I didn't have much trouble with rats when I lived aboard at City Island, the Bronx, back in the early ‘80s. I'd see them once in a while in the boatyard when I came home late on a summer night, hardly ever in the winter. A rat faced me down once when I was on the gangway headed to the dock. He was already on his way up. We both stopped. I took another step forward, then he took another step forward. He was a big rat, as well-nourished dock rats tend to be, and after a short standoff I backed away and let him come up. He was pretty stately about it, too.
The last time I saw a rat in that boatyard -- the place was called Thwaites, but is now gone -- he dropped through the foredeck hatch and landed on my bunk. It was a hot summer night and I was in the main cabin, naked, reading a book. I heard him land on the cushions and saw the glow of his eyes, and I was unhappy because I figured the only way out for him was across my lap and up the companionway. I scrambled for the fire extinguisher -- the only thing within reach that I could use as a weapon -- but when I turned back the glowing eyes were gone. There weren't too many places for a rat to hide on my boat, but I looked thoroughly because of what had happened to Pat a month or so earlier that summer.
Pat lived on an ancient sailboat about 36 feet long -- spavined, hogged, and fire-engine red except where streaked with brown rust. It was, in my view, the flagship among the boats we lived aboard at Thwaites, some of which were eyesores, some good-looking, most just regular designs on their way either to refurbishment or decrepitude. But as both a home and a evolving project, Pat's boat floated alone. He was a good marine carpenter who had bitten off a lot to chew.
One evening Pat came back to his boat and went to make himself a sandwich, and there was no bread. This was puzzling because Pat lived on sandwiches and he was sure he'd had a full loaf in the food locker. But he made himself something else for supper, and after that decided to do some fix-it work. He needed a tool he didn't use often, and went to find it underneath the forepeak berth. He moved the cushion, lifted up the locker cover, shined a flashlight in -- and there was his bread, somewhat torn to pieces, in the company of a very large rat who looked up at Pat angrily and made a sort of blurred, scurrying movement in the direction of Pat's hand.
Pat, though not a timorous person by nature, dropped the locker cover and went to look for something threatening to put between himself and the rat. Having armed himself with a dustpan he went back to do battle, but when he lifted the cover again the rat was gone -- wriggled through a hole in the bottom of the locker that normally surrounded a pipe, but with the pipe removed during boat repairs it had become the proverbial rat hole. So the rat had easy access to the bilge, and therefore to the engine compartment, the gear and sail lockers, the lazarette, and anywhere there was a chink or a limber hole big enough for him to squeeze through. Pat plugged every conceivable pathway into the boat's living spaces, and at the same time left the rat a wide choice of egress. Still, as he climbed nervously into his bunk that night he knew that the rat hadn't left, that the rat had the run of the boat and wasn't about to leave; and that he was going to have to face the animal again, mano a raton.
Pat slept with his sleeping bag zipped up around his head, just as most of us all did in wintertime. Meanwhile we were all glued to our seats. Some were full of advice: Poison it, snare it, lure it, deafen it with high-pitched noise, smoke it out, shoot it (in a boat, no less). But for Pat this was a point of honor: He would trap the rat alive. It was a nice idea. He made a simple have-a-heart trap -- a wooden crate propped up by a stick with bait tied to it. When he checked it the next morning he found that the rat had delicately eaten the food off the stick where it stood. The next night he set the trap again. This time the rat sprang it. Pat was on the dock, and by the time he got down below the rat had jostled the crate over to the edge of the galley counter, run it into the fiddle there, toppled it over the edge, and gotten away. It was apparently a strong rat.
Pat went into the city the next day, leaving another trap, this one more complicated: The rat would have to fetch the bait on a false walkway that would collapse and drop him into a sailbag, whose neck would be cinched tight by his falling weight. That part worked. But by the time Pat got home the rat had evidently wearied of life in the bag, chewed his way out, and disappeared again.
A siege began. It lasted for quite a while as spring turned to summer and the docks began to swelter just north of the Keansburg, a mothballed excursion steamer that served nobly as a breakwater in the winter, but also as a windbreak when the fickle southwest zephyrs filled in from Eastchester Bay. Pat varied his trapping techniques, and the rat either defeated them or ignored them long enough to provoke Pat to change them. He made traps that would have made Rube Goldberg wince.
Finally, one day when I got home from work it was all over. The rat, as big as a cat, lay dead on the dock, his head stove in. Pat was sitting in the cockpit of his boat with a beer, receiving congratulations from the neighbors.
“Finally made a trap that outfoxed him! Good job, Pat!”
Pat just shook his head. “It didn’t work out that way,” he said.
What had happened was that Pat had used another wooden crate -- and after he heard it fall off its propping stick he quickly ran over to it and slid another board under it. Then he picked the whole thing up and carried it up the companionway to the cockpit. He was going to carry it ashore and release the rat somewhere up in the boatyard, but his curiosity got the better of him and his lifted the crate off the bottom board just a bit to make sure the rat was in there. He saw no rat feet. He gingerly lifted each side of the box, a bit higher and a bit higher each time, thinking the rat was always moving to the opposite side. But it became apparent after a while that the rat was not in the crate at all and had made good yet another escape.
Pat then went to up-end the crate entirely, whereupon the rat, which had been clinging upside-down to the bottom, then let go, landed with a thud on the backing board, and took off like a rocket, aiming to get back down the companionway. But Pat sat, stunned, in its path. The rat hesitated, Pat’s hand found the handle of the iron Hibachi grill that was sitting on top of the lazarette hatch, and flung it at the rat. It connected. The rat was stunned, then angry. The Hibachi grill clattered to the cockpit sole. Pat picked it up and threw it again, and this time it caught he rat squarely and knocked him against the aft end of the cabin.
Pat did not go into much further detail except to say that the battle had not ended there. The cornered rat behaved… well, like a cornered rat to the last. It was a short but horrifying fight, and Pat’s cockpit had the dings and gouges and bloodstains to attest for it.
When I found Pat sitting with his beer, and the dead rat on the dock, I thought it was a bit gruesome. But after hearing the story I understood. As has been known since ancient times, a worthy enemy means a greater victory. You don’t just kick such a crafty and elusive enemy over the edge of the dock; you lay him out -- on a shroud embroidered by vestal virgins if you happen to have such a shroud -- and contemplate him for a while.
So when the rat dropped through the foredeck hatch on my own boat, not very long after Pat’s rat’s demise, I did take a good look around, but then I decided to do nothing about it. If the rat stayed, he would be tolerated. I didn’t want to see him, but if I had seen him I would have treated him pretty much as I’d treated the big rat on the gangway: “You first, mate. Here’s a box of Ritz crackers. I’ll just be heading up to the forepeak for the off-watch. Let me know if the wind changes.”
I lived aboard for another year and a half. Sometimes I would think food was missing, and I’d blame the rat, although it was probably the rum. Six years after that I sold the boat to a nice guy from Florida, who had been looking for that particular hull -- an uncommon semi-production design that could be fitted out any way you pleased from the cabin sole up. He told me he intended to remove the house and deck and rebuild from there. Ever since then I’ve imagined him with a reciprocating saw, buzzing slowly along the toe-rail, then turning inboard and opening up a cut at the foredeck hatch, only to discover a pair of close-set eyes staring up, not malevolent eyes, but authoritative and unblinking.