Life aboard

Gaylen steers while Tahoe keeps an eye out for any trouble to windward.

June, 2006

By Allison Bankston
For Points East

Tahoe was a little scared at first. His legs were wobbly, but then, I’m one to talk. The seas were nearly calm, 1 to 3 feet, and I was hanging on like a grandmother strapped loosely in a Six Flags roller coaster. Neither of us had our sea legs yet, and in his eyes I could see the need for reassurance. My biggest fear was that he would fall and break a leg before his balance regulated itself.

My boyfriend, Gaylen, and I launched our newly purchased 1978 Hullmaster 27-foot sloop in Massachusetts early in the spring of 2005 and set off with the goal of sailing her all the way to our homeport of Little Deer Isle, Maine. With no one to watch our English pointer, Tahoe, at home, we figured the trip wouldn’t be THAT hard with him onboard. Right?

With one of the greatest natures a dog could have, Tahoe stuck a smile on his face (yes, the dog actually smiles with rows of dimples). He hunkered down in the cockpit as we left the harbor on our first sail…ever. He immediately took to the sea breeze, the warm sunshine, and the game of trying to catch the flies that whipped by the sailboat.

The trip was a huge undertaking for two novice sailors — four to five days at sea, with a dog, on a vessel we knew virtually nothing about, a head that hadn’t been used in two years, a diesel tank with no gauge, and a GPS system that was so new that we hadn’t finished reading the manual.

We’d stocked up on dog food, treats, rawhides, toys, and blankets with the scent of home, in hopes of making Tahoe feel comfortable. In fact, I think we were more preoccupied with his happiness level than we were with our own safety.

We’re Tahoe’s third family. We’re convinced that before we came along no one had ever played with him or given him much loving attention. Over the last 10 months, since he came to us by way of a “Free Dog” ad in a local shopper, we’ve watched him go from a sullen, cautious pup to a spirited and playful companion with an amazing personality, sense of humor, and range of emotion.

Everywhere we go, people want to meet Tahoe. He’s a beautiful dog, with fish-shaped orange markings on his sides and just the right amount of freckle-colored spots on his face and body. You can’t help but be drawn to him. Folks are constantly asking if he’s friendly, and we patiently, say, “Of course. You can pet him if you want.”

I read somewhere that if you take grass from where your dog normally pees and rub it onto a rubber-backed mat, the dog will “go” on the mat, while you are on a boat. (Don’t give me that look. An expert actually said this). I wonder if anyone ever tested this theory, because it did nothing for Tahoe. He seemed to think we brought the mat for him to use as a bed on deck. I suggested that Gaylen pee on it to encourage Tahoe, but this idea was met only with strange looks from both of them.

Through the roughest waters of the trip, we put Tahoe below, in the cabin, where he could sit on a wide cushion and not fall over. That way, we could concentrate on not dying out on deck instead of making sure the dog didn’t go overboard. We always kept the hatch open, so he could see our faces and feel connected — and so we could check on him.

Surprisingly, during the times we were most afraid, he was the happiest. The wilder it got, the more fun he seemed to have. He’s like a child who loves all those crazy, fast, fair rides that I avoid unless I want to revisit dinner.

By the third day, Tahoe was able to stand up in the cabin and cockpit without falling over as the boat moved. He started to gain more confidence and take more risks. This made the trip more of a challenge for us. I spent the majority of my time repeatedly saying, “Lie down, Tahoe,” and cradling him against me in the cockpit when the waters suddenly became more intense.

After a while, my boyfriend and I were pretty comfortable in our roles, painfully traditional though they were. Gaylen’s job was to run the boat, do most of the sailing, captain the helm, and bark at me more than Tahoe does in a month. My duties were to fix food, deliver drinks, take over the wheel when Gaylen had to eat, sleep, or visit the head, try not to puke from seasickness, and wrangle the dog.

There were two days when it was impossible for us to go to shore. Tahoe still refused to do his business on the mat, and I became very worried about his health.

“This can’t be good for his system to hold it like that,” I told my boyfriend. But he reminded me that dogs aren’t like people. They won’t hold it forever. Eventually, their instincts will kick in and they’ll just relieve themselves wherever they are.

“When that happens,” he told me, “we’ll just deal with it.” That time never came. Tahoe held it, and held it, but I’ll tell you what — when that poor dog finally made it to shore, he managed to mark an entire town. The dogs in that harbor are still talking about his visit to this day.

Now, after a full summer of boating, Tahoe is a full-fledged boat dog. He’s highly respected in the boat-dog community. His face brightens as soon as we even get around boats, and he can’t wait to get aboard. He loves everyone, which is good, because it seems like every Tom, Dick, and deckhand wants to touch him.

Tahoe’s biggest problem now is that we can’t keep him from trotting all over the boat in rough weather. He’s adapted so well that he fails to see the danger of the situation when the vessel is pounding through the waves and lurching in the wind, but we hate to spoil his fun. It’s almost as though boating has become a spiritual and emotional undertaking for him, as it has for us. There’s nothing quite like seeing him standing on the bow of the sailboat, sniffing the salt air, and checking out all the seabirds he could be chasing, while his ears dance in the breeze.

On our last sail of the season, our engine died, and there was no wind — the height of frustration for a sailor. We were only a few hundred feet from the Castine town docks in Maine, and it was quite late in the evening. The harbormaster was kind enough to tow us the rest of the way. As soon as the towboat came along our port side, Tahoe jumped onboard their vessel, surprising and delighting the captain. “Ah, a boat dog!”

Yep, our boat dog. “Tahoe’s his name,” I yelled over, with pride. “You can pet him if you want.”

Allison Bankston is the News Director of Cumulus Media in Brewer, Maine, and a freelance writer. She lives in Brewer with her partner, his two children, and the family dog named Tahoe.