The carpe diem cat
The life and times of a seafaring feline that seized the day.
The adventures of a seafaring feline that seized the day to travel the world and broaden his mind.
It was wet season at River Bend Marine, in Fort Lauderdale, Florida and rain was a perpetual dismal drizzle. Not the spirited rain of the subtropics but a windless dump of high humidity.
Our boat was freshly relaunched and we were ready to head north to the Arctic when, one morning I noticed a damp ball of grey fur huddled, tightly-furled in a corner of the cockpit.
As I gingerly reached towards the kitten, it opened one big black eye and lifted its head slightly to meet my eye with an imploring stare. The small body shivered uncontrollably as I carried it below. We soon had it slurping warm milk from a saucer then snuggled deep into a blanket, heaving a contented, full-belly sigh.
As the feline waif fleshed out on a regular diet, the dark grey stripes on his fur stood out from their light grey backdrop. I decided he looked like a pin-striped Italian dandy and dubbed him Luigi – a name he wore for the rest of his adventurous life.
There were a few practical considerations to him joining us on Elkouba. We had no refrigeration and the cat would have to, like us, eat fresh food when it was available and dried or canned food when it wasn’t.
Another problem was the other end of the feline food chain – what to do with pussy poo? We asked other yachties who had cats on
board and they advised using a plastic litter container and sand from the nearest beach, which could be emptied over the side after use.
So, when we bid farewell to the boatyard, our new crewmember, fleshed out by regular feeding and affection, sat smugly on the foredeck, taking in the sights and smells of Fort Lauderdale as we negotiated our way to the Atlantic Ocean.
We worked our way northwards through the Intracoastal Waterway – our feline crew pacing the deck, sniffing the breeze, or taking the sun as the scenery slid past. We figured he had to have come from the seafaring genes of a cat that had jumped ship in Florida.
Luigi created no problems for the affable officer who cleared us into Canada at Shelburne, Nova Scotia. By then he had been neutered and had an ‘Animal Pratique Passport’ with his photograph and all his vaccination records, signed off by the vets who had administered them.
Luigi behaved like a sailor should – well, a neutered sailor anyway – and spent nights ashore on the ran tan all up the Atlantic seaboard. He often didn’t make it back aboard, but we soon found that if we walked around the vicinity and called his name he’d come bounding out from under the nearest warehouse or wherever he’d been sleeping off his nocturnal excesses and leap on board in time to sail.
As we sailed north, our tropical cat’s coat thickened to protect him from the plummeting temperatures.
He proved to be a great back-up for radar and we motored gingerly into the fogbound harbour at St Pierre, guided by Luigi’s nose pointing unerringly at the fishing wharf.
One night, as we rowed through thick Newfoundland fog from a party ashore, the familiar, plaintive “meow” of a lonely Luigi knifed through the murk. We stroked towards the noise, then stopped until the next “meow” echoed across the water. We rowed in that direction bumping into a moored fishing boat that loomed out of the mist. The feline homing beacon had come into his own and had feasted royally on cod livers before curling contentedly in front of a freshly-lit fire.
Next port of call was Iceland, 10 days away. Luigi’s seagoing regimen consisted mostly of sleeping, eating and toilet, though he did get excited about the ripe and redolent fin whale carcass we sailed past.
Luigi knew what it was like to spend a long watch in the cockpit on a cold North Atlantic night. He would cuddle up under our wet weather gear like a furry belly warmer, or snooze inside beside the stove. There is nothing better for restoring one’s body core temperature than the sight of a contented cat asleep beside a flickering fire. He responded to being stroked by our white cold fingers with the same contented purr he’d given our warm caresses in the tropics.
But as soon as land came within range of Luigi’s wildly wrinkling nose, he’d be up and running around the deck; ripe for adventure.
We tied up to a whale chaser in Reykjavik and soon the hardened whalemen were leaning on the bulwarks ‘miaowing’ loudly to attract Luigi’s attention as he lolled on deck in the watery, late summer sun.
After a stormy passage south, Luigi caught his first whiff of Scotland and dashed around the decks, romping on the canvas dodger, as we spent the night navigating
... soon the hardened whalemen were leaning on the bulwarks “miaowing” loudly to attract Luigi’s attention ...
into Campbelltown. By dawn he had squirrelled himself away among the sails where he stayed, sound asleep, while the customs and quarantine people were aboard.
