USS Solace, Tom Whiskers.
Whether for furry companionship or to control pests, cats continue to serve as beloved crew members. Do you know a cat who lives on a boat? We’d love to hear about it! Send us a photo of the seafaring cat, and we might print it in the Letters section of the next issue of Sea History. Philippa Sandall is the author of Seafurrers, The Ships’ Cats Who Lapped and Mapped the World (The Experiment Publishing), and, with Dr. Gillian Dooley and Matthew Flinders, RN, Trim, The Cartographer’s Cat (Bloomsbury Publishing).
HMS Amethyst crew with Simon
Ships’ cats weren’t just pest controllers, they were beloved pets. The cat Nansen was “the only speck of sentimental life within reach,” said Dr. Frederick Cook, describing the long, dark months on board RV Belgica, which was trapped in the ice when the 1897–99 Belgian Antarctic Expedition was forced to spend the winter in the Antarctic. “If Maizie hadn’t been with us, we might have gone nuts,” said Eugene Clancy of his crew’s feline companion, who was rescued with five other crew members after fifty-six hours in a life raft in 1943 during the Battle of the Atlantic. Sailors were often so attached to their cats that they would stop their ship in the open ocean and rescue them if they fell overboard—not an easy thing to do for a sailing ship. When the Joseph Conrad’s ginger tomcat, Joseph, fell in the water from the mizzen channels, Alan Villiers sent two men to the rescue in a rowboat. “Joseph was a good cat; we could not leave him to drown,” he said. “The boys hauled him aboard and hurried back to the ship, taking off their jerseys in the cold to wrap round the cat … He soon recovered from his cold immersion and within two days was happily playing in the rigging again, though he kept World War I veteran, mascot of away from the channels.”
courtesy brian buckburry
There were a large number of rats on board that began to breed rapidly in the damaged portions of the ship. They represented a real menace to the health of the ship’s company. Simon nobly rose to the occasion and after two months the rats were much diminished. Throughout the Incident Simon’s behaviour was of the highest order. One would not have expected him to have survived a shell making a hole over a foot in diameter in a steel plate, yet after a few days Simon was as friendly as ever. His presence on the ship, together with Peggy the dog,
was a decided factor in maintaining the high level of morale of the ship’s company. They gave the ship an air of domesticity and normality in a situation which in other aspects was very trying.
courtesy richard sandall
At one time, simply having a cat on board provided the master with insurance. The shipping rules (II Consolato del Mare) published in Barcelona in 1494 state: “If goods laden on board of a ship are devoured by rats, and the owners consequently suffer considerable damage, the master must repair the injury sustained by the owners, for he is considered in fault. But if the master kept cats on board, he is excused Possibly the first image we have of a from that liability.” Some 500 years later, ship’s cat is this watchful feline, ridding a ship of its rat stretched out on a square knot carved on the column of the 16th-century population even led to a Jerónimos Monastery in Portugal. bravery award for one cat. Simon, of the British warship HMS Amethyst, won the PDSA (People’s Dispensary for Sick Animals) Dicken Medal for his courage during the Yangtse Incident, when the ship was held hostage for ten weeks in 1949 during the civil war between the Chinese Communist People’s Liberation Army and Nationalist Kuomintang forces. Nominating Simon, Amethyst’s Lieutenant Commander John Kerans wrote:
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