Photo: Jack, our new boat cat, at three months.
I looked at a sleeping ball of orange fluff in a cage at the Seattle Animal Shelter and immediately wanted to take the kitten home. But how could I tell if he would make a good boat cat? From past experiences with several cats, we believed that good boat cats are adventurous, adaptable and not overly prone to seasickness, characteristics hard to discern in just a few minutes of looking into a cage.
Steve and I were looking for a replacement for Jigger, our boat and house cat of 13 years. He had disappeared last spring from our yard
just before we left for Alaska. Now, five months later, we had finally confronted the reality that he was not going to reappear on our front porch. Several sightings of coyotes in our neighborhood suggested Jigger had most likely been a victim of these predators.
All summer I had missed his loud meows greeting us each time we returned after a shoreside expedition. Without his companionable presence next to the chart plotter as we sailed, the boat felt empty. It was time to find a new boat cat.
The orange kitten did have one characteristic that might have told us he'd be a good boat cat if we'd understood its significance. He is polydactyl, with six toes per each front paw, while most cats have five (the Guiness World Record for feline toes is 28, spread out on all four paws).
Photo: Jack's front paws showing extra toes.
The two extra toes made him look a bit clumsy, but I liked the idea of having a cat that was different. At any rate there weren't many choices; he and his brother (also polydactyl) were the only kittens in the shelter and we thought a kitten would adapt more readily to a boat than would a grown cat.
We took the kitten home and named him Jack, the common name for British sailors (think Jack Tar) and miscellaneous pieces of sailing equipment (think Jack lines, lazy Jacks, etc.).
"Oh, a Hemingway cat," said one of my friends when I mentioned we had acquired a polydactyl kitten. Surprised and curious, I looked polydactyl cats up online. I learned that Ernest Hemingway, despite his reputation as a he-man, had been an aficionado of polydactyl cats and had owned many, starting with a cat named Snow White, a gift from a ship's captain. Today, Hemingway's house at Key West
, in addition to serving as a museum, provides a home for some 40-50 cats, most of them polydactyl.
From a Wikipedia entry
I learned that polydactyl cats were favored on sailing ships during the age of commercial sail. Sailors believed the cats' extra toes gave them extraordinary climbing and hunting abilities, making them excellent mousers. Some sailors even believed polydactyl cats brought good luck to a ship. "Jack" is a very good name indeed for a polydactyl boat cat. After our round of equipment breakdowns last summer, a good luck cat might be just what we need on Osprey.
Will Jack be a good boat cat? What we've seen so far looks promising. At the shelter, a troop of some dozen giggling Brownies gathered around and petting him didn't faze him. At a recent Puget Sound Cruising Club raft-up, we watched with alternating amusement and fear as he nonchalantly balanced on another boat's icy toe rail, leapt from boat to boat without even pausing, and then jumped into Osprey's dinghy to inspect the water close up. Good boat cat or not, I can see we have challenges ahead.