Skip to main content

All paws on deck

A Nordic Tug, three golden retrievers and many nautical miles — it doesn’t get any better for this cruising couple

The cry goes out aboard the Nordic Tug 42: “Fish!” Three retrievers hover expectantly around the pilothouse door, wet noses twitching, tongues out and golden fur rustling in the sea breeze.

The Minards have logged 12,000 miles with various canine crewmenters.

They know that dolphins — a cruising dog’s delight — are near. For an hour, Mary and Duane Minard and their canine crew watch the “fish” as they swim about the boat.

Later in the day, when they’ve reached a safe harbor, the dogs get a dinghy ride to a nearby beach for a romp in the water and some tennis ball chasing before dinner. Yes, it’s a dog’s life on board. The Minards wouldn’t have it any other way.

The Connecticut couple have been cruising with canines for years, learning the dos and don’ts along the way. “We figure we have logged 12,000 nautical miles with various canine crewmembers,” Mary Minard says. “I certainly can’t say it is easier to travel with dogs, but they are always full-in for the voyage, whereas [children] can be enchanted, bored or mutinous, depending on their age.”

After years of sailing, the Minards bought the Nordic Tug, named Quest, six years ago, took their three golden retrievers aboard and set off from their New England home waters to spend most of each year cruising the Intracoastal Waterway, Florida and the Bahamas. And although traveling with the three dogs does have its downside, the Minards say the positives far outweigh the negatives. Mary, who breeds and shows golden retrievers, calls the trio a “joyful necessity.”

“Duane supports my passion in return for my supporting his [passion for boating] by crewing, cooking, navigating — and vacuuming.” And, she adds, if both of them didn’t think the dogs were a great addition, it just would not work.

Home on the water: Tillie, Darby and Cruiser aboard Quest, a Nordic Tug 42.

The dogs bring their own personalities on board. The “crew” starts with Cruiser, who is nearly 14. “He’s a ‘Velcro dog’ and the biggest dolphin fan,” Minard says. (A Velcro dog is one that strongly prefers to be by its owner.) “He has very high ethics and was the hardest to deck [potty] train. He just thought it was wrong.” Darby, 7 years old, is Cruiser’s son. “He has lots of enthusiasm but doesn’t always think things through.”

Darby once ran into trouble with a swan in the Connecticut River and almost drowned. “He worries about lots of things, especially yacht club cannons, and we head away from any awesome fireworks on July Fourth,” she adds. “The boys are both high-drive, very smart and biddable dogs.”

The youngster is Tillie, just a year old. “She’s the first mellow golden I have ever lived with,” Minard says. “Tillie loves everything about the boat and was easy to train, except for one sad [incident] with my Claire Murray rug. She can’t wait to meet every dog and every person. If she thinks you are exceptional, she will ‘woo-woo’ at you.”

The cruising life

Image placeholder title

The Nordic Tug 42 has plenty of room for the dogs and is very accessible. “It has a great pilothouse, a nice saloon and a guest room that I felt would make a fine place for the dogs to sleep,” Minard says. “[This] was a feeling not shared by them, and they still avoid that space like it’s haunted.”

On deck, each of the goldens wears a harness with both the dog’s and the boat’s name. The information, of course, can help if one of them gets lost, and the harness is useful if one goes for an unauthorized swim. “Our dogs are trained to not step off the boat unless their name is called, but nothing is 100 percent,” Minard says. “If your dog isn’t a strong swimmer, you might need to consider a life jacket instead.”

The dogs are kept below when there’s an activity on deck, such as docking, anchoring or transiting a lock. “It would be like having three toddlers helping out,” she says. “They go down to the saloon for events that could suddenly go wrong.”

Getting on and off boats is a challenge for any cruising dog, and the Minards have trained theirs to use an expandable ramp, which can be attached to several levels of the boat. This solves a big problem, Minard says. “We have never found a place where the ramp doesn’t work.”

It does take a lot of care to keep this crew happy. “I’m always surprised at how much equipment my guys require,” Minard says. “I try to sneak it aboard in small batches and find storage Duane has forgotten about.”

Food takes up a lot of space, but for convenience it can be ordered from pet stores online and delivered to marinas on the itinerary. The dogs have their own space inside the boat where they eat and have their beds, a quilt for when they’re wet and mats for dirty paws.

