It was scrunched into a shady corner of the ship, its patches of white and gray fur doing little to disguise it among the throngs of visitors and deck hands. Upon being discovered, it jolted its head upright, a black streak running like a road from its forehead to its back.
Is that … a cat?
As a matter of fact, yes. Her name is Pilar, and she’s the most unexpected crew member of The Spirit of South Carolina, one of the Tall Ships berthed in Boston for the past week.
It turns out cats and sailors are kind of like dalmatians and firefighters, a classic partnership throughout history that simultaneously does and doesn’t make sense.
For centuries, cats have offered sailors companionship on the lonely seas, maybe even since Egyptian times, according to the US Naval Institute’s website. Ship cats also do the dirty work — hunting the mice and rats that, if left to roam the ships freely, would otherwise eat the crew’s provisions, gnaw through ropes, and spread disease.
So with the Tall Ships getting ready to depart Boston Harbor for Canada on Thursday, the Globe set out to track down more of these curious shipmates, scouring the city’s piers, beginning in Charlestown Navy Yard and moving to the North End, Long Wharf, and Fan Pier.
Initial inquiries were met with confusion.
“That’s the first time I’ve heard that one,” said one crew member on a Dutch ship.
Added a British captain, “In the UK we don’t have rabies — and we don’t have cats [aboard].”
In a harbor filled with more than 50 vessels, however, there were bound to be more.
And finally, a breakthrough.
“Yes,” responded Alex Peacock, asked whether there was a cat aboard his ship, the Lynx.
Her name is Leeloo.
Plucked from a rescue center six months ago in St. Petersburg, Fla., she’s traveled with the ship up and down the Eastern Seaboard, from Key West to Nantucket.
She’s a little black cat that curls comfortably in Alex’s arms after he scoops her up, reclining against his chest like he’s her personal lawn chair.
“Having a cat on board makes everything OK,” he said, cradling her as she slouched further back into his arms, her body in the shape of a furry letter “J.”
In between socializing with the crew, Peacock said, Leeloo spends her days climbing up into the ship’s sails for cat naps and jumping on the other boats also berthed at Fan Pier.
She even has a little cat life jacket, in case she ever ends up overboard.
“She kind of has a dog’s personality,” said Peacock, as Leeloo’s yellow eyes darted around the ship, scoping out the passengers. “She’s very loving and very affectionate. She doesn’t just hide and sleep all day — she’s curious.”
Like Leeloo, a 4-year-old tabby cat named Fiji has almost circumnavigated the globe on the Picton Castle, visiting cities like Cape Town in South Africa and La Rochelle in France. In all, she’s crossed the Atlantic roughly five times. (So yes, if you were wondering, there are cats that are more well-traveled than you.)
But it’s not all sunbathing and mouse-chasing.
Humans, it turns out, aren’t the only ones that must adjust to life at sea. At least that’s what Aaron Samet, the lead seaman of the Picton Castle, said about Fiji — who they got, coincidentally, in Fiji.
Like many people at sea for the first time, Fiji got seasick her first night when the waters grew especially rough and choppy, Samet said. But now she’s pretty fearless, climbing around the ship’s rigging for fun and playing on the awning at night.
“She looks tiny and vulnerable, but she’s really quite crafty,” said Allison Steele, who handles the ship’s finances.
She’s grown so daring, in fact, that twice since arriving in Boston last Saturday, she’s been the victim of a cat-napping after wandering off the ship.
On both occasions, however, Fiji was returned – most recently, by police. And now she’s back aboard the Picton Castle, free to return to her favorite pastimes: specifically, playing in piles of canvas on deck.
Despite her mischievous streak, she brings the crew a lot of comfort, too. Fiji seems to know what everyone on board needs, Samet said, and how to help them. When it’s cold, for instance, she’ll crawl up to cuddle with crew members and keep them warm.
And maybe that’s the real reason you’ll find a cat on board next time you see a ship. Having a crew member willing to track down rodents is helpful, of course. But as Samet put it:
“It’s nice having a cat to pet when you’re not having such a great day.”