Sailing With Pets: How to Cat-Proof Your Boat

After marrying in 2008, Luisa Mixon and her husband, Seth, set their eyes to the sea. Like many Sailrite® customers, their dream was to buy a sailboat, learn to sail, and eventually gain enough experience to live completely on board. When they envision their retirement years, they see themselves sailing wherever their hearts, and the wind, take them. Their journey towards making this dream a reality has been one of excitement, hard work and ingenuity. They grow closer to reaching it every day.

Before becoming sailors, Luisa and Seth would often browse used sailboat websites and peruse sailboat shows, window shopping and gathering ideas for the type of boat they would purchase when the time was right. Most of the searching was just for fun, as actually owning a boat had always seemed far on the horizon. Then one day at the end of May 2018, something amazing happened that would catapult them into a new life sailing and sewing: They found their dream boat for sale in Long Beach, California.

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Seth and Luisa sailing their newest purchase.

“The boat — a 1989 Ericson 38-200 named Astral — was beautiful and in excellent condition, so we ended up buying it. Less than a month later we were proud owners of a sailboat even though we didn’t know how to sail! Crazy, right?”

The couple then chose a marina in San Pedro, California, so the boat would be closer to their home, and learned the ropes from a few neighboring sailors. By August they had completed their first solo sailing trip and had fallen in love with life on the water. To complete the crew, the next step was to make the boat safe for Luisa’s two rescue cats, Charlie and Astro. You see, these aren’t your average felines. Charlie, a 13-year-old tabby, needs special medicine every 12 hours and Astro, a 10-year-old Bombay, requires special food for medical reasons. Considering that both animals warranted extra attention and could not be left alone for extended periods of time, it just made more sense to bring them aboard. But in order to do that, the living area of the boat had to be completely “cat proof” first.

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The Ericson (named Astral), Charlie (top right) and Astro – ready to set sail!

In preparation for this project, Luisa had already been following the videos of other sailors who had completed tons of DIYs for their boat. One of these was Project Atticus, a couple who sail abroad for months at a time and sew their own projects using the Sailrite Ultrafeed® LSZ-1. After looking at the Sailrite website and YouTube channel, Luisa finally felt she had the confidence to start a project of her own: a new bimini and screened-in cat enclosure. Naturally, the next step was to choose a dependable sewing machine and gather supplies.

“I had never touched a sewing machine in my life, so I was eager and nervous to start. We wanted the best for our boat, a machine with excellent quality that would last a long time, so I ordered the Sailrite Ultrafeed LSZ-1 PREMIUM and every single material and tool that was suggested in the videos. It was so exciting!”

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Luisa and her Ultrafeed LSZ-1 were ready to tackle any project.

Now fully prepared, the real work could begin. With their marina being so close to Catalina Island (around 20 nautical miles), Luisa and Seth decided to challenge themselves and plan a Thanksgiving sailing expedition. This meant that the new bimini and enclosure would have to be done quickly. Being from Colombia, Luisa’s DIY adventure came with a new set of hurdles, all of which she was able to overcome.

“My first language is not English, and I had never sewn before, so the hardest part was my pace completing the projects. I had to go slow watching the videos, understanding the English. And because I wanted my project to be perfect, or at least close to perfect, I had to go back and forth, checking to make sure I was doing things right.”

Luisa took a week off work and toiled for 16 hours each day to sew her own bimini and screened-in enclosure with help from Sailrite. She soon developed a love for the work and was extremely satisfied when the finished product fit perfectly. By the end of it all, she had created a lasting addition to Astral that would come in handy on future expeditions with her four-legged first mates.

“My cats love to be on the boat … once it’s at anchor and they’re placed in the enclosure, they’re very happy. They love to see the seagulls, seals and fish. It’s amazing for them and I’m happy if they are safe and happy!”

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Luisa and Seth initially eased into their sailing journey, hoping to gradually acclimate their furry companions to life aboard. They started staying overnight at the marina on weekends and then practiced anchoring twice at White’s Island, staying for four nights each time. Luisa’s confidence with the Ultrafeed has allowed her to create several other useful projects for the boat. Along with the bimini and cat enclosure, she’s created screens for the windows below deck, modified her V-berth cushions and sewn a generator cover. She has her sights set on sewing new sheet bags and sail covers, with many more DIY sewing endeavors on the to-do list.

The plan for this sea-faring couple is to eventually move aboard Astral permanently. They’ve been placed on a waiting list, as it can take years to get the liveaboard slip, but the faster this happens, the faster they can retire and start exploring the open ocean. As for now, the pair are simply enjoying the journey that brings them closer to their dream.

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“In the meantime, we are sailing every Saturday and doing boat projects on Sunday. We work regular jobs Monday through Friday but we are practicing and learning more about sailing every day … reading books, watching videos, and continuing to sail to Catalina and White’s Island. We want to enjoy our boat to the fullest before we cast off!”

