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Of Ships and Dogs
By Lynn Whitney
Sailing is traditionally a solitary experience. Like the songs of the sirens, the vastness of the sea and the challenges of her unpredictability have been luring mariners since man first took to the water. With endless oceans before them and countless hours with only one’s thoughts for company, sailors have brought their dogs along with them as their steadfast companions. Stories of their dog’s loyalty and courage have been recorded for centuries. Now, we all know that your dog is the best dog ever. Actually, it’s my dog, Maeby, but here are some stories of true dog heroes.
Let’s begin with Seaman, a black Newfoundland who accompanied Lewis and Clark on their quest to find an all water route from the Atlantic to the Pacific. He was purchased for $20.00 in Pittsburg, Pennsylvania by Captain Meriwether Lewis in 1803 while he was awaiting the completion of his boats for the expedition. During the arduous trek across country, Seaman proved himself to be invaluable for his many skills, not the least of which was catching and killing squirrels, which Lewis found to excellent when fried. On one occasion, Seaman was bitten on the hind leg by a wounded beaver, severing an artery. The bite required extraordinary medical measures on the part of both Lewis and Clark, which they gladly administered in order to save his life. The bond between master and dog was incredibly strong. According to Timothy Alden, a clergyman and educator during that time, a dog collar was donated to a museum in Alexandria, Virginia. On it was inscribed:
“The greatest traveler of my species. The name is Seaman, the dog of Captain Meriwether Lewis whom I accompanied to the Pacific Ocean through the interior of the continent of North America.”
Alden also noted that after Lewis’ death, an apparent suicide, “The fidelity and attachment of this animal were remarkable. After the melancholy exit of Lewis, his dog would not depart for a moment from his lifeless remains, and when they were deposited in the earth no gentle means could draw him from the spot of internment. He refused to take every kind of food, which was offered him, and actually pined away and died with grief upon his master’s grave.” Monuments to Seaman can be found in numerous cities along the Lewis & Clark Trail.
Now, let’s turn our attention to the tragic tale of the Titanic. Everyone is aware of the many accounts of human valor, but what of the canines aboard? Twelve dogs were passengers on the doomed vessel. Three survived, carried onto lifeboats by their first class owners. They included Lady, a baby Pomeranian, whose owner, Margaret Hayes of New York City, carried her, wrapped in a blanket into a lifeboat. The two other dogs were Sun-Yat-Sen, a Pekinese owned by Henry and Myra Harper of Harper & Row Publishing, and a Pomeranian owned by Elizabeth Rothschild of New York. Nine other dogs were confined to kennels, cared for and walked by crew members. Their daily strolls around the boat were so popular among the passengers, that they would line the decks to observe the parade.
In the dark and chaos that followed the Titanic’s collision with an iceberg, little is known of the fate of these dogs. One sad tale is that of Ann Isham and her beloved Great Dane. Unwilling to leave her companion, she stayed behind, insisting that she would do whatever was necessary to save him. Sadly, her body was found by a recovery vessel, with her arms frozen around her dog. The other dogs were released from their kennels by an unknown passenger, hoping that they would survive the sinking. Tragically, they perished in the icy water. However, there is one remarkable story of survival. First Officer William Murdoch of Scotland, brought his Newfoundland, Rigel along with him. Rigel had also accompanied him on the Titanic’s sister ship, the RMS Olympic. As the boat was sinking, Murdoch took charge of the starboard evacuation. While attempting to free an entangled lifeboat, he was washed overboard by a huge wave and never seen again. Rigel was plunged into the freezing water along with over 1,500 other souls, who would not survive the night. But, Newfoundlands are bred for just such conditions. With his webbed feet, rudder-like tail and water-resistant coat, he swam around desperately looking for his master. Unable to find him and all alone, he attached himself alongside Lifeboat 4. Two hours later, number 4 had become separated from the other lifeboats and was drifting solitarily. When the Carpathia finally arrived, its crew, unable to see in the dark and mist, began calling out and waiting for a response to locate lifeboats. After gathering the survivors, the ship began to pull away, unaware of the small lifeboat directly in its path. The stunned and frozen passengers were too weak to call out loudly enough to be heard and were in danger of being run over by the Carpathia. Luckily, Rigel had enough strength left to bark aloud and alerted the captain. He swam in front of the life boat to mark its position and was hauled aboard with the other survivors. He was adopted by John Brown, the Carpathia’s Master at Arms, who retired shortly thereafter and took Rigel home to Scotland with him, where he lived out the rest of his life in peace and comfort.
Two military dogs gained fame during WWII. Sinbad, USCG (Ret.) K9C (Chief Petty Officer, Dog), was a mixed breed puppy adopted by the crew of the Coast Guard cutter Campbell. He was an official member of the crew with a uniform and his own bunk. The crew justified his enlistment by claiming that he displayed the attributes of a sailor by drinking coffee, whisky with beer chasers at port bars, having regular general quarters duty stations, and generally demonstrating seamanship. As with many a sailor, however, he did run into an occasional bit of trouble. He caused international incidents in Greenland and Casablanca and was busted in rank a few times for minor infractions. His escapades earned him a valued place in the homefront campaign. He passed away on Dec. 30, 1951 and was laid to rest under the flagstaff of the Barnegat Light Station.
Another Naval dog, was Judy, ship mascot for the Royal Navy during WWII. She was stationed aboard the HMS Gnat and HMS Grasshopper in the Yangtze, proving to be invaluable for her ability to hear incoming aircraft and provide early warnings to the crew. When the Grasshopper sank while evacuating from the Battle of Singapore, Judy found herself on a deserted island with the surviving crew. After trekking across 200 miles of jungle for 5 weeks and surviving a crocodile attack, she became a Japanese prisoner of war. She was eventually smuggled into Medon Camp where she met Leading Aircraftsman Frank Williams, with whom she spent the rest of her life.
Perhaps one of the most well known dogs in the east coast sailing community is The Black Dog of Martha’s Vineyard. According to legend, Robert Douglas had a dream. A native of Chicago, he would summer off the coast of the Vineyard on his 15 ft. sailboat. It was there that he made himself three promises – to build a ship, get a dog to sail with him, and make his home on the Vineyard. In 1958, he retired from the Airforce and began building his boat, modeled after the schooner Joe Lane, a revenue cutter built in 1850. In 1964, he christened the Shenandoah and set sail for Martha’s Vineyard. A black Lab-Boxer mix joined him in 1967. Douglas named him the Black Dog after the character in Robert Louis Stevenson’s, “Treasure Island.” The inseparable duo made their home in an old seaside Inn on the beach in Vineyard Haven. Passing sailors would make their way to the Captain’s house to share coffee, rum and conversation. Although the Vineyard was a bustling tourist resort during the summer months, in 1969 there was no year- round restaurant. Douglas decided that the Vineyard residents and visitors deserved a place to gather for chowder and coffee during the long winters. On New Year’s Day 1971, The Black Dog opened to a full house, much to the delight of the Captain and his dog. An empire was born!
As many ships as sail the sea, are stories of the hearts of men and their dogs…..
“My little dog – a heartbeat at my feet.”
Edith Wharton – American novelist and one of the original founders of the ASPCA
Sinbad Gun 1944
Rigel & William Murdoch