Nine lives 

This ship’s cat used up a couple of his nine lives when he fell overboard and fought off albatross reckons Able Sea-cat Bart. But he was rescued reports the story curator of seafaring felines, the sailors’ pest controllers, shipmates, mascots and pets.  


“On the second Friday the twenty-second of May, Joseph, the ginger tomcat, fell in the sea from the mizzen channels, and we hove to and went back for him…   

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

On this morning, which was cold with squalls – for we were two degrees south of forty then, in the west winds zone – he took a leap from the dinghy cover on to the top of the hammock netting, but the ship rolled heavily and though one small paw found its objective, the others did not and he slipped into the sea. Here he at once began, very strongly, to swim, looking up only to give a surprised meow. But he had been seen.

It was a fresh wind with quite a sloppy sea. I ordered the helm down at once and backed the main yard. The dinghy was put out in a few seconds, being always ready for just such a service, and two of the best seamen took their places at the oars. These were the sailmaker, Karl Sperling, and the able seaman, Hilgard Pannes, Both veterans from the Parma. The last glimpse I had of poor Joseph was when an inquiring albatross, which had been gliding around, came down near him to examine this strange object, but the cat lifted a ginger paw and smote his visitor heartily over the nose, whereupon the startled albatross at once took off again and left him alone. The beak of an albatross would have made short work of poor Joseph! He knew that; but he was not one to be afraid. I could not leave a cat like that to drown.
Swimming cat and the row boat approaching.All too often seafaring felines and ships cats wound up in the drink.
It seemed utterly impossible to find a tiny cat in all that waste of water, for a ship, even hove to, was still drifting, and the cat was so small. Still, Hilgard and Karl pulled back toward the place where they thought he might be, while many eyes in the rigging kept look-out on the sea for the tiny form. We did not see him again. But I had a rough bearing of where he was and in this direction the dinghy pulled. They were about to give up, after pulling for twenty minutes and searching all the area within two cables of the ship, when, to the astonishment of all hands, there was Joseph, wet and bedraggled, weakly swimming towards the dinghy.

The boys hauled him aboard and hurried back to the ship, taking off their jerseys in the cold to wrap round the cat. We hurried him along to the galley, took the dinghy aboard again, squared away and proceeded. That was a fortunate little kitten. He soon recovered from his cold immersion and within two days was happily playing in the rigging again, though he kept away from the channels.” 

CREDIT Cruise of the Conrad – the journal of Villiers’ voyage round the world in 1934, 1935 and 1936 in the fully-rigged ship Joseph Conrad. (© Nancie Villiers. Used by arrangement with the publisher. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or printed without permission in writing from the publisher.)

Sink or swim

My take on thisCoz Silkie fell into the goldfish pond. What a kerfuffle. Worse things happen at sea I said as he was drying off. It’s an occupational hazard. We’ve all taken a dive. There you are aloft, the ship rolls, and you’re in the drink. Celeb sea-cat Trim regularly took a dive. “The energy and elasticity of his movements sometimes carried him so far beyond his mark that he fell overboard. He learned to swim and to have no dread of water” is how Matthew Flinders described it. Wrong, wrong, wrong on the learn to swim bit. Trim could swim. So could Terra Nova’s mascot, Nigger who pluckily swam around until he was picked up. Ditto the renowned Mrs Chippy who according to reports did a header through a porthole and stayed afloat for 10 minutes before being rescued. Cats have a natural buoyancy. We keep our nose above water, keep breathing and paddle hard. But we don’t swim unless we have to. We don’t boast about swimming either or take it up as a leisure activity. Laps of that kind have little appeal. 


By a whisker

There’s a popular saying that cats have “nine lives”. They don’t. They have one like everyone else. But they do have some natural advantages that save the day. They can swim without needing lessons and land on their feet without gymnast training. And they have built-in sensors to reduce the likelihood of a bad calls in a tight spot. Whiskers. These tell cats whether a gap is wide enough to squeeze through. They also help judge distances so come in handy leaping for narrow ledges. “Anatomically,” says Desmond Morris “whiskers are greatly enlarged and stiffened hairs more than twice the thickness of ordinary hairs. They are embedded in the tissue of the cat’s upper lip to a depth three times that of other hairs, and they are supplied with a mass of nerve endings which transmit the information about any contact they make or any changes in air pressure … Technically whiskers are called vibrissae and the cat has a number of these reinforced hairs on other parts of its body – a few on the cheeks, over the eyes, on the chin and surprisingly at the backs of the front legs. All are sensitive detectors of movement.”

The number 9As for where the “nine” in nine lives comes from, no one really knows but in ancient times nine was considered a lucky number because it was the “trinity of trinities”. But Donald Engels, author of Classical Cats, thinks it may go back even further to an Egyptian religious text from the Twenty-second Bubastite dynasty (945–715 BC) of one god embodying nine or having nine lives in one creator being: “I am one who becomes two, I am two who becomes four, I am four who becomes eight, and I am one more besides.”