Building a Custom Wooden Boat

Somehow in the spring of 2007, Jeff Cobb ended up on Glen-L Marine’s email marketing list. Glen-L Marine sells wooden boat plans. “Week after week as the email appeared in my inbox, I’d have feelings of eagerness and disgust at the same time,” Jeff recalled. “Eager to see all the pictures of new wooden boats people around the world were building from Glen-L plans, and disgusted knowing that if I opened this email, I could kiss my productive workday goodbye because for the next two hours I’d be consumed by daydreams of the wooden boat I might build.” Jeff was particularly enamored with building a small sporty two-seat runabout model called the Glen-L Squirt.

While woodworking had never been his main hobby, Jeff had had the good fortune of growing up across the street from a cabinet builder and general jack-of-all-trades, Mr. Deedee, who built cabinets in his backyard shop. Mr. Deedee and Ms. Joy’s house is where all the kids hung out, playing basketball, ping pong and backyard football. While Jeff never did much work with Mr. Deedee, just from being around the shop as a kid he had gained a lot of woodworking knowledge. Enough so that he was confident he could build a good wooden boat, but he wasn’t sure if he wanted to make the commitment. But by the end of the summer he finally caved, ordered the Squirt plans, and began building.

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“I just had to build this boat. I bought the plans, and built my first boat — a Glen-L Squirt.”

We’re Gonna Need a Bigger Boat

After completing the Glen-L Squirt in May 2009, Jeff and his wife, Melanie, began to assimilate into the wooden boat community in southern Louisiana and beyond. “We enjoyed the Squirt, but its use is very limited being that the boat is only 11 feet long. We were enjoying the people in the wooden boat community and the boating experiences,” Jeff stated, “but we wanted a bigger boat so that we could bring friends along. We also needed to go faster and handle rough chop in order to run with the big dogs.”

So, in 2012, Jeff started designing and building his second boat, the Pretty Girl Too. It’s a 22-foot runabout that comfortably seats six adults. Jeff had very specific features and design qualities in mind for this second boat. Essentially, he wanted the boat to be like a modern luxury runabout in every way but built out of wood with the general appearance of a classic wooden boat. He built the hull from a set of Clarkcraft Mariner plans that he modified substantially. He also incorporated design aspects and borrowed inspiration from several different boats, including the Riva Aquariva, Pegiva Convertible, and numerous Chris Craft models and Glen-L builds.

Building a Masterpiece

“It took me five years of nights and weekends to build the Pretty Girl Too,” Jeff recalled. “I’d say at least a year or so of that time was spent not so much in building the boat, but in thinking through the design. I don’t draw well nor do I know how to use CAD software, so the method of design consisted of building lots of mock-ups, which is quite time-consuming.”

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Clockwise from top left: Various stages of constructing the hull.

After building and modifying the hull frame to the shape Jeff was looking for, he double planked the boat with a 1/4-inch inner plywood layer and 1/4-inch outer Sapele veneer layer. Next came lots and lots of sanding and fairing. Fairing is the process of creating a pleasant fair curve as you look down the side of the boat. Too little sanding and fairing result in a profile that resembles a wrecked car that was poorly repaired at a subpar body shop.

He painted the boat bottom green and applied clear gloss above the waterline using numerous coats of SystemThree marine polyurethane for both. The finish was sanded to 5000 grit and polished to a high glossy shine. Finally, the hull was complete. Several friends and neighbors pitched in to help gently roll the boat onto some old mattresses and then lift it onto its trailer. A very happy celebration with beer and pizza followed.

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Flipping the boat so it could be loaded onto a trailer to work on the interior.

Upholstering the Rear Seating Area

Designing the finished interior presented several challenges, but none bigger than the U-shaped seating area. Several mock-ups were built before finally settling on the final design. In the end, all that hard work and planning were worth it; the rear seating area emerged as a part of the boat that Jeff was most pleased with.

Once Jeff completed the woodwork, he thought his portion of the work was finished. He was excited to see the finished project and ready to write a check to an upholsterer and get it done. But his excitement was soon quelled when he discovered that very few upholstery shops do marine upholstery, and none of them had an appetite for all the custom work needed for his boat.

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The rear U-shaped seating area before upholstery.

He first tried hiring an upholsterer in December 2016. Yet, by June of 2017, the boat was still not upholstered. He’d been strung along for months by a couple different shops telling him they’d get to it in two to three weeks, but never actually committing to the job. Frustrated by the runaround, he decided he would do the upholstery himself. He’d watched numerous Sailrite® how-to videos and borrowed an old Thompson Mini Walker — the precursor to the Sailrite Ultrafeed® — from his brother, Carl.

While Jeff was determined to get started on the upholstery work, there was a lot of apprehension. This was a major project for someone who’d never really sewn anything, and the upholstery is so prominent in an open-air runabout that there’s no place to hide mistakes. It really needed to be done right and professionally, and Jeff had grave concerns whether he was capable of sewing the upholstery to his high standards.

