Over thousands of miles at sea, Alvah and Diana Simon’s cat, Halifax of the North, became a trusted, if mischievous, companion.
As usual, I am late with the posting of this blog. This time, however, I cannot blame being pinned down by gales or chocked by volcanic eruption.
Nor can I plead the universal and therefore forgivable fault of procrastination. I have intentionally avoided writing this because putting the events of the past two weeks into words makes them indelible and irreversible. I am not yet ready for that harsh reality.
Our beloved friend, crewmember, and fellow adventurer, Halifax of The North, is dead. I have been writing for many years, but that last sentence was the hardest I have ever written, and our boat and our lives will ring hollow for a long time to come.
I would not blame someone for now saying, “It’s only a cat. Get a life!”
But the point is I have a life– rich and rewarding. And I have that life in no small part because of that spirited little beast. I once spent five months alone in the Arctic wilderness. Up there it gets dark and it stays dark for a very long time. Mature male polar bears do not hibernate. They roam the lonely landscape searching for any hint of life and vulnerability.
Before Halifax and I would forage out for freshwater ice or to clear the hatches of drifted snow, she would sit on the top companionway step for up to a half hour just listening. She would turn her little head steadily like a radar interpreting signals too subtle for my muted human senses. If she returned to the bottom of the sleeping bag, then so would I. The next day I would find signs of the bear’s ambush site next to the boat.
But more importantly, she was a friend when I needed one like no other time in my life. Darkness and isolation are a formula for human disaster, and I shudder at the thought of the outcome had I been truly alone.
She was a hellion onboard and could find more ways to create mischief than I could ever train out of her. To wake me from a dangerously long slumber one day, or night, or whatever you call them when the sun does not shine, she tore up one of my charts. I was not yet quite so crazy as to think she could understand the words of a little poem I wrote for her, but I did hope she would catch the tone and straighten up.
Halifax my cat was furry and fat
Oh a finer companion could not be
We were trapped in the Arctic
My life was so stark it
Had no other warm company
And so side by side
The dark months we did bide
Huddled as bleak blizzards blew
But when the food ran out
At seven pounds or thereabout
She made a fine and filling meat stew.
I promised her that if we made it through that adventure I would take care of her for the rest of her natural life. I did not promise her it would be an easy life. In the years that followed she amassed more sea miles than the average admiral. She sailed the chill winds of the Arctic to the balmy breezes of the South Pacific. She had her narrow escapes. There was that 12-foot crocodile in Panama, and the time she fell overboard at night.
Sailing boats are small. The incessant proximity can test even the strongest of relationships. When Diana and I retreated to opposite corners of the boat in pouting silence after a perceived slight, Halifax would visit both camps, acting as a referee and bringing us both some comfort.
The three of us shared the bounty of the sea with equal gusto. She was particularly fond of fresh crab, shrimp, and lobster, and would look at me with disgust when I hauled in an empty fishing line.
We also shared the hardships of the sea. Diana has the cast iron stomach of a Kiwi. Not so with the Canadian and the Yankee onboard. Too many times Halifax and I lay seasick together on the cabin sole, wondering if it was worth it. Then a new horizon would loom, and we both knew it certainly was.
She knew the rhythm of my rowing and the particular sound of our outboard. For 15 years, no matter the darkness, wind or rain, every time Diana and I returned to the Roger Henry, Halifax would be perched on the toe-rail waiting. She would give one howl of protest at our long absence and then relent into a homecoming purr.
We are sailing through Prince William Sound now. I would usually be absorbed with the magnificent sailing and scenery. But my mind keeps returning to one line in that silly little poem– Halifax my cat… Oh a finer companion could not be.