Dogs and rough seas. Do they go together? I mean, with safety? And comfort?
Looking down the companionway to where Honey lay sadly on the sole surrounded by the vegetables that had gone spilling out of our hammocks, I had my doubts.
And this was only the Chesapeake Bay! What would we encounter sailing offshore?
I reached out to experienced sailor and world traveler, Michelle Segrest, to find out.
Michelle Segrest Sails With Dogs
In 2018, Michelle and her beagle pups sailed 7000 nautical miles, from Germany to the United States (with a stop in Africa along the way).
True to their names, Cap’n Jack Sparrow and Scout took easily to adventure. After all, they were traveling with the people they loved. What more could they need?
Well, a bit more.
Michelle considered carefully if taking Jack and Scout along was best for them. She researched all the information she could find about dogs on long passages. And she spent as much time getting the dogs ready for the trip as she did the boat.
Several bodies of water later, the pups were still happy to be with their people. And Michelle had learned enough to write a book. (No, really. She wrote a book. Check it out.)
In our brief conversation, Michelle gave the following advice for anyone who worries about keeping their pups safe underway—no matter what the sea conditions are.
And it starts before you even set sail.
Avoid Rough Seas With Good Planning
Michelle talked about the importance of pre-passage planning.
Taking advantage of the best weather information and meticulous route planning helped the human and canine crew of Seefalke to enjoy relatively calm conditions.
Charting a proper course made crossing the Gulf Stream, for instance, relatively uneventful. And keeping a close weather watch meant that they didn’t set out from a port the same time other sailors did.
Those choices, to be extremely conservative in pre-passage planning, paid off.
You may think that if you’re sailing inland waters you don’t need to be so meticulous about weather planning. After all, you’re never far from land.
Think again. Remember that voyaging sailors consider land to be the danger, not the water.
And Michelle confirmed that their roughest sailing day was spent on the Bay of Biscay, not the Atlantic Ocean.
Of course, no matter how carefully you plan, the sea has its own ideas. So how else can you keep your dogs safe in rough seas?
Give Your Dogs A Secure Berth
When a gale arose on the Baltic, Michelle braced her legs and strained to keep herself and her two dogs from flying across the cabin.
“They were barely fazed at all, but I was using every muscle in my body to stabilize myself, and them, in this awkward position.” (Segrest, How to Sail With Dogs, pp 68-69.)
When a bilge alarm went off, Michelle had to ease her way out of the berth.
A few well-placed sleeping bags cushioned Jack and Scout from banging into the lee boards. And soon they were back to sleep.
Planning a few safe hidey holes for your dogs to feel secure underway is key to keeping them safe in rough conditions.
Yes, as Michelle reminds us, dogs have a lower center of gravity than humans, making for better balance in active seas. But they’re also much lighter (generally). And you never want them to go flying.
Michelle shared that usually, the safest place for the pups was on the floor. Why add height to the risk?
And speaking of unacceptable risks, should your dog risk his life going to the potty?
Prepare Ahead For Necessities
After a few false starts, Michelle trained Cap’n Jack and Scout to use a fake grass mat on the bow to eliminate. But if the seas became rough, would they be willing to use their usual potty spot?
Would it even be safe?
Probably not. So part of the plan was to give the dogs a secure place to potty underway—a grass mat on the floor of the cockpit.
Yeah, probably not everyone’s ideal. But let’s face it, there are a few gross things we sailors do underway. And if it keeps the pups safe…
Michelle admitted, though, that when seas were really rough, the dogs were less inclined to potty at all. They ate less and didn’t need to eliminate as often.
But thinking ahead about every aspect of dog life on board meant Michelle was ready with a solution if the pups needed it.
Keep The Dog on Board
With a nice hidey-hole below, there’s no reason to have your dog topsides in rough weather.
But even in calm conditions, the unexpected can happen.
In our cruising grounds, it’s often a rough wake from a passing sport fishing boat. On the ocean or large bays, it could be a rogue wave or a sudden squall.
You can’t be too cautious.
That’s why Michelle outfitted her dogs and her boat for maximum safety.
Their sturdy, steel-hulled boat had stainless rails. The addition of heavy-duty sea webbing made it equally safe for the people and the dogs.
They ran jack lines and tethered the dogs to them when they were up on the deck (expert tip: Michelle recommends marine-quality hardware; it resists corrosion better).
And of course, if despite all planning and the worst happens, Michelle recommends life jackets (why of course), a MOB alert transponder, and a plan for retrieving your dog back on board.
And finally, there was one big of advice Michelle didn’t say directly in our brief chat. But she didn’t have to. Because she lived it.
And it was obvious in everything she did to keep Cap’n Jack and Scout safe and happy onboard.
Know Your Dogs
In her book, Michelle summed her dogs up well with this short story:
“When Cap’n Jack and Scout first stepped aboard our 43-foot steel ketch, Seefalke, they walked around the small vessel and sniffed every corner. Then, tails wagging, they looked up at us, and it was as if they shrugged their shoulders and said, ‘I guess we live here now.’ Then they curled up on the settee in the main saloon and settled in. ” (Segrest, How to Sail With Dogs, p 3)
I have no doubt that if Cap’n Jack and Scout had shown any hesitance or fear on the boat, Michelle would have made a different plan. (Expert tip: Be sure you know your dog’s stress signs. Here are 13 ways dogs shows us they’re stressed that might surprise you.)
But in thousands of miles traveled by air and sea, the pups had everything they needed. They were loved. And they had each other.
Can You Keep Your Dogs Happy In Rough Seas
Would your dog be as comfortable crew members as Cap’n Jack and Scout? Only you know for sure.
But it’s a sure bet that any dog can be made happier underway by making their comfort and safety your first priority.
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How do you do that? Well, a good first start is to grab your own copy of “HOW TO SAIL WITH DOGS–100 Tips for a Pet-Friendly Voyage” (click the link to find all the places you can buy the book).
I can’t say my dog Honey would be happy on a rough ocean crossing—especially if we felt it was necessary for us to keep her below (my dog has a chronic case of FOMO).
But after reading Michelle’s book and watching the accompanying videos, I know I have a better idea of what it would take to keep my dog safe in rough seas than I did before.
Thank you, Michelle, for taking the time to talk to me on the phone. And for writing such a valuable book for anyone who dreams of long-distance voyaging with their dogs.
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