Three Cats on a 30-Foot Sailboat (and Why My Cats No Longer Live Aboard)
St. Croix, like many places in the world, has a feral cat problem. Everyone on St. Croix who wants a cat has at least four. Everyone who doesn't want one has at least one.
And so I found myself, a lover of cats, with seven formerly feral cats at the time that I sold my farm to move onto a boat. Luckily, the person who purchased the farm was willing to take on some of the cats, and so I left the farm and moved onto a boat with exactly one cat per 10 feet of boat. I would've taken them all if it had been remotely reasonable.
I was very worried about how my three mostly outdoor cats - Cooper, May, and Melee - would do on a boat. They were all born in the bush and had never been solely indoor cats. They'd been allowed to roam freely outdoors most of their lives.
Would they jump off the boat and try to swim to land? Could they even swim? Would they be miserable and depressed at their new circumstances? And, ugh - a litter box?
I transported them all in cat carriers via dinghy to their new home at anchor and released them inside the cabin. I'd closed off all exits so no one could bolt into the water (Cooper had been known to literally climb the concrete walls of the vet's office, so my fears weren't without merit).
They explored inside and were equal parts confused and curious, but adjusted relatively quickly. I kept them locked inside for a couple days before letting them on deck, where they stayed for only a moment before going inside.
I'd purchased a cheap rug and cut it into strips that I hung off the side of the hull as a way to climb up if they went overboard. I knew that, in an anchorage with a sometimes swift current and big swell, the carpet might do very little to help them, but it gave me some peace of mind. I had to accept the fact that if they went over in bad conditions, it might end sadly.
As it turned out, though, they never seemed to consider the idea of jumping. In fact, they spent most of their time inside (unless we were on deck), except at night when they would make rounds from the companionway and across the top of the deck to the hatch, where they would jump in on top of us as we slept. Then they'd return to the companionway only to repeat over and over. I never figured out why they only liked to go outside at night (except that they slept all day). Either way, I lost some significant sleep to a certain 15-pound cat landing on my face throughout the night.
When I began the floor painting project in December 2019, I decided to move the cats to my parents' house (to complete the project and so I could do some traveling). Normally chill Melee put up a real fight getting into the cat carrier (and very nearly won); she shed a significant amount of fur and I shed a significant amount of skin before I finally wrangled her in. She growled for about a day straight and hasn't been in a cat carrier since. But after another dinghy ride, they made it back to land for the first time in four months, where they happily settled into indoor cat life with much more square footage than the boat had to offer.
Covid happened, and a series of unplanned events led to the cats still being there in May 2020 when I hauled my boat out. And so the cats stayed at my parents' house while my boat was on the hard for 15 months. I couldn't imagine having three cats in a fiberglass dust coated boat in the boatyard, and I was thankful that they (and I) had a place to stay while I did a full restoration on my boat.
As my boat neared the launch date, we all had concerns about bringing them back to the boat again after so much time off the boat. The transition to the boat had been relatively smooth the first time, but I wasn't sure it would be a second time. The dynamics between the three cats was never wonderful in the small space of the boat; two cats were often at odds with one another at any given time. I don't think the cats ever disliked the boat, but it was clear that they were happier in the house, with more space (and more food - my parents grow big cats). I wasn't sure Melee or I would survive getting her back in a cat carrier. I debated taking just Cooper, but he's a very social cat, or just Mae, but I was afraid she'd be lonely when I was off the boat. I also do a significant amount of traveling not on my boat, which would mean a lot of back and forth between the boat and land for the cats. And so we decided they'd remain, instead, at my parents'. It wasn't an easy choice, but it's one we made with the wellbeing of the cats at the forefront of considerations.
I don't think having cats on a boat is inherently a good or bad thing. Some cats are happy to live out their days on the water; some have never known anything else; some would prefer staying on land. Mine were somewhere in between, I think, but I think lean a bit more toward land kitties than sea cats.
If you're thinking about bringing your feline family member aboard, I learned a few things that were key to having cats on board that might be helpful to you:
A dedicated litter box space is essential. I put mine inside the chart table cabinet and cut a hole in the side so they could go in and out (so I could still close the cabinet from the front). Consider how you'll secure it while underway or in a rolly anchorage. A dedicated space keeps the spread of litter at bay; otherwise, it will be all over the boat. And litter in the bilge is no bueno. I'd highly recommend a mat that removes litter from their paws next to/underneath the box as well.
Cats, especially younger ones, need toys to keep them active on a boat. Mine liked this one. If they're accustomed to being outdoors, or even by windows with activity outside, they will likely be a bit under-stimulated on a boat.
Be sure to feed them a healthy diet. If they've been outdoors, they've probably been getting some nutrition from hunting and foraging. Lots of cat foods lack those kinds of things. If you have plants on board, make sure they're not toxic to cats, because they may try to eat them.
Give them small spaces to get away and feel safe, but make sure they can't access any place that's dangerous (like the engine room) or where they may get stuck. There were many times that I had difficulty locating my cats on my 30-foot boat, but once I learned their favorite spots, I knew where to look and appreciated that they hiding spots.
Cats will scratch. If you don't want it to be your cushions, get a scratching pad (I've had lots of different kinds; my cats always prefer cardboard ones like these.). If they do scratch the cushions, try this tape. It's ugly and will also make you not want to sit on your cushions, but it did seem to deter mine from scratching. Do not declaw your boat cat; if it goes overboard, it will need those claws to be able to climb back onto the boat.
My boat cat experience is limited to about four months at anchor, not in a marina, which I think can be a very different situation. I know people whose marina cats explore off the boat, but remember that not everyone loves cats, and not everyone will welcome your cat aboard (even though your cat might welcome themselves aboard anywhere they please). I've had some very angry boat friends when a marina cat used their cockpit as a litter box...repeatedly.
Having pets on board (of any type) is rarely convenient, but anyone who's ever had a pet knows that they're often worth the extra effort. When I sail with Jerrad, we take his dog, Gidget; it can be time intensive and expensive to make sure she has everything required to enter a country. In some places, it's very easy to clear in with pets, but don't ever assume it will be - make sure all your paperwork is in order! I never sailed anywhere with my cats on board, but if you do choose to, you'll need to make sure to have all required vaccines, veterinary appointments , etc. Failure to do this can have really bad outcomes when traveling (like having your boat being turned away, or worse).
Cats can be really great boat pets; a friend of mine has a cat that is a good swimmer, loves dinghy rides and trips to land. Even cats that started out life as feral cats, like mine, can make the transition. So much of what makes an animal a good boat pet has to do with the temperament of the animal, its needs and your ability to meet those needs. Generally, the more you can be with your pet, the happier it'll be; on a boat, that's even more important.
Sometimes I miss having boat kitties, but more often I'm grateful that my parents were willing to give them a home that seems to be a better fit for them.
This post contains Amazon Affiliate links to some boat cat related items. I do make a small amount of money if you purchase the items following those links and I appreciate the extra income, but I also appreciate you visiting your local pet store and supporting local businesses, too, when possible.