I’ve had a few pets on Swell over the last 9 years, but most of them made their way aboard on their own. Aside from a lost baby seabird I found after a cyclone, my non-human guests have been uninvited. I don’t mind the geckos that often show up in a banana stock. They make cute coughing noises in the evening and cause no harm. I’ve hosted a wide variety of ants too—from teeny fuzzy black ones to enormous shiny red ones. They’re always extremely busy and don’t like being distracted, so I can’t say much for their company. A roving wasp colony lives in my spinnaker pole from time to time, but we tend to give each other our space. Once a cricket turned up out of nowhere. I never saw him but I adored his evening serenades until they were no more. While I was away on a trip to California, a newlywed rat couple from the boatyard where Swell was hauled thought they’d scored themselves a slick new pad. They promptly moved aboard and raised four handsome rat babies who explored, and chewed, and pooped inside Swell from bow to stern. Their story has a rather gruesome ending, but let’s just say it was either them or me…same song for the prolific cockroach family that sailed with me to Kiribati.
Amelia was different, though. I’m not sure whether I found her or she found me that fateful afternoon in November of 2013, but it felt fairly clear that we were meant to be together. She was a skinny little adolescent then–about 6 months old and hungry for food and love. Something about her commanding lioness air and carefree bravado made me want to give her both. I can’t estimate the innumerable forlorn cats and dogs I’ve longed to adopt over my years of travel, but it never seemed fair to drag them into my nomadic, non-routine lifestyle. Nor was I sure that I had time to properly care for a pet with my already full plate of captain’s duties. So, I don’t exactly know what got into me that day, I only remember it being unbearable to leave without her. I called her, Amelia, after the revered Miss Earhart, sensing right away that we shared a similar thirst for adventure.
Adjusting to boat life wasn’t easy at first. Life on a slippery, 40’ by 11’ hunk of fiberglass surrounded by ocean was a radical contrast to the lonesome jungle living she knew at the empty mountain mansion where we met. The new backdrop didn’t seem to phase her for long, and she adored the constant supply of cat food and caresses. She scoured every nook and locker of Swell daily for any living thing to torment. She resorted to ambushing flies, although she despised their buzzing antics. She nuzzled her food dish, watched sunsets from atop the dodger, and spent twilight dawns on the bow eyeing our fish neighbors. Her high-fangled, over-the-water acrobatics routines, soon led to a few ‘kitty overboard’ incidents. She quickly learned to dread the sea. Despite her distaste for swimming, she was amazingly good at it. She’d claw her way up my rubber dinghy to get back on board. I worried she might fall over when I was away, though, so I devised a ‘ladder’ made from a long strip of old towel that hung over the side and dangled into the sea. I came back from surfing one morning to find her wet and madly preening; she had obviously made good use of that ladder.
Amelia liked to run the show, and whenever possible, I let her. She always had a wily, determined look in her eye–as if the world was out to get her, but she was going to get it first. She was the star of her own mystery film–a sexy, heartless secret agent always on a mission. Business was business. She would constantly stalk me from above the dodger as I came out of the cabin, pouncing viciously on my head or come flying at me from across the cabin out of nowhere as I walked through innocently. She’d stalk fish over the side and birds flying above. I built her a ‘tree’ from a yoga mat wrapped around the mast, tied strings everywhere, made her a fishing platform, and often brought home fresh palm fronds to whip around and let her chase. She did enjoy a bit of luxury in her down time, though, sprawling indulgently across her pillows. On visits to various fancy yachts–after a thorough search for anything to kill—she would always post herself assertively smack in the middle of the scene. For the most part, Amelia the Tropicat had a one-track mind–it was all about the ‘hunt’.
I knew she missed climbing trees and bounding through tall grasses, so I started bringing her ashore on beach walks and jungle hikes. I figured if she really disliked life afloat, she’d just run away, but by and by she followed. We found a flat, shady spot in the mountain on one of our explorations, and returned often in the late afternoons so she could play in the forest, while I practiced yoga. She started coming with me to parties, outdoor restaurants, and friends’ houses. She never much enjoyed the rides in the dinghy, canoe, car, and even a few times on a motor scooter, but she was happy to arrive and discover new turf. After a few months of these sorts of adventures, she seemed to understand the routine, and she’d climb in and out of the dinghy on her own.