Training the crew

The Minards both enjoy having the retrievers on board, an important factor for anyone considering cruising with dogs.

Boaters who cruise with pets often live in fear of a “crew” overboard incident, especially a zealous dog chasing a gull or a leaping fish. That makes obedience and training a must. When dog and owner are confident in each other, there’s harmony on board.

The Minards’ goldens have been trained to wait for a verbal OK before jumping off the boat, a launch or the dinghy. It’s one of the most important commands they’ve learned. Other basic obedience commands include “Wait,” as in wait until I tell you to do something; “Leave it,” as in leave that dead fish alone or that lady dressed in clean white clothes; and “Stay,” as in stay in the cockpit.

Then there’s the problem of deck training. “On shore, it’s easy to walk the dog,” Minard says. “But there will come a time when you cannot get ashore. Deck-train them for when nature calls. It’s an absolute necessity, even if you only plan to use it for emergencies.”

The Minards’ dogs keep a plastic-grass mat in the cockpit, and the dogs have grown used to using it. It’s an unobtrusive corner of the boat, and it’s easy to keep clean and inexpensive to replace. It may take time to train a dog to use it, but the reward for your patience is the freedom to travel overnight or for multiple days.

The downside

Minard admits that cruising with three golden retrievers has its down moments. Like children, it’s hard to leave them alone for any length of time without worrying, and that cuts down on the side trips and spontaneous adventures. And, she says, when they do get left behind, you have to prepare. “We are very careful when we leave them alone,” she says. “We give contact information to dock neighbors in case the dogs bark so they have someone to call to stop the music.”

As for daily cruising life, the dogs require careful if not constant attention. “Think of a dog as a 2-year-old child because you have to look after them in the same way,” she says. “Don’t let them get too cold or too hot. Don’t let them drink salt water, or the honeymoon will be over with the effect it will have on their system. Watch for ticks in the Northeast and gators in the South.”

Then there’s the medical side. A good first aid kit is essential, as is a relationship with a veterinarian. “I have two wonderful vets, one of whom I can call or email at any time,” Minard says. “It’s important to work out with your vet the medications you carry.”

She also keeps a copy of the dogs’ rabies certificates, as well as special equipment for bloating, paw cuts, and urinary tract and ear infections.

Part of the fun

The 'crew' needs plenty of playtime ashore.

A happy, well-trained, confident dog brings energy of its own to the cruising life, often exhibiting strange, amusing and even helpful behavior. There was one golden retriever who didn’t like thunderstorms and would become agitated long before there was any sign of one, a “nifty tool in the days before our fancy weather instruments,” Minard says. And then there was the sailing cocker spaniel that would awaken from a sound sleep to change sides when he heard the command “Ready about!”

On shore, you’ll meet more locals when you are attached to a leash. You’ll hear about the local dog park and where the good restaurants are and what time the local concert starts. “You don’t miss anything,” Minard says. And, she adds, there have been many deserted and spooky anchorages and docks where she has been glad to have extra teeth and a good alarm system onboard.

As for cruising with cats, the Minards are definitely dog people. “We only voyaged with cats for one weekend,” Minard recalls. “Marmalade jumped off our Contest 29 in the dead of night and was nowhere to be found the next day. The dumpster had been emptied, and we feared the worst. Turns out he had gone down B Dock and back up A Dock and climbed aboard the largest boat in the marina, tucking himself under their dinghy.” Enough said.

The Minards are not alone in their love for dogs. Cruising canines can be found in just about every harbor from Maine to Florida to California and all points between. Websites such as Active Captain devote space to dogs and boating with articles and stories. The training, the cleaning, the walking in the rain — it’s all worth it because of what cruising dogs add to life on board. “Their joy in beaches and walks and dolphins in the wake is infectious,” Minard says.

It’s a spirit captured in the Minards’ holiday greeting card, what they called their “Bahamian Christmas tree.” It shows three sandy, wet dogs sitting under a Tiki hut on Tahiti Beach in the Abacos.

Without the trio of happy retrievers it would be an empty scene, indeed.

See related articles:

- Are you sure it's for you?

- Prince of Biscayne Bay

- Where to find help

December 2012 issue