Unwelcome Critters

Unwelcome critter preventer

Unwelcome Critters Aboard

(or Why Our Swim Ladder is Always Raised at Night)


Colin Ward

We have lived in warm southern climates for over 23 years so we are used to seeing larger bugs, insects and other creepy, crawly, slithery, and even feathered critters around in larger quantities than most northerners. Usually, we do not think much about them but when they join us on the boat, we know that fast action is called for. Most critters are relatively harmless, but some are capable of inflicting some serious damage to your boat or stores, or even the crew. We have decided, however, that the more legs they have, the less trouble they are.

The highest legs-per-critter quotient was most definitely in north Texas where we sailed on weekends, and occupied our non-sailing time with work. The first clue was driving to Lake Texoma on weekends and spotting six-inch hairy tarantulas crossing the road while still 200 yards in front of the car. We steered around them safely and they didn’t bother anyone, but they were the precursor of things to come. When we arrived at the boat after a week’s absence, our first task was to clean off the more reasonable sized spiders that had assumed ownership of the boat in the meantime. Spiders are not too hard to remove unless you are an arachnophobe, however, they and their nests were often hidden in tiny openings, even inside the rigging tape that protected us from snagging the lifelines and shrouds. Spraying them with Spider Kill (Marine, of course, available at the Ship’s Store) was the recommended solution to the problem. However, a thorough spider hunt was needed every time we arrived aboard even after absences of only a few days.

Texas is also well populated with six-legged bugs. Mud-daubing wasps build large red mud nests in the most inaccessible reaches of the boat’s interior and mayflies hatch in the spring, sometimes covering the entire vessel with long bodies and gossamer wings, which deteriorate into a greenish slime. After three years in Florida, we were still finding mud-dauber nests tucked away in places that we did not know we had. A mayfly invasion often occurred during the night at anchor. In the morning, we would wake up to find the mainsail cover and much of the deck obliterated by a coating of mayflies. The only course of action was to return to the marina, hook up the hose and start flushing the bodies away.

Since we left Texas and began cruising the East Coast and islands, the eight-legged variety of bugs has disappeared. Six-legged bugs aboard have not been a major problem for us, although we take precautions against bringing cockroaches on the boat. Removing everything from cardboard packaging and making sure we have boric acid tablets in all our lockers and roach motels in the food storage and preparation areas has minimized if not eliminated problems. Mosquitoes and no-see-ums are occasionally a nuisance but non-marine products such as Off and Raid are pretty effective. We did travel the Intracoastal Waterway through North Carolina one Spring and had to acquire an industrial duty fly swatter. The flies liked the underside of our bimini top so our entertainment was standing at the wheel steering with one hand and whacking flies with the other. On two occasions, huge green flies landed that were 3” long and too scary to attack with the fly swatter. Had we been able to capture one in good condition, however, we could have taken it to a taxidermist to be stuffed since it was larger than most of the fish we catch.

Moving on to four-legged critters brings to mind an experience that must have plagued the sailors of old for centuries. Although we do not spend much time in marinas, we entered a shipyard in the Turks and Caicos Islands for some boat work. While waiting to be hauled, we spent a couple of nights in a slip and awoke to hear a pitter-patter sound on deck one night. Our neighbor had a small dog so I jumped up to steer him off the boat but found nothing. We closed the hatches and companionway and went back to bed fearing that the sound may not have been Salty after all. During that night and the next we heard unusual rustling sounds but could never find the source. The proof came after the boat was hauled and we began the work. I climbed into the lazarette and found the unmistakable signs of rat droppings. The next evening, not wishing to alarm my spouse, I set a trap in the lazarette with rat cheese that we had thoughtfully brought along and went to bed. Imagine how excited I was the next morning when I checked the trap and found that I had caught the culprit. The rat was quite dead so I hauled the trap and its contents to the dumpster and disposed of him. I gave my spouse the happy news but she had been in denial, and was not as happy as I had expected since she now knew that there really had been a rat aboard. Upon further investigation, we discovered that the rat had gnawed through the packaging of every food container in our snack food drawer until he found something he liked. Some time later, we opened up the locker lid under our berth and found a cracker and an onion on top of our number one water tank. Undoubtedly, that had been planned as dinner on the night of his demise. I should point out that the marina/shipyard where we took on this stowaway is quite nice, clean and well maintained. The presence of rats should not be held against the marina, after all they did not get the name wharf rats without reason. We assumed that our rat boarded the boat via the dock lines so when we returned to the slip, we made rat deflectors for each dock line from aluminum pie plates with holes through the center, held in place by clothes pins. The theory was that as the rat attempted to pass the pie plate, he would climb on to it, it would spin around on the dock line dumping him into the water. We had no more stowaways as a result of the engineering of the pie plates or possibly just good fortune.

