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Chico the Boat Dog

By guest writer Vicki Lathom. Photos Copyright © Vicki Lathom.

BEFORE CHICO WAS a boat dog, he was to be a show dog. Chico’s Sheltie super-parents, winners of many national AKC shows, looked like a good start for their child’s future.

But it was not meant to be. His chart of projected growth showed a future Chico to be too tall. So, he became a kind of special rescue dog, sold at six months because he wasn’t show quality.

Enter Vicki, boat lady, seeking attractive, healthy Sheltie. Adaire (his given name) was already house-broken and ears made floppy with tape. A beautiful specimen.

Bonding with Adaire was not easy, and changing his name to Chico at six months probably didn’t help. When I brought him home, he’d stand off, eyeing me from a distance. A friend familiar with dogs said he’ll bond if you put his nose in your armpit—and it worked.

I’ve been sailing for forty years and have always had a boat dog, or rather, a dog who could tolerate a boat. My dogs all happen to have been Shelties, but that really makes no difference. The first one was a substitute for a baby sister. My only child, Jim, age five, whined, “I need a sister.” I asked him if he would settle for a dog and, after about a minute, he said OK. Enter Lassie.

Over the next forty years, Lassie morphed into Ginger, who morphed into the current boat dog, Chico.



My husband and I sail a 43-foot Irwin ketch named Cantabile, a musical term for singing softly. The reason: Barry used to be a music major.

Since we live in Annapolis, Md., we mostly cruise Chesapeake Bay, but we went to Maine last summer and the Abacos in the Bahamas this past winter. Chico also went to the Bahamas and carved out his life on Cantabile in a marina resort in Marsh Harbor. Chico doesn’t seem to mind where he is as long as he’s with us. I think I could carry him around in a large bird cage in the back seat of the car and he’d be happy as long as one or both of us were in the front seat.

Chico is considered laid-back by some and a snob by others. He’s very adaptable and I take a little credit because I’ve never allowed myself to think he couldn’t be comfortable in the human world, no matter where or when. I never treat him like a glass menagerie, anxiously coaxing him into the vet’s office like some owners. I handled his being on the boat the same way.

Chico & Barry in the Bahamas

Chico and Barry in the Bahamas

Regarding the boat, a question that I always get is, where does he do “it”? On the bow, I say. I have no intention of rowing a dog ashore. I assumed he would adapt, even if it took 48 hours at first, if we just calmly wait him out. There’s a trick to it, but let’s just say it involves getting his scent on the bow.

Once you give in and start rowing them ashore, you’re dead. There’s nothing more pathetic than a human being in a slicker rowing a wet dog to a little beach. That is, if there is a beach. It’s usually a swamp full of mud and ticks, or the beach has a “No Trespassing” sign backed up by two large Dobermans.

The only time Chico is a problem is when the dock we’re tied up to is much higher or lower than the boat. Getting a 30-pound animal across the divide between boat and pier is high anxiety. This was the situation at the Abaco Beach Resort marina and I knew it was only a matter of time before Chico went into the water.

As I gingerly stepped off Cantabile one day when the tide was really down, Chico’s back paw missed the dock and he went in—and me with him. The only thing positive to come out of this was I learned he could swim. Since I still had his leash, he couldn’t doggy-paddle away from the dock.

Of course, I called for help, but people don’t hear you when you’re down between boats in slips. After much too long and I was sure this was it, someone heard me and we got Chico in the dinghy and back up on the boat.

Was Chico upset? Of course not. He shook himself off and turned to the dock, ready to try again. I had a late-morning glass of wine.

Chico, forever calm

Forever calm and trusting

So, thinking of boating with a dog but not sure it’ll work? To be fair, it’s easier when the dog starts as a puppy; he or she doesn’t know the difference. On the other hand, it might be possible to turn a landlubber dog into a boat dog if you can “wait him out” and be very laid-back in the process.

I am not a dog whisperer, just an owner who believes that pets can be more adaptable than we think. Chico lives his life wherever we go as a kind of bowsprit, nose literally pointing ahead to wherever he’s going—forever calm and trusting, like all of us humans wish we could be.


Kota the boat dog and Vicki Lathom

Kota with Vicki

In September 2011, Chico was run over by a car. He was only six years old and a remarkably beautiful dog with a calm and easy demeanor. Like the author’s previous Shelties, he made a wonderful boat dog.

Kota, a Sheltie puppy, became the author’s fourth boat dog, making the Cantabile his home while cruising in the Bahamas with the author this winter. Now about six months old, Kota is also picturesque, but with his own take on being a boat dog. He is courageous to the hilt.


Vicki Lathom

Vicki Lathom

Vicki Lathom has been a writer and sailor for 40 years. She retired from being director of public information for Montgomery County, Md., in 1996, and went to work for Maryland Governor William Donald Schaefer as his speechwriter. Vicki has also done freelance travel writing and photography for such publications as SAIL and Maryland Magazine. She is currently a writing instructor for two graduate schools at the University of Maryland. Vicki is a staff writer for


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  1. This is a beautiful post! I loved reading about Chico, more so especially because it’s such an unusual blog topic! He sounds like a wonderful dog, and you sound like you’re great matches for each other. I loved reading this post (and loved the photos too)! (p.s. I live in a boating community in Maine, and it makes me wonder how many boats around here have dogs… 🙂

    • vicki lathom says:

      Julia: I understand coming from you this is quite a compliment. Wasn’t sure this subject would go anywhere, but once I started writing it, it took on a life. I think this may be the closest I can come to committing anthropomorphism.

      Where do you live in Maine? As the story says, we sailed Cantabile up there last summer and stopped in many harbors — that is if we could see them through the fog.


  2. What a great post! Chico is a special buddy! How wonderful that you found each other!

    I have had two dogs in my lifetime that were special like that. Holly the Wonder Dog (a Silky Terrier) and Sunny Pup (a wild & crazy Yorkie). There’s nothing like it.

    Thanks for such a thoughtful, touching post.

    • vicki lathom says:

      Thanks. There’s nothing like connecting with people through writing. I think there’s a secret club of owners of special dogs, although everybody probably thinks their pets are special.

      Having had two Shelties before however, Chico really stands out for me because he seems so comfortable in the world of humans. Very bonded to us, especially me, of course.

  3. I enjoyed your story Vicki. Chico is a beautiful dog. What a wonderful companion for you and Barry.

    I felt the anxiety when you were experiencing being “down between boats in slips” and was relieved that people finally heard you. I’m glad that Chico wasn’t upset and he just shook off the water. 🙂

    When I was a child we had a grand black lab who loved the water when we went to the lake in the summer. Fond memories.

    happy sailing!

  4. BetsyV says:

    I love this story!
    Its Funny, as I use to own shelties also. Jodi, then Snuffy. Chico looks so much like Jodi did!
    We lived in Northport Long Island at the time we had Jodi, and he would go with us on our boat in the sound. He loved it, He liked to swim with us too! Shelties are great dogs!
    Enjoyed this, Thanks!

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