I’m sure she had psychic powers, too. Nothing else could explain the way she knew exactly which drawer or locker I needed to open before I even got near it. She’d casually make her way there in time to plop herself boldly in front of the access just before I arrived, then stare off coolly, like she was busy daydreaming. I was constantly obligated to coax or nudge her begrudgingly out of the way.
She charmed most and ignored the others. Either she hated being coddled and kissed, or was too proud to show it. She’d let me snuggle her for a few fleeting moments, then I’d feel her body tense up and she’d become desperate for a way to escape. I understood…a warrior princess secret agent couldn’t be seen as weak or needy. Now and then she’d curl up on me as if she’d finally found a few moments between her unrelenting quests for a bit of affection, but it was always on her time. We understood each other. We both needed freedom and love, we both got seasick, and we both loved challenge and exploration.
She taught me how to wait patiently for something you want (to kill in her case), how to relax now and then, and the importance of carrying oneself as distinguished and unphased as a noble Lioness–no matter the conditions or company. She could be viscous. Dogs feared her. I didn’t trust her around babies. I was constantly marred with scratches and even got Cat Scratch Fever from her! Once she killed a seabird about her size while I was ashore. The poor unsuspecting fellow had landed aboard Swell for a brief rest, only to be stalked, hauled down into the cabin, and massacred. Sigh. In fact, I’m sure that if she were big enough, she would have killed me too. I know she loved me, and might have regretted it afterward, but her merciless nature was just too strong.
A few weeks ago, Tropicat and I got invited on a little surf excursion on the other side of the island. Due to a mix of unexpected follies, we found ourselves on the back of a kind stranger’s canoe, headed for an islet about 300 yards offshore. She slipped off the shiny angled canoe twice on the way. I quickly scooped her aboard both times, but I knew she was horrified. I don’t think it helped that I found it impossible not to giggle at her drenched, rat-like body. We safely reached the other side, where she followed me out a palm-lined trail to the surf spot. I dropped my bag and spread out my pareo so she’d have a notion of ‘home base’, then paddled out for a quick surf. When I came in Amelia was nowhere to be found. I didn’t want the others to wait around, so they headed home while I tromped around the 1/2 mile squared islet, calling her name and apologizing for laughing at her earlier. She never appeared.
That afternoon, a stiff west wind was mounting. I grew worried about Swell, as she was anchored in a fairly exposed bay. I knew there was a cute little bed & breakfast on the island, I figured she would be happy chasing rats and lizards for the night, and could go see the people there if she was lonely or hungry.
I went back the next day and numerous times since. I camped out multiple times where she was last seen, left my stinky clothes for her to smell, and piles of cat food and fish. I even called a pet psychic. She still has not surfaced. All I can figure is that she is either enjoying the endless game of chasing lizards, rats, and crabs, or she may have been picked up by another visitor? Her disappearance remains a mystery; maybe it was fated in the name? I can only hope she loves her newfound paradise, or chose her new home well. I haven’t been able to put away the reminders of her company; the litter box is empty and her toys lie still and lifeless scattered about. I miss her.
Part of me is stunned by the loss I feel without my beloved little companion, but another part of me knows that, like me, she needs to feel free. I never owned her; we chose each other. I did my best to keep her happy during her spell afloat, but as the rainy season and my book project kept us more and more often aboard Swell over the last month or so, I would notice a far-off look of longing and boredom in her eyes. Maybe the string of calamities that happened at the motu that day was meant to be? As much as I badly want to see her again, there’s a part of me that thinks she’s likely happier in her new land life.
Her untamable spirit will always stay with me. But I believe that true love is wanting for the other, what she or he truly desires for her/himself. So be free, Amelia the Tropicat…I wish you endless new adventures, a full belly, loving new hands to caress you, and a life of the non-stop ever-thrilling ‘hunt’ that I know keeps the fire blazing in your feline goddess heart.