We began trawler shopping in January of 2007 and soon recognized that getting our 45-pound Portuguese Water Dog, Striper, on and off the boat and into the dinghy while anchored might present a problem. We looked at basic boat designs including pilot house trawlers and trunk cabin trawlers. The pilot house trawlers offered the ease of allowing the dog to simply walk from the deck level through the stern door onto the swim platform and into the dingy. However, the pilot house boats also had a fly bridge that required climbing a ladder, something the dog could not do on her own, and something we would be unable to do while carrying a large, heavy dog.
The trunk cabin trawlers offered a fly bridge that allowed relatively easy access for the dog. She could use the steps from the deck onto the trunk cabin top, then easily make her way up the two or three steps to the fly bridge area. We felt it important to have a boat layout that allowed the dog to be with us and to move about the boat on her own. The trade-off is that the trunk cabin trawler has a deck level that is about 3.5 ft above the water. This meant that our challenge was to figure out the best way to get her to and from the dinghy from deck level.
We gleaned a lot of great information from reading articles and books, and from personal and online dialogs with other cruisers traveling with pets. Unfortunately, we found nothing that would quite work for us. So we consulted various ramp, stairs and floats manufacturers and concluded the safest, most easily stowable, and efficient means would be a ramp. Piece of cake, we thought since Ralph had already built one a few summers earlier for our Parker fishing boat. A few limited modifications and we'd be good to go.
That June we took delivery of "Say Good-Bye", our 1982 41' DeFever. It became obvious that no modifications to our existing ramp would even come close to fulfilling our needs. The freeboard was too high, the swim platform too narrow and slotted, and a set of St. Croix davits protruded from the transom just above two staggered steps leading to the opening to the aft deck.
Placing the ramp sideways across the stern with the lower end on the swim platform, it slanted upward to rest on top of the uppermost staggered step. It was heavy, very steep and very unstable. We intended to provide stability by building a hinged brace that the ramp would connect onto. We set it up as a prototype experiment to see if the concept would work and if it warranted the fabrication of the hinged brace. In doing so, we discovered that the davits protruded over the ramp near the top and the dog had to crouch abnormally and then hop on board. It was totally unsafe for her and for us assisting her. We discussed ordering a lighter weight customized ramp, but the other issues remained the same. Scratch that idea. On to "Plan B."
We were stymied until a logical idea struck us to simply transport Striper in much the same manner that livestock are offloaded from ships. Using a customized reinforced doggie life jacket and a block and tackle system on the boom, we hoist Striper up and over the stern rail, drop her down to the swim platform and into the dinghy.
Here's how we do it:
The life vest we purchased is a Fido Float Life Vest from www.arcatapet.com for just under $20. It's a padded floatable doggie life vest with mesh underbelly support that zips up the back. The dog steps into two front leg holes in the mesh underbelly and the vest is zipped snugly.
The original design of the vest had one woven adjustable strap handle sewn onto the front of the vest near the collar and a second strap handle located near the hind leg area. The front strap goes around the dog's chest, forming a "handle" on her back near her head but lifts her from underneath. We had The Ship's Tailor (a local canvas and sailmaker) add a woven adjustable strap just in front of the dog's hind legs, going around her belly area, thus reinforcing the second "handle" on her back near her tail. This modification affords total support from underneath and distributes her weight evenly between the two handles. The woven straps are adjustable to fit comfortably -- not too tight nor too loose.
We then feed a heavy line with spliced eyes at either end through both handles of the vest and attach both line eyes to a shackle. Using a block and tackle attached to the boom, we attach the snap shackle to the two eye splices of the lifting line.
Then Ralph goes down to the swim platform where he controls the 4:1 block and tackle that hangs from our lifting boom. He carefully hoists the dog from the aft deck up and over the stern rail, then lowers her to the swim platform. Celeste assists from the deck level by ensuring that Striper is guided up and over the stern rail so that her legs do not snag on the rail!
A lightweight Rubbermaid container lid approximately 2' X 3' is all that's needed to cover the slots in the swim platform, allowing Striper a solid place to "touch down".
The line is unshackled and removed from the life vest and attached to one of the davits temporarily while we are ashore. Striper gets a dog treat, then hops into the dinghy and we're off.
The container lid can remain on the swim platform or be stowed on the aft deck for the return which is done in the same manner. This method is safe, efficient and easily stowable - and best of all, she likes it!
One caution for dog owners. Don't just lift your dog with the boom and expect the dog to cooperate. Training is essential so the dog knows what to expect.
We started by putting her in the vest, then manually lifting her a few inches off the deck allowing her to hang while holding her. We rewarded her with a treat, petted her and verbally reinforced the good behavior. We repeated this several times so that she associated getting into the vest and being lifted with a fun and rewarding activity.
Next, using the block and tackle, we lifted her higher to the level needed to get her over the stern rail. Again we reinforced the maneuver with a reward and repeated it several times. Finally, we went for broke and lifted her up, over and down, disconnected the apparatus and she hopped into the dinghy.
Your dog will soon learn that the process enables her to go with you in the dingy where more fun activity takes place, exploring the land areas, beaches, the essential personal relief - and of course, all those dog treats!