Then suddenly, a hero appeared! Jill, a friend of Jeff and Melanie’s, offered to do the sewing if he did all the foam fitting. This was a fantastic break! Not only did Jill have upholstery sewing experience, but she also had an Ultrafeed LSZ-1 Sewing Machine. Much to her husband, David’s, dismay, she even put their sailboat dodger project on hold while she worked on Jeff’s upholstery. She professionally patterned the curved and irregular surfaces with Dura-Skrim® Patterning Material so everything fit tightly and sewed with Profilen® Lifetime Thread. The results were spectacular: “All too often I’m asked by people looking at the boat, ‘Who did your upholstery?’ They are always shocked to learn that it was done by a couple of enthusiastic amateurs. Jill really came to the rescue and did a fantastic job.”

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The completed upholstery work on the Pretty Girl Too.

A Snapless Cockpit Cover

With the upholstery completed, Jeff’s attention turned to another issue. He knew that in showing and using the boat it would spend many nights tied up to dock, and so he needed a cockpit cover to keep the interior clean, dry and protected during these overnight stays. While he appreciated Jill’s help on the upholstery, he was determined to do this project all on his own. This would be the project where he’d put all the hours spent watching Sailrite videos and his brother’s old Thompson Mini Walker to use. He ordered Top Notch® 9 fabric, grommets, Boat Blanket material and patterning fabric — all from Sailrite — and was ready to get to work.

However, there was one concern in making a cockpit cover that kept gnawing at Jeff. After hours and hours spent sanding and polishing the decking to a high-gloss mirror shine, he couldn’t bear the thought of marring his beautiful woodwork with snaps for attaching the cover to the boat. He came up with a clever alternative. Instead of using the traditional snaps to attach the cover, he tethered it to each of the four docking cleats. Then he added pockets to the cover that hold collapsible fiberglass tent poles to keep the cover taut. Jeff admitted, “It’s certainly a little different looking, but it’s a breeze to put on and works wonderfully, even in fairly high winds.”

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The cockpit cover Jeff designed that cleverly uses tent poles so he didn’t have to add snap fasteners to his woodwork.

After completing the cockpit cover, Jeff put his newfound sewing skill into action by making fender covers with help from Sailrite’s project video. He also sewed some tote bags and did some canvas mending for a local sailing club. While finding satisfaction in the items he was producing, the actual act of sewing on the old Thompson was more often than not tedious and frustrating. The machine lacked the power to go through multiple layers of fabric and the stitch length adjustment would not hold in place. The final straw came when the tensioner broke. You can no longer find replacement parts for the machine, so Jeff rigged a homemade tensioner, but it didn’t work so well.

He then found a local sewing machine repair mechanic who installed a tensioner from a different model machine. “It worked OK, but not great,” Jeff explained. “I’d entertained the thought of getting a Sailrite machine early in the process while watching the videos but questioned whether it would be worthwhile just for doing the few projects I was working on. But once I realized how much I enjoyed sewing and began to envision all of the neat custom items I’d be able to make, I vowed that the next time Sailrite offered a 10 percent discount on the machine I was buying one — and I did.”

What made Jeff decide on an Ultrafeed? Following many other boatbuilders on the Glen-L forum who did their own upholstery, he noticed that most used the Sailrite machines and all of them spoke highly of their machines. Jill also loved her Ultrafeed and recommended it. “I’ve yet to read anything negative about Sailrite or their machines; it’s all glowing reviews. So, for me, buying the Sailrite machine was a no-brainer.”

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Jeff worked nights and weekends for five years building the Pretty Girl Too.

Smooth Sewing Ahead

Although Jeff hasn’t owned his Ultrafeed for very long, he’s enthusiastic about all the projects he’ll make with it. Having a heavy-duty sewing machine opens up a realm of new project possibilities. Jeff admits that he has more ideas than he’ll ever have time to sew, but he’s excited about the ones he will get to. He has plans to re-cover his outdoor patio cushions in LSU purple and gold for their gameday watch parties and has a desire to build curved wood mahogany captain’s chairs with custom upholstery for the Pretty Girl Too.

Another thing Jeff is looking forward to is loaning his Ultrafeed out to his brother. “Carl doesn’t sew too often, but the next time he does, I know he’ll enjoy the power and smoothness of the Utlrafeed over his old Thompson. When taking on any complex DIY project such as a boat, it’s always nice to have an “ace in the hole.” Carl’s my ace. He’s an extremely experienced craftsman in many areas and always available to provide advice and a helping hand. He’s also one of those guys who has every tool imaginable and has generously let me borrow them. It’s not often I have the opportunity to lend him any tool because he has them all, and so I’m excited about him benefitting from my Ultrafeed in the sewing projects he pursues.”

Oh, and how did Jeff come up with the name Pretty Girl Too for his second boat? “‘Pretty Girl’ is my wife, Melanie’s, pet name. She’s been so supportive of my boatbuilding hobby. The amount of support and encouragement she’s provided are immeasurable, and so I proudly named the boat after her. Thus the name, ‘Pretty Girl Too.’”

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Jeff and Melanie are all smiles aboard the Pretty Girl Too.