Extreme survivor 

The Jolly Roger flag with a cats skullAble Sea-cat Bart shares Ginger’s incredible adventure that showcases the California Clipper cat’s courage and extreme survival skills – twenty-four hours of regular dips in the ocean clinging to the ship’s auxiliary helm. Beat that Bear Grylls!  

Ginger hangs on

Nearly all ships have a mascot. We had two: a cat called “Ginger,” after the colour of his fur; and a big, black Newfoundland dog.

Sailors, superstitious always, imagine that bad luck is sure to follow a ship if anything goes wrong with the mascots. One evening I was walking on the quarter-deck, and paused to watch Ginger chase a mouse that had suddenly appeared from the door of the companion-way and dashed for the mizzen channel with the cat close at its heels. Up and down the channel they ran, the mouse turning and twisting around and behind the channel bars, always just out of Ginger’s reach. In a moment of wild excitement. Ginger suddenly sprang at his tormentor. He missed by a fraction of an inch, and the momentum of the spring shot his body clear of the ship and into the sea.

mizzen channel
A broad plank that projects horizontally from a sailing ship’s sides near its mizzen, or third, mast.

We were reeling off about eight knots at the time and I looked sadly over the side, expecting to see him struggling to regain the ship, but in the fast-gathering gloom I could not see him, and no farewell “meow” came to my ears to indicate where he had fallen. Word of his sad ending soon reached the forecastle, and many were the prophecies of coming disaster.

The next afternoon, an old grey-haired sailor, called “Scotty,” who, owing to his advanced years and his skill with the palm and needle, had been assigned to sail-making, sat at work with his sail spread out on the top of the after house. The man at the wheel called to me with the remark:

“Mr. Mate, I think I hear a cat meow, sir.”
“Stop such talk as that and watch your steering, my son,” I replied, “or you’ll hear something worse than a cat meowing.”

From where he was working, Scotty heard the remarks, and looking up, with a respectful tip of the cap to me, he broke in with; “If I may speak, Mr. Mate, I might say that such things do happen at times, sir, I have, myself, heard the voices of shipmates several days after they’ve gone overboard, sir.”

Scotty was of the class of sailor that is always ready to encourage the slightest excuse for any superstition, and I knew the remarks he had overheard had such possibilities of expansion that it would be difficult for him to keep his mind on his work until he could rejoin his watch-mates at the end of the watch.

As eight bells struck and the man at the wheel was relieved, I stopped at the break of the quarter-deck to make a jocular remark to the second mate about the message from the departed cat, and Scotty’s adherence to its veracity, when the new man at the wheel shouted to the second mate: “I hear a cat meowing, sir.”

This was a little too much, and got on my nerves. Passing quickly to the man’s side, I strained my ears, listening carefully for any sound, and I was just about to berate the man for his acoustic imaginativeness, when the faintest “meow” I ever heard floated towards me. Rushing to the rail, I glanced down towards the rudder and there, as the ship’s stern rose and fell, exposing to view the auxiliary helm attached to the rudder, was Ginger himself, clinging to the bare iron rod. He had been there twenty-four hours, and every time the stern fell he was submerged in two feet of water.

Calling to the man closest to us on the deck, we swung him over the rail in a bowline and lowered him to reach Ginger. The cat, desperate, buried his claws in Charley’s face and neck, causing the man to howl for assistance. We hauled him and the cat over the rail, and with a little patience soon had extricated Charley from his torturer.

A very wet, very cold ship's cat, wrapped in a towel, wearing a woolly hat.The moment poor Ginger felt the firm deck beneath his feet again, he pushed feebly forward in a straight line, only to bring up with a sudden bang against the cabin door, where he fell over stiff and exhausted; then we discovered he was blind.

The steward picked him up tenderly and carried him down into the cabin, where he was well rubbed with a warm towel and wrapped in a blanket. Presently he showed signs of life, and after feeding him a few teaspoonfuls of warm condensed milk he closed his eyes, to which sight had returned, and dropped off to sleep. In the morning he appeared once more on deck, and although he moved rather slowly and was still a bit stiff, everything seemed to indicate that he would soon fully recover. 

ILLUSTRATION Ad Long

According to Bart

Able Sea-cat BartGinger was one courageous seafurrer with considerable clinging on ability. Surviving twenty-four hours of regular dips in the ocean shows the ultimate in extreme survival skills. Even Bear Grylls would be impressed.

A bedraggled ship's cat being rescue from a shipwreck

“Sailors save ship’s cat” stories go way back. The very first seafurrer story published (as far as I know) was John Lok’s (Locke’s) in 1553, just a hundred years after the printing press gave us a publishing industry. Skip a few centuries and news about cats – cute and otherwise – has become regular newspaper fodder. The New York Times has been serving up cat stories almost since its beginnings reckons Illinois journalism professor Matthew Ehrlich.

A cat surfing a wave on a barrelThe stories began to appear in the 1870s he says, and increased during periods when the Times faced increased competition – in the 1920s from tabloids, in the 1970s from papers with new lifestyle and feature sections, and more recently from the Internet. Cat stories in the Times have averaged almost one a week in recent years including vast numbers of rescue stories of all kinds. Stories about ship’s cats proved especially popular. There are a couple of tallish ones on the blog: Cats & canaries and Spinning a yarn.

A fine, old, vintage Yost typewriter

Isaac D. White, director of Pulitzer’s bureau charged with sorting fact from fiction in newspapers, became suspicious about a run of wreck stories that all included rescuing the ship’s cat. He checked up with the maritime reporter who told him:

“One of those wrecked ships carried a cat, and the crew went back to save it. I made the cat the feature of my story, while the other reporters failed to mention the cat, and were called down by their city editors for being beaten. The next time there was a shipwreck there was no cat; but the other ship news reporters did not wish to take chances, and put the cat in. I wrote a true report, leaving out the cat, and then I was severely chided for being beaten. Now when there is a shipwreck all of us always put in a cat.” 

CREDIT TOP Reef Grief. Sailor rescues cat from the wreck of the Pandora (1787). MIDDLE Roll Out the Barrel. Tomcat has been round the world twice, and was saved from shipwreck riding on a barrel. Illustrations Ad Long.
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