fire anyway and would likely sink in the next five minutes.
But enough of all this. It is about my pet of nearly 50 years ago that I wish to write and perhaps help you understand why, to this day, I am rather ambivalent about involving animals in the particular human fascination of yachting.
I cannot recall how I met - or, rather, acquired - Topsail Kate. She was very young at the time and was the cutest little kitten I had ever seen. She had short, light gray tabby fur and dreamy but alert green eyes.
Topsail Kate used her ninth life by falling into the icy River Adur during the terrible winter of 1962, but in her time with me aboard Rosalind she found the kind of adventures only a boatyard cat can uncover. In fact, had I given thought that this playful little thing would fast grow into the wayward and delinquent nymphomaniac she eventually became, I would have banished her from the boat on the spot.

Cat on a hot iron stove
That summer Rosalind, my converted 1903 lugger, was undergoing a refit. Our home at the time was Pink's Easton Boatyard on the River Adur, on the Sussex coast in southern England.
Cats were different in the England of 1960 than they are here in the U.S.A. of 2010. There were no special cat foods on the market then, and so, apart from the morning saucer of milk, a cat was expected to subsist on any leftover scraps from the table. And if they were still hungry, well, they could forage for themselves. Few cats were neutered then, and as for seeing a vet - just forget it.
In those early summer days, Topsail Kate was content to stay on the boat and frolic among the cordage and sails, and at the end of the day she would retire below with me to the cool of the saloon and gracefully leap up onto her favorite perch - the unlit black cast-iron stove. Here, from whence she had a panoramic view of her domain, she would contentedly attend to her ablutions.
Once the summer had fled, however, Topsail Kate left her kittenhood behind. Just about fully grown, she had begun to roam off the boat. I think she may have already fallen in love, as adolescents do, since the neighborhood was infested with cats of various creed and color.
October came and with it the first cold drizzle of the English autumn. Returning from my job as a school teacher one day, tired and a little grumpy, I decided to fire up the old cast-iron stove and get some cheery heat on the boat. Topsail Kate had not yet returned from her now daily forays into the fast life.
I lit the lamps, closed the doors of the stove and - briefly wondering about the whereabouts of my wayward moggie - I lay down. Had I not half dozed off I might have been fast enough to avert the drama of Topsail's return. She skipped across the saloon, her tail heeled, and did her usual half-turning graceful leap onto the stove.
There was an awful noise I can only describe as someone spitting on a very hot iron.
Now, cats are fast, cats are agile, but most of all they are superbly designed for survival. She doubled in size as her fur stood up, and she leapt about a foot straight vertically above the stove where she appeared to hover like a helicopter. And then, somehow accelerating while in the air, she crashed, smoldering, onto the Persian carpet.
Yes, she did heal, and no, she never sat on the stove again.
But for poor Topsail Kate there was to be a much, much greater misfortune ahead than badly singeing her fanny on a near red-hot stove.

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Cat in a blanket
There was an odd assortment of people inhabiting an odd assortment of aging boats in this semiderelict boatyard of long ago, and one of these was a lady of perhaps 50 who went by the name of Miss Miller.
Miss Miller was rather square in appearance and always wore men's tweed suits. She lived on a very old steel houseboat with large, round portholes. It was under one of these, usually left open, that Miss Miller slept.
A now fully healed Topsail Kate was attracted to this porthole while doing her rounds one still and moonlit night. With an agile leap, the cat went from the dock and through the porthole to a very soft landing on top of the sleeping Miss Miller. Topsail did not sense danger, but in the wan light of the moon the formidable and fearless Miss Miller glimpsed what she assumed was the largest rat she had ever seen.
Miss Miller detested rats.
Faster than John Wayne could draw, she bolted upright in bed and lunged with her blanket to entrap the startled creature. Out of bed she leaped, twisting the now writhing bundle into a tighter and tighter ball until the struggling ceased, and then bracing her powerful shoulders she proceeded to beat the trapped "rat" against the steel bulkhead with all her might.
When the blanketed bundle was finally still, Miss Miller repaired to the deck with the vanquished rodent and, untwisting the blanket, disposed of it over the side into the icy water below.
When I awoke the next morning I glanced across at my cat, who was in her usual perch. She was not, I perceived, her normal self. She was covered in mud and seemed, well, a bit bent out of shape. When I touched her, Topsail Kate gave a pitiful mew and, showing no interest in her morning milk, closed her eyes and went back to sleep.
It was a few days later when I met Miss Miller on the dock that I learned just how many of her nine lives Topsail had used up in that terrible night of mistaken identity. Somehow, after Miss Miller had tossed her into the frigid water, my tabby must have recovered enough strength to swim to safety. It took some weeks for Topsail Kate to be herself again.
After the concussion had gone, the broken bones mended and her internal organs restored to their rightful places, my cat returned to her normal life of a prowling nocturnal nymphomaniac. It wasn't long before - I'm sure to her delight but not necessarily to mine - she became pregnant, soon after birthing another half-dozen tiny Topsail Kates. There was one in particular that I kept - Bilge Water Annie - but that is another tale.

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This article originally appeared in the July 2010 issue.