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The Real Vermin and Varmints of the Sea!

From the glory days of the great sailing ships to the modern vessels of today, the ships that crossed the oceans most often carried more than human passengers. Yep! Ships can carry a lot of creepy crawly, scampering villains, both in olden times and on today’s most luxurious, intimate, 8,500 passenger ships with 14 wave pools, 4 stages for continuous Broadway musicals, a golf course, an ice skating rink, climbing cliff, bumper cars, endless free booze, and the ever popular 24-hour Chocolate – Seafood Buffet. Oh great, do I feel just salty-sick writing about this.

Let’s start with the age of sail. There was no hygiene on most of these ships. The crew rarely washed and the smell of body odor permeated everywhere below deck. This was perfect for colonies of body and head lice to infest the entire crew. The scratching was endless. That’s where the seafaring term “You scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours” came from, I think, then again, who cares. These tiny suckers could pass around diseases like typhus and cholera which claimed many a mate or passenger’s life before the saving graces of anti-biotic. I think I have it bad when the green flies tag me on my boat, but that’s nothing to hopping around scratching night and day on an old square rigger.
The roaches are the next friendly group. The small European type moved in swarms below the decks. On some ships, as you went below decks with a lantern, it would look as if the wood beams, strakes, etc., were actually moving, as the roaches scattered to get out of the light. Many a sailor woke up to take his part of the night watch with a cockroach staring him in the eye or crawling up a nostril nose or ear. Those sly roaches could survive without real food by consuming the leather glue on the captain’s boots, eating a sailor’s clothing and the crew’s tobacco.

Any meal served by the cook was reported to be 25% roach parts. It did help to stretch out the food supply, as the roaches were so reproductive that there was always a great new supply of them.
All the dried meats and fish in the cook’s stores had worms of every sort in them and the flour and hard tack biscuits were half consumed by weevils. Their only saving grace was that most ship cooks could make the most amazing guacamole toast for breakfast which was always a big hit with the crew. Most times the cook would prepare the guacamole right at the table where the crew sat. It was generally served on the morning of “Taco Thursday”. Hey! Ships had real traditions in those days.
Beyond the European roach were the gigantic roaches that came on board on trips to Africa, South America and Fort Lauderdale. Some of these would make annoying clicking sounds that kept sleepy sailors awake in their hammocks until they could be caught. The sailors often fried ‘em up and served em’ on a tortilla, especially when a sailor wanted a snack and the cook was on his downtime. A few of those biggies would give Frito’s a run for the money.
Next on the varmint list were the mice. They scampered all over the decks below. The crew would hardly pay attention to them because they were more concerned about the fat rats that were chasing the cute mice. These rats were nasty buggers. They would get on ships in freight crates, climb in on the docking lines, and scamper up boarding planks. They chewed through lines, crates of food, and coils of rope. An elite party of them would run up to the captain’s table and clear his plate before he could yell “Rats Ass!” When they finally succumbed to old age below decks, the odor was unbearable. No one wanted to stay below decks until the remains were found and dispatched overboard. There was one good thing about rats, however. When the rats all scampered on deck and jumped overboard, you knew you were sinking and would probably drown. It’s a lesson in understanding life that even rats aren’t all bad.
Vermin in the age of sail could also get very “boutique”. Tarantulas could make their way in amongst the fresh veggies brought on board. Poisonous snakes were known to slither their way below decks in exotic ports of call and cause quite a commotion. Yet with all these “Bug-a-tory” and “Rat-a-tory” inconveniences, folks kept right on sailing.
Now we move on to the modern days of cruise ship extravagance where everything is nice, clean, fun, and always, over the top and overindulgent. I don’t want to shock anyone but yes, cruise lines do have many of the same issues that the “Age of Sail” dealt with when it comes to infestations, though they try to put controls in place to keep it at a minimum. (Let’s face it, most likely your favorite supermarket is dealing with the same issues).
When you go to board your cruise ship, if you look at the thick dock lines securing the ship to the pier you will notice large metal disks that the lines have been fed through. These are to stop dock rats from coming aboard the ship. The problem is they don’t always work, so yes, often rats make their way onto your floating hotel where they have a million places to hide and dine. Not to upset anyone, but rats carry up to 35 diseases though not one has been found with Covid. If one was found with Covid and spread it to a passenger, most ships carry bleach that could be taken as a cure-all injection.
The other enemies these “biggo boats” must fight are roaches, your basic fleas, and that wonder terror,” BED BUGS”!!! They come out in the dark and feast on your blood that you enriched by the limitless prime rib served for dinner. If you get bit, it’s never just once in a night. No, these creeps are like the guys who compete at the annual Nathan’s Hot Dog eating competition in Coney Island. They just munch on and on. If you are allergic to their bites you will end up with a score or more of big hurting welts that can ruin your time on that floating heaven you booked a year ago. It happened to me! I spent an entire nine days on one cruise to Staten Island chasing the captain around the deck. I just wanted to throw him overboard but he was too hard to catch with two frozen margaritas always in my hands. I must give most cruise lines credit, however, they do address the issues promptly, and most of them make every effort to keep their ships vermin-free. I wouldn’t forgo a cruise if it were a well-known line.
So that’s it, folks. I actually creeped myself out writing this. I already called the boatyard to get my boats ready for early spring launch. They went down the list. Washed-Yes! Waxed-Yes! Bottom painted with that really expensive stuff-Yes! Change oil – of course! Anything else Captain Nooch??? Yes!
Check for rats and have both the little whaler and the center console fumigated for roaches and bed bugs! Are you serious Captain? Absolutely!!

Copyright 2024 by Mark C. (Sea) Nuccio
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