After relating this tale to cruising friends, we heard a story about a fairly new boat that had been left for a month in a beautiful and popular marina in Florida. It was boarded by rats that destroyed the interior before the owners returned. Note that most insurance policies do not cover damage by vermin, so it behooves you to keep them off your boat. Rats can enter a boat through very small openings such as dorade vents, engine blower vents, and of course open ports and hatches. Tough metal screening should be installed over any vent holes that are left open in the owner’s absence. Light plastic screen will not slow a rat down for long. If you are out cruising, carry large wooden spring type rat traps with you and do not waste your money on the sticky “humane” type. Rats after all popularized the bubonic plague, so humane treatment is a bit misplaced. Remember, do not use rat poison on your boat because the poisoned rat may well expire and decompose in a spot that is completely inaccessible to anyone over 6 inches tall.

Rat screen on engine vent

Thinking about problems caused by two-legged critters brings up thoughts of various humans that have crossed paths with Mandalay. Since that is outside the scope of this article, let’s consider our two-legged feathered friends instead. Like most boaters and fellow outdoors people, we enjoy watching pelicans diving, cormorants fishing, ospreys building their huge nests and the occasional eagle flying high in the sky. So which birds qualify as pests? Well, how about the large flock of ducks in Annapolis for starters? Oh those cute mallards, you may ask? Yes, indeed. Those cute mallards have some disgusting habits only known to those cruisers who pick up moorings downtown. We discovered those habits last summer when we took a mooring and left our dinghy streaming off the back of the boat for the night. Around midnight, we heard loud quacking noises that seemed close to Mandalay. Upon checking the source, we saw a half dozen mallards perched on the tube of our inflatable enjoying a quackfest, which included happily relieving themselves of the waste generated by a day of gorging on duck and people food. Shooing them away had a temporary effect, but nevertheless, the first job the next morning was cleaning both tubes and the interior of the dinghy of brutally resistant duck waste to make it suitable for humans again. Other dinghies also fell victim to their own quackfests. We heard that one young, attractive female neighbor was in the cockpit naked shooing away her ducks several times each night, causing Mandalay’s skipper to miss some sleep as he checked to be sure she did not fall overboard. After several quackfests, we selfishly discovered that the solution was to drive the participants to another dinghy by tying ours alongside the mother ship rather than trail it behind. Evidently mallards prefer a 360-degree view.

Two-legged feathered friends all seem to leave their mark in much the same way. Others that come to mind are the appropriately named boat-tailed grackles, locally known as snowbirds, that pass through Florida in spring and fall. Grackles perch on sailboat rigs where they drop onto the deck the mostly undigested red berries they love to eat. Fortunately, the berries are an easy cleanup compared to the mess following a quackfest. Finally, we learned that you do not stand underneath a cormorant if it should find a place to perch in your rigging. You are in danger of being splattered so badly you will have to start your day over again with a shower and clean clothes.

Crittercides on Mandalay

Our final category covers critters with no legs at all which takes us back to an experience in Texas some years ago. We sailed and raced our previous boat, a C & C 33 named Rhiannon, on Lake Texoma and enjoyed anchoring in protected coves and swimming in the warm fresh water. We gave no thought to raising the swim ladder when we were anchored for the evening until one warm night when the wind picked up and I went on deck around midnight to check the anchor. As I stepped into the cockpit, I noticed something wrapped around the backstay several feet above the transom. I assumed at first that it was a line that had gone adrift. But on closer examination with a flashlight, I realized it was a 4 foot snake that had evidently climbed the swim ladder and headed up the backstay perhaps thinking that it was a new tree in the neighborhood (if snakes do indeed think anything at all). Being a devoted husband and father of a useless (as a guard dog) cocker spaniel, my first step was to close all the cabin hatches and install the boards in the companionway to prevent the unwelcome visitor from attacking my family and heading into an inaccessible hidey-hole below. At that point, I grabbed our long (thank goodness) telescoping boat hook and stood on the cabin top as far from the snake as possible but still within reach of it. I swung the boathook like a baseball bat and hit the snake a few times anxiously awaiting its next move. Fortunately, it decided that this was unfriendly territory and slithered down the backstay onto the reverse transom and into the water where it disappeared. It was at this point where a new policy aboard Rhiannon and Mandalay was made – that the swim ladder will always be raised before going to bed at night. But I still wonder whether the nocturnal visitor would have boarded the boat if the ladder had been in the raised position. In any event, I feel that we have taken a step with our policy and have convinced the spouse that future occurrences have been prevented. Friends have asked what kind of snake it was. I do not know for certain, but rather unfriendly water moccasins are common in north Texas so that is my best guess.

Well, that is my list of pests we have encountered, ranked by the number of legs. It is questionable in my mind whether the snake or the rat (sounds like the Chinese New Year) are the most undesirable, but I suspect that the snake would win that honor hands down if it had disappeared below. Hopefully, you will glean a few pointers from our experiences and take steps to prevent rats and snakes from boarding your boat. Remember to keep your ladder up and your pie plates ready!