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Salty dogs

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I can’t claim that Heck and Samba are naturally salty dogs. When I moved the three of us aboard a boat more than a decade ago, they went willingly because they were always up for an adventure — it is a hallmark of the Jack Russell terrier.

Bossanova was a small ship with a dry stack exhaust and a throaty chug underway. Her pilothouse was raised, and she had a lot of freeboard and open deck space. I worried about running the boat and keeping an eye on “the boys,” so I put them in life jackets. Within minutes they had chewed through the straps. So I put some netting between the pilothouse and the side decks to keep them from wandering to the stern, where I’d never see or hear the plop as they went over the side. Then I watched in terror each time Heck would put his little paws on the toe rail and thrust his chest and face out into the breeze, doing his best Titanic, King of the World-pose.

You know, it’s not true that all dogs are natural swimmers. Samba has never liked to swim, but he knew how to instinctively. Heck, on the other hand, is a daredevil who sank like a stone. I found this out, luckily, when tied at the dock one evening. The sun was setting, crickets were chirping as the moon rose in the still-light sky, and suddenly my serenity was shattered by a large splash. Somehow, Heck had wandered off the side of the boat and landed in the drink. I jumped off and was able to pull him to shore, but it was clear that he was no Michael Phelps. Heck seemed to plummet to the bottom vertically, like a lead weight, with no instinct to right himself and paddle. So I took him to a beach soon after and taught him to swim, supporting him under his belly so his little legs could paddle. Soon he was swimming like a champ. Heck had some trouble turning, though, so he’d swim 20 or 30 feet and then lean in one direction and make a huge, gradual arc to get back to shore. Trust me, it was comedy gold.

The only times I ever felt bad about my decision to sell the house and move aboard Bossanova were related to the dogs’ happiness. I liked to leave the pilothouse doors open when docking so I could step out easily to handle lines. Bossanova was a pretty cool little ship, and often a few people would gather to watch as she approached. If docking was in any way a challenge, requiring my full attention, the boys would inevitably choose this time to leap from the boat to the dock, like a couple of desperate fugitives. Sometimes this would incite a sympathetic awwww from the onlookers and a couple of dirty looks cast my way. Clearly, I was keeping these dogs at sea against their will.

In South Carolina I decided to upgrade my waning batteries. Heck jumped from the boat as we approached. I scoured the yard trying to find him, to no avail, and just as the job was finished a filthy, mud-covered wild piglet came to the side of the boat. Luckily, I recognized that happy tail that never stops wagging, and we soon had Heck hosed down and back aboard.

During storms, Heck’s and Samba’s response was to gather almost on top of each other in the pilothouse and shake uncontrollably. Their beards were damp with fear and nausea — I was handling the helm and unable to comfort them. These were perhaps the only times I ever felt like a very bad mama, as I imagined them thinking What was the matter with a small yard and a house that stays put and doesn’t rock and roll?

We did return to a shore-based home before too long, and I noticed Heck’s and Samba’s reaction whenever we returned to the boat. Like all happy seafarers, they seemed willing to dwell on the good memories: sun streaming through the portholes each morning as we listened to the NOAA weather report and had breakfast in the saloon; countless lovely evenings on deck watching the sunset, the gulls crying out as the day faded to indigo and the stars shimmered above; the sound of the water lapping at the hull as we drifted off to sleep.

I will never really know if Heck and Samba loved living aboard as much as I did, but I suspect what mattered to them was my happiness. Samba is 15 now — he’s blind and deaf and very stiff but still as enthusiastic as a puppy about treats. Heck is 14 and spry — less a daredevil and more a hedonist who spends long hours under the duvet. These two were with me for the biggest adventure of my life. Not once did they plot a course, tie us off to a cleat or even fix a snack for the captain, but I’m pretty sure I couldn’t have done it without them.

This article originally appeared in the June 2016 issue.