Most people work because they have to. It is not usually what they would choose to do had they unlimited options. Dogs are different—
their duty is their delight. They do it with a passion—herd sheep, hunt foxes, retrieve pheasants, track convicts, pull sledges, and guard flocks with tireless devotion—giving an altogether different meaning to the old expression, to “work like a dog."
From medieval times his ancestors had been bred for service afloat and he was born ready and eager—he didn’t have days off during which it "wasn’t his job," or sick days, or personal leave or emergency family obligations. Keeping watch, warding off and sounding the alarm—work was his reason for being. Santos’ working day started at the crack of dawn. At least it did during laughing gull season.
Visitors from the north say we have no seasons—but one sure sign of our spring is the return of the laughing gulls. These East Caribbean gulls are nothing like their drab, lumpish northern cousins. Laughing gulls are small and pristine—crisp studies in black and white with bellies of fresh snow, heads of jet black and uppers of nimbus gray. They are seafarers and migratory wanderers; they fly south to Brazil for their winter bivouac. Then, after a six-month silence, early on an April morning, a familiar raucous cry registers through the fleeting fog of sleep—the laughing gulls are back.
For a few days or a week, only loners straggle in, outriders and scouts; and then suddenly the whole laughing gull nation appears en masse and for the next half-year, the wild, free sound of their lunatic laughter pervades the harbor. They take up their usual posts, on buoys, rocks, and especially unused boats, including dinghies, which they soon foul with their droppings.
A charter boat cannot have dung in its dinghy and Santos’ first order of business was to keep ours free of gulls. We would wake up in the morning to a low growl directly above us on the after deck. Santos knew not to bark before we rose unless the situation were dire and immediate, and he also knew that mere barking wouldn’t do the job—the gulls were brazen and canny and wouldn’t move til they had to. The dinghy was normally tied too far astern for him to jump, so Santos would wait lying on the afterdeck next to the tiller arm, his head between his paws. He would watch intently and keep up a sputtering, muted growl ‘til a shift in the fitful harbor breeze brought the dinghy close enough for him to suddenly spring up, snarling in triumph, feigning a leap. The gulls would shriek, and take to the air—grudgingly.
Santos rarely actually jumped into the dinghy, because then he would be stuck in it, bobbing around, marginalized, ‘til someone lifted him back up.
When we got back to the Virgin Islands, we entered the charter business, taking tourists out for a day of sailing and snorkeling…a day that Santos dominated. Breath was clearly his boat and by the end of the afternoon, people would take leave of him with a certain awe.
A lot of the charter business is social and in this the little dog easily equaled any human crew. One of the first, and most important, jobs of the day was breaking the ice between the guests who often were complete strangers to each other. Early one morning a full boatload of passengers was congregated on the narrow, antiquated Coral Bay dock, waiting. I was in a jam because on the way in to fetch them, the outboard had given a sodden cough, stopped, and now wouldn’t start—water in the carburetor.
The tourists were getting fidgety. They hated being made to wait. Their time was precious—quality time—and being herded together like sheep in a chute didn’t make them happy. Santos saved the day. He had been doing his morning rounds—making his mark afresh, checking at Skinny Legs for scraps, policing the other animals. He ran back to catch the dinghy, saw that departure wasn’t imminent, and peeled off with a flurry of good-natured barking after a rooster. It flew to a tree, the swift little dog snapping theatrically under it.
Having got everybody’s attention, he moved to his main act, a furious charge at a troop of peacefully-grazing donkeys, barking insolently like he had the king’s commission in his pocket to disperse this rabble at once. These were the same donkeys who regularly browsed through the dock environs, keeping an eye on things, and they’d seen this absurd show more than once—many times more than once. A young donkey might snort and stamp its hoof, another might lift its leg disdainfully like there was something unsanitary underfoot, but the rest totally ignored him, their body language emoting a wearied, scornful "whatever…!” Then he turned and, with all eyes upon him, made his triumphal entrance onto the dock.
Until they saw his face, most of the passengers weren’t sure he was a dog; from a distance he looked like a coked-up hedgehog or some offbeat cross between a Tasmanian devil and an Amazonas peccary…but the moment he danced up to the dock, alert, savvy, confident, with his ears laid back in affable greeting, his tongue lolling, he was unmistakably a dog.
He was going from guest to guest, giving each of them a cursory inspection, when two large young pups loped up eagerly to share the attention and started badgering Santos to play, knocking him clumsily with their uncontrollably-wagging hips and tails. He bore it testily in the manner of one who suffers a fool. They kept it up, almost edging him off the dock, ignoring his warning growls—‘til suddenly he exploded like a letter bomb in their faces, a black tornado with a blood-curdling snarl and a blur of snapping teeth.
It so startled the ungainly dogs, they sprang backwards—and landed in the drink. While they floundered through the shallows back to shore, Santos calmly resumed his greetings.
The tourists all started talking at once…"Didya see that? This little dog? Just ran those two big guys right off the dock!"
"Unbelievable…talk about force of character!”
"Awesome snarl!… like a wolverine on bad acid!" By now they were all laughing together.
His next act was dinghy jumping, negotiating the usual congestion of small craft at the dock by leaping from dinghy to dinghy with impeccable balance till he got to our skiff, and strode its foredeck—on station, ready to ride. By this time the guests were delighted to learn that this was a ship’s dog, belonging to the very boat they were sailing on. Much mollified, they peppered me with questions about Santos’ breed while I cleaned the plugs and drained the float chamber; and when the machine once again fired up, we all ferried out to Breath anticipating the best, with Santos, as always, riding in the prow, reaching a forepaw out toward the boat as if guiding the way. People loved that.
We sometimes stopped at the Bight in Norman Island and ferried our guests over to the William Thornton for lunch. This vessel (aka the "Willie T”) was one of Santos’ all-time favorite establishments. Most so-called "floating restaurants" are merely a barge bolted to a city wharf in water one would never eat the fish out of, but the Willie T was a 100 year-old 90′ Baltic trader moored to a 7000-lb anchor in 30′ of water, as blue as sky. Santos loved the sounds and smells of the busy restaurant; though he wasn’t allowed to go, he often followed us, leaping into the water no matter how choppy. He had numerous saviors who thought the small dog was a puppy. He played on that one briefly!
Santos assessed the guests every day in the morning, visiting each one briefly, until he found a willing lap where he could lie on his back, his eyes closed in supreme languor, his rear leg occasionally pawing the air as she scratched his belly, a little Roman emperor awash in pleasure.
Yet part of him remained ever on guard; when he sensed a power boat penetrating the no-go zone that surrounds Breath—breaching the sacred circle!—he convulsively wrenched himself away and bounded onto the deck with bristling mane to peal out his warning—a warning to the transgressing boat as well as to us. Nothing—no caress, emolument nor delicacy—came between him and his duty. It was unthinkable that any boat—especially a fast runabout—should pass unheralded or unchallenged.
Each day, when the guests took out their snorkeling gear, Santos tried desperately to herd everybody away from the rail where, from previous experience, he knew they would wind up overboard. Every splash elicited a hysterical protest, his bark taking on the distinctive timbre he reserved for Man Overboard! The urgency of his inbred responsibility had not diminished a whit over the centuries. Despite having seen thousands of people, hundreds of children, jump into the water, Santos unfailingly went ballistic. He even started barking at jumpers on neighