Your Ship’s Cat: Equipping Your Boat with a Feline First Mate

By Kate Romero

The National Marine Manufacturers Association says that there are 12.4 million boat owners in the U.S. The U.S. Humane Society says there are more than 95 million cats owned in the U.S. Put those together and you have the potential for a lot of cats on boats.

Cats have been carried on ships for thousands of years, originally for catching mice and rodents, now mainly because they look adorable in a sailor suit. If you’re considering boating with your cat and carrying on the feline seafaring tradition, make sure you and your cat are both prepared before you shove off.

Blackie, the HMS Prince of Wales ship’s cat gained fame for befriending Winston Churchill during the Second World War. Public domain image via Wikimedia Commons.

Does Your Cat Have His Sea Legs?

Whether you’re a power boater or sailboat captain, its a good idea to take classes and qualify for a boater license (especially if your state requires) to master your craft. Unfortunately, not much training will tell you how to prepare for a feline first mate. Often your best resources are the experiences of others who have sailed that route before you.

To begin with, suggests the Frugal Mariner, you need to know if your cat is seaworthy. Not all felines heed the call of the sea. Here are a few signs that your cat may be seriously stressed out by a life at sea:

  • They are very timid and hide from everything
  • They don’t tolerate loud noises
  • They are a senior cat with stability issues
  • They don’t like being indoors at all
  • They have poor eyesight (that’s just asking for a kitty-overboard situation)

These cats will be miserable on board and both of you will have an unhappy voyage together.

If you’ve decided to give “cat boating” a try, then start slowly and get them acclimated to the boating life.

A brave kitty mascot snuggled in a gun muzzle of the HMAS Encounter, World War I. Public domain image via Wikimedia Commons.

Making the Boat Cat-Ready

You’ll need to bring several things to the boat in preparation for your cat’s first visit:

  • Towels, linen, cat beds – anything the cat sleeps on that has its scent
  • Cat toys – again those items with lots of use and comforting familiarity
  • Water bowl and food dishes – these need to be extra heavy so they don’t move around the boat
  • Water and food – bring a jug of water from home since the water at the marina may taste “off” to them
  • Cat carrier or box – bring something familiar that the cat can hide in if it gets too stressed
  • Litter box – buy a new litter box for the boat and use the same brand of litter so there aren’t too many changes

With all of the cat accessories on board, it’s time to make the boat cat proof. Walk around the boat and look for every possible place where a cat could squeeze into if frightened. Make sure all cabinets and hatches are securely fastened, especially dangerous areas such as the engine compartment.

Pooli a ship's cat

Pooli was a World War II veteran who served aboard a U.S. attack vessel. Public domain image via Wikimedia Commons.

A Day Trip in the Slip

Start by bringing your cat to the slip with you to get them used to the noises around the marina. Sit with them on the boat, letting them wander under your supervision. Pack a lunch and spend a few hours with them. Talk to them and pet them frequently to let them know you’re still there and that they are safe. Just like moving into a new house or apartment with your cat, you’ll know when they begin to settle down.

Keep the engine off the first few times in the boat with your cat. Then you can start it up and let it run at idle while the cat gets used to the noise. Move around the boat and watch how the cat reacts to you not being near. Some cats will try to climb all over the boat. Others will be happy to stick around in the cockpit. Once they seem calm about the noise and your movement around the boat, head out for a leisurely ride.

Pebbles ship's cat

Peebles, another World War II ship’s cat aboard a U.K. vessel. Public domain image via Wikimedia Commons.

Safety and Security

Know where your cat is at all times when you’re on the boat with them. Even more than when you’re at home, know what your cat is doing or getting into. If they take to the sea life, then they will develop their own habits and find favorite places to hang out on the boat.

You will also want to get into the habit of putting your cat in its carrier or locking it down below while you’re occupied on deck. Going out of or coming into a slip, trimming sails, tacking, putting out or bringing in fenders requires your concentration so you won’t want the cat under foot. Or worse, tumbling overboard while you’re not looking.

Cat on board boat

Modern-day ship’s cat, Lucy. This image and cover photo via Flickr user A.Davey.

About the author: Kate leads a nomadic lifestyle, traveling and blogging about destinations around the world.

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Your Ship’s Cat: Equipping Your Boat with a Feline First Mate — 5 Comments

  1. What a very interesting article and pictures too!
    Really good advice, always putting the cats welfare first, I LOVE that!

  2. Me too – what Ruth and Rose said! Really nice interesting article with some important and useful information and a nice bit of History. Ship’s cats are somehow mysterious in my mind. If I was on a ship I’d want my particular job to include caring for the Ship’s cat. I think it would be very nice to have a cat around whilst at sea, as long as the cat had enough space and was happy and satisfied. Those ships look big so there’s more than enough room for many cats I guess. This reminds me of the seacat ‘Trim’ from an earlier article. I remember reading about Trim on wikipedia that he was one a few cats onboard.

    The history and phenomena of ship’s cats is very interesting. It’s a reminder of where domestication and the relationship between cat and human began. Humans indeed needed cats to protect them from rats and mice getting at their food supplies and in return the cats are well fed and warmer in winter. A ship cat is like a barn cat but just something I hadn’t thought about much before.

    One assumes cats will never be near or have anything to do with water. It’s certainly conditioned into my subconcious. My first reaction is exactly that – but in my experience cats are actually obsessed or at least interested in water, whether in a bowl, from the tap or large bodies of water. What then is the thing that makes us all think cats hate water? I guess I was just told that as a child. They don’t hate water and they don’t all hate getting wet all the time.

    As for preparing to go on a boat ride with your cat the advice is good common sense. As long as you go slow then your cat will be comfortable and confident.

    Thanks for the great article and pictures Kate. 🙂

  3. Very informative article. I learned a lot about things I had never thought about before.
    Personally, I can’t even be on a docked boat without being sick – even all drugged up on anti-nausea medications.
    Do cats ever get sea sick?

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