Destination: Oceans of the World
Book: A Sea Dog’s Tale: The True Story of a Small Dog on a Big Ocean (2012)
By Pamela Douglas Webster
[NOTE: WIN THIS BOOK and read more of Pamela’s thoughts about sailing dogs at Something Wagging This Way Comes.]
Sailor and adventurer Peter Muilenburg tells the story of cruising with his spirited, sailing dog in A Sea Dog’s Tale. The story takes the form of a memoir of a life well-lived. And the dog at its center provokes the storyteller and his reader to weigh the risks and rewards in leading the well-lived life.
Muilenburg spent years building a sailboat at his family’s home in the Virgin Islands, and then took off with his wife and two sons to cruise the world in their new, floating home.
Well, not quite a home. After all, they didn’t have a dog.
A fellow cruiser with a litter of Schipperke puppies convinced the young family that their boat needed a genuine boat dog. Schipperkes had been bred historically to live aboard canal barges and serve as watch dogs. For a modern-era cruiser in an iffy anchorage, a noisy alarm dog could be the difference between keeping a dinghy motor and losing it to an opportunistic thief.
Peter knew that having a dog aboard would complicate their lives. But the boating breeder made a convincing case. And besides, who can resist a puppy?
Santos soon earned his place aboard by being a good crew member. He served as watch dog, provided entertainment, and was often the first spotter of land.
But the dog was more than a crew member for the Muilenburgs. He also gave the family a way to test, justify, and reflect on their chosen lifestyle.
Duke is cruising with his people in the San Blas islands aboard the sailboat Karma.
What was life for? Experience, love, and adventure? Or responsibility, substance, and security? It was hard to have both….The trouble is, it’s hard to assess in process. Hindsight is so much clearer.
By watching a dog’s life, maybe we could get perspective on our own–while there was still time.
And what a life that dog had. Santos had so much excitement, in part, because of his family’s adventurous choices. The oceangoing Schipperke was kidnapped, fell overboard, swam in a crocodile infested river, was hit by two cars, and lived to bark about it. (Apparently cats aren’t the only animals with nine lives.) The Muilenburgs nicknamed the indomitable dog, Perrito Macho, loosely translated as “little dog with big balls.”
Besides worrying if Santos would survive his latest scrape, readers may find one other aspect of the book challenging.Loki, the sailing dog aboard Infinity in the San Blas Islands.
Muilenburg, who trained as a historian, peppers the book with obscure references. And sailing terms are baffling to non-sailors. The reader who is not familiar with Plutarch, the Hanseatic League, and Zoroaster, or who wouldn’t know a halyard from a windlass, might want to keep a dictionary nearby.
I found the book an entertaining armchair adventure that left me thinking about risk, and about the challenge of balancing my responsibility to provide for my own dog’s safety with my desire to give her life-enriching adventures.
In the month I recently spent aboard a sailboat in Panama’s San Blas Islands, I got to meet several families who cruised with dogs (and one with a cat) aboard their sailboats. I learned of the difficulties of keeping food or fishing enough to feed a pet miles from stores. I heard the challenges of choosing routes based on where dogs would be welcome in marinas or anchorages. And anyone who has reluctantly walked a dog will relate to the challenges of providing four walks a day (following a dinghy ride to land) for a dog who simply can’t adjust to “going” on a rug on the deck of a boat.Jack on the deck of the sailboat Gilana.
And yet, every comment about the challenges of having an animal aboard was accompanied by the admission that all the extra work was worth it for the love and enjoyment of having a beloved pet for company.
Muilenberg would obviously agree.
The family’s travels could easily have filled a book without Santos. But the sailing dog with a big heart made their boat a home. His presence made their adventures unique among volumes of sailing adventures. His spirit and love of life served as an example to his family, friends, and even those of us who only know him through this book. And that’s not a bad legacy for a little dog.
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