I’m not a natural liar so I ticked the box on the clearance form that asked if we had an animal aboard, but ignored the one which queried what sort of animal it was. So when we sailed from Campbelltown, Luigi had become a Scottish cat. Lachlan maybe?
We locked into Swansea Marina on the Welsh coast where he strolled the docks, sniffing around whatever boat took his fancy. Children jostled on the pier beside Elkouba to pat the cat as he lay snoozing in the paltry patches of sunshine on the side deck.
Next spring Luigi sailed north again, bound for Norway. Because of rabies, carried by foxes that cross between America and Scandinavia on the winter ice pack, we didn’t want to take Luigi to Norway so he moved in with friends in Shetland where he spent a feral summer in their barn. He quickly became locallyfamed as an ardent mouser but he seemed keen to move back aboard when we returned in autumn.
Bitter gale-force winds had started to sweep the north as we sailed to Stornoway, with Luigi curled up in his customary spot beside the stove. He soon had the tough Scottish fisherfolk wound round his little grey paws. “Och here,” they’d say and proffer a gut-splattered bucket, “I saved some livers for yer wee poossy.”
When we pulled into Dun Laoghaire, Ireland and tied alongside a local trawler, Luigi, ever the brash American, bounded aboard and befriended the two brothers who worked her. This bit of trans-atlantic diplomacy secured us a few day’s supply of free flounder.
Luigi’s next landfall was Muros, in Spain and he seemed pleased to be back among yachting folk. The sociable puss soon made himself at home among the French, German and Spanish yachts tied to the small wharf, modestly lapping up praise and admiration in a variety of languages.
In Madeira, our affable American crewcat wandered among the cruising yachts, befriending whoever took his fancy, particularly a Japanese single-hander who eventually sailed off, determined to find his own cat.
Back at sea, the maritime moggy was no slouch when it came to fresh food. At night, he’d wake from a sound sleep belowdecks and leap to his feet, eyes wide and ears erect.
He’d streak through the yellow light of the kerosene lamp and return seconds later with a flying fish flapping in his mouth and dispose of it, it down to the last scale, on the cabin sole.
But, in the Caribbean, our indomitable feline finally fell ill. Kidney problems were diagnosed and treatment had to be administered by a veterinarian every day for a week. Each morning I’d gingerly lift his limp body, curled up in a private pain, into a plastic box and row him ashore. On the beach, I’d heft the box onto my head and, emulating the island ladies’ load-carrying technique, walk him across island to the clinic.
Elkouba’s on board dynamics changed a bit with the addition of our son, Alisdair, who was born at Anguilla. Luigi took the newcomer in his stride and spent hours on watch, batting at Ali’s cot as it swung backwards and forth from its deckhead fastenings.
Our worldly little cat supervised Elkouba’s transit of the Panama Canal from the foredeck and haughtily ignored the line handlers who called out “pusspusspuss” from the lock sides to try and distract him from his duties.
I asked at the New Zealand embassy in Samoa about Luigi coming home to New Zealand but the answer was an emphatic and unequivocal “NO.” So we set sail with heavy hearts for Penrhyn, in the Cook archipelago. The only vehicles there were a couple of mopeds and the island council had banned dogs – a perfect cat habitat.
When Elkouba sailed out a few weeks later, Luigi watched from the Penrhyn’s wharf, safe in the arms of a local family. For years after we received photographs and stories of his tropical lifestyle; mostly spent in hot pursuit of coconut crabs and rodents.
Then one day we received a letter to say that Luigi had died peacefully from old age on Penrhyn. The eventful life of Luigi was over.
RIP faithful shipmate, intrepid adventurer. BNZ
He’d streak through the yellow light of the kerosene lamp and return seconds later with a flying fish flapping in his mouth...
TOP RIGHT Luigi joined our boat as a kitten. We found him – emaciated and freezing – curled up inElkouba’s cockpit one morning.
TOP RIGHT OPPOSITE The statue of the blind Captain Cat (from Dylan Thomas’s radio dramaat Under Milk Wood) Swansea Marina. BOTTOM RIGHT OPPOSITE The adventurous cat’s first landfall – Shelburne in Nova Scotia.
FAR LEFT Luigi felt right at home transiting the Panama Canal.LEFT Scotland’s Stornoway Harbour – the cat made lots of friends among the fisherfolk.
LEFT Luigi’s favourite snack – he was instantly alert to a wayward flying fish landing on our deck.