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Sailing with your best friend

2010 January 5
There's no need to leave your four-legged crew behind when you leave the dock

While sitting aboard the plane on our maiden voyage to lands unknown to us, both my partner Matthew and I sat dreaming of two very different things. Visions of classic sailboats, visually dynamic spinnakers and dreams of taking the tiller on an effortless tack across the Caribbean danced through his head while thoughts of "I wonder if the dogs will cope with the heat," and "I hope there are dog-friendly beaches in Puerto Rico" wandered through my own. Within a very short time of arriving at the tropical island that was to be our home for an undetermined length of time, it became as crystal clear as the blue waters that surrounded us that we were going to have to do some serious strategizing to combine our two loves: his of the sea and mine of the dogs.

We began our planning with my priority being the health, safety and comfort of the dogs while Matthew got right down to the technical brass tacks of having a four-legged crew and what that meant for a captain who would be in charge of getting his crew to dry land for "potty breaks."

Health and safety go hand-in-hand (or should I say paw-in-paw). Just as you need to carry a first-aid kit for yourself, you need to have a well-stocked first-aid kit for your canine friends while sailing. This will give you peace of mind knowing that you are well prepared for anything that may come your way in terms of your dogs' well-being while at sea.

Having a health card that lists your dogs' vital signs while at rest along with any health conditions and medications is also wise to have on hand in case someone not familiar with your dog has to treat him. For those staying in port for an extended period of time, plan to locate contact information and directions to the local emergency veterinary clinic along with contacts for cab services as well. During an emergency, you may not have a clear enough mind to search for numbers and directions.

There are some minor injuries and ailments that you can treat on your own and will be necessary if you are under sail at the time. There are a variety of natural remedies that are safe and easy to use with little to no contradictions that you can store in your first-aid kit and have ready at your disposal when needed.

One important thing to remember, especially when traveling through the Caribbean, is that there is a very deadly substance called "Tres Pasitos" that is used as a rat poison in marinas and boatyards. This is an illegal substance and is the known cause of death in many tragedies throughout the Caribbean islands. Always walk your dog on leash when in unfamiliar surroundings and never allow them to eat leftover foods or lick containers that are lying around. These could be laced with the deadly poison in an effort to keep the rat and sadly, the stray dog population, down in some areas. Symptoms of Tres Pasitos poisoning include vomiting, frothing at the mouth, trembling, seizures and ultimately death. If you notice any of these symptoms in your dogs after they have ingested something you have not given them you must induce vomiting and get them to a licensed veterinarian immediately.

It is important to have an ample supply of fresh water and unflavored Pedialyte on board for your canine travelers. You will need to make certain that they are hydrated at all times and have access to shade either by going belowdecks or under a bimini. Dogs are very susceptible to heat stroke and therefore, while it may appear to be just a matter of comfort to have shade, for dogs it is always a health and safety necessity. In cold climates some dogs may require sweaters and rain jackets that are specially made for dogs. Maintaining their body temperature is just as important for them as it is for you.

It is recommended to keep your dog on the same diet they would normally eat if they were not accompanying you on your sail. For our dogs this means packing an extra cooler with ice for their raw meaty bones. For some this may mean packing kibble in vacuum-sealed bags to keep the food dry and fresh. Do not be tempted to share your rations with your dogs-the change in food will only add to any digestive upset that they may already be having and you risk the chance of them having an allergic reaction.

Along with having access to fresh water and food your canine companions will need a place to relieve themselves. Small breeds can be trained to use "potty pads" that can easily be placed on the deck and then discarded, but this does add to your trash load. Some dogs can easily be trained to use an area of the boat that is easy to clean, such as the cockpit near the scuppers. Larger dogs or dogs like our own that absolutely are appalled that we would ask them to do their business anywhere other than on land may need to be brought to shore whenever possible.

Smaller dogs can easily be transported to and from the boat to a dinghy or kayak by carrying or using their life jacket as a way to lift them. Larger dogs are a bit more difficult unless your boat is designed with built-in steps in the transom. When all else fails, you have to become creative. One method is to attach a basket or safe netting that can hold the weight of your dog to the end of the boom with a block and tackle, swing the boom over the rail and slowly lower the dog into the dinghy.

It is widely know that some breeds take pride in their ability to swim and their water skills-Labradors and Chesapeake Bay retrievers are just two breeds that take to water like a duck. Then there are breeds (and we won't name names) that are not as, well, "gifted" in the swimming department and you will need to be even more careful with these breeds that they do not accidently fall into the water, especially while under sail. Dogs should wear a life jacket specifically made for dogs while on your boat. Even strong swimmers would tire before you can retrieve them, especially in a seaway. In strong seas and during inclement weather it is advised to have your dogs go belowdecks for their safety and yours. Having your beloved companion on deck while you navigate the waves and trim your sails will only divide your attention. Consider it as dangerous as having your dog on your lap while you drive your car in busy traffic.

I assure you that animal and sea lovers alike can combine their hobbies for an enjoyable and safe experience for everyone. It will without a doubt take some planning and organizing, but the effort will be well worth it and the peace of mind in knowing you are prepared is invaluable.

Now as we set sail off the coast of Puerto Rico for a day or weekend trip we have different visions dancing through our heads. While Matthew is basking in the Caribbean warmth and grateful for a sound, sturdy boat that carries his loved ones (two- and four-legged) across the changing seas, I'm dreaming of a larger boat that will, of course, allow us to bring more four-legged companions along.

About the author: Jessica Westleigh resides in the coastal town of Fajardo, Puerto Rico. She specializes in holistic health care for animals and people and is an avid trainer and competitor in canine sports. She and her partner Matthew sail their Catalina 25 off the coast of Puerto Rico with aspirations to travel throughout all of the Caribbean-with their dogs on board. She can be reached at www.theholisticbeing.com.