Jumping Joe the seagoing cat cashes in one life
It was with some trepidation that I ordered the mooring line cast off in the frighteningly swift current of the Merrimack River, and began a journey to the alluring waters of Martha's Vineyard.
There was apprehension on several levels. New boat. Two daughters aboard. Radical life changes ahead.
In these things, though, I also found much confidence and anticipation.
The Greek poet Constantine P. Cavafy, expounding on the mythical journey of Odysseus to the island of Ithaka, urges us not to fear the Cyclops and Poseidon, the demons of the sea. "You will not meet them unless you carry them in your soul," he writes, and I had taken his poetic advice to heart.
Joe, in a sporting moment. Photo by Steve Myrick
For my feline first mate, however, I felt no such confidence or anticipation, and I was quite sure we'd meet the demons along our course.
Joe the Cat had been outdoors only twice in his life, since I picked him up from a Vermont barn with a handwritten sign outside that advertised, "Kittens, any size, any color."
The first time he was outside was to go to the veterinarian for neutering and vaccinations. The second time was in response to a fire alarm in my building.
In both cases, Joe resisted with near lethal force entering his cat carrier, then commenced a sustained howl that may very well have violated city noise ordinances. I considered recording the screech and renting it to sound technicians who work on horror films.
So, as we exited the treacherous Merrimack inlet at the break of day, I had pretty much steeled myself to the probability that Joe the Cat would need a new, non-floating home. He was unlikely to adapt, but I wanted to give it a shot.
The winds were "light and variable." That means, if you happen to be taking Atlantic Ocean swells directly abeam, that your sails will slam around as if angry Poseidon himself has a grip on your hull, your boat will roll like a kayak with a fat man aboard, and you'll make very little progress toward your destination. Joe was a howling, drooling mess.
The uncomfortable sea conditions gradually improved. The howling continued, with very brief abatements, due, I suspect, to exhaustion.
On the third day of the journey, a lovely, warm August morning with only the Cape Cod Canal, Buzzard's Bay, and Woods Hole between us and Vineyard Sound, a glimmer of hope appeared.
During the times when Joe could find a sail bag or a cushion to burrow completely under, the howling stopped. Turning on the engine would immediately induce a new round of ear splitting feline vocalization, but for longer and longer stretches of the day, it was relatively quiet.
The poet advises travelers to "ask that your way be long, full of adventure." He concludes that it is not the destination, but the journey, which makes you rich.
I am not certain that two cat shrieking days was what Cavafy meant, but I wondered if on some level, Joe's grudging acceptance of his fate meant he was coming around to the same idea.
Over the next month, in the relatively calm waters of Vineyard Haven, Joe appeared to get used to the idea of living aboard a sailboat.
When you think about it from a cat's point of view, there are lots of big strings to play with, and it smells like fish a lot of the time. What's not to like?
He began to tolerate his new accommodations, even to thrive. His usual aggressive personality returned. There were many new hiding places from which to plan elaborate ankle-biting ambushes. He got more and more sure-footed around the deck.
One day, I was out for a solo sail in Vineyard Haven outer Harbor, with a jib sheet in each hand, steering with my knee. I noticed Joe had gone forward. He was standing on the foredeck with great self-assurance. If he could talk, I'm sure he would have leaned out over the bow and shouted "I'm king of the world!"
Last week, as I sat on deck enjoying a spectacular moonlit evening, the sky full of stars, and the last temperate breezes of summer rippling the water, I noticed some odd movement at the stern.
Joe was jazzed from an earlier wrestling bout, so I thought perhaps he was speeding on kitty adrenaline. I also considered the possibility that the moonlight was playing tricks on me, or that I had a few more sips of bourbon than I imagined.
About five minutes later, Joe came scrambling over the cabin top, hit the afterdeck in one jump, and cleared about four feet of Vineyard Haven Harbor before he landed in the inflatable dinghy.
Joe trotted up and down the inflatable tubes as it swung in the wind, as if it were the most natural thing in the world. He leaned down over the side, sniffing the water from a distance of mere inches.
It is usually a mistake to attribute human emotions to animals, but if the expression on his face was not smug, then I don't know a boom from a boat hook.
After a minute or two, he took a running leap, and landed back on the stern of the boat. He repeated this exercise three or four more times that evening, and on several subsequent evenings as I sat with my mouth agape.
About a week later, not wanting Joe the Cat to tempt fate in a light rain, I let the dinghy painter out to maximum length. The inflatable was bobbing about 12 feet off the stern.
At 11:45 p.m., I awoke to the most desperate howling imaginable. I do not know if the Guinness Book of World Records has a category for this, but if there is a cat on the planet capable a higher decibel level, I do not want to know about it.
Rushing out on deck in the rain and the dark, I spied Joe, bobbing in the water, with one desperate claw hanging onto the dinghy's grab rope.
The first impulse was to jump in the water, but the thought of trying to corral the cat, wet, terrified, and with claws way sharper than mine, gave me pause. I can imagine the headline in The Martha's Vineyard Times: "Miracle cat survives, boat owner bleeds to death."
Instead of jumping in, I gently drew the dinghy closer, lowered myself down while being careful not to disengage Joe's tenuous grasp, and helped him slither aboard.
Two towels later, he stopped howling.
In the ensuing week, he has ventured back out on deck, with what seems like the proper balance of confidence and caution. He has not gone near the dinghy again.
So, Joe the Cat, the best first mate I have ever known, is down to eight lives. My only life, no doubt, is a bit shortened.
I still wish the journey to Ithaka is long and full of adventure, as Mr. Cavafy writes, "so that when you reach the island you are old, rich with all that you have gained on the way." And, I hope Joe makes it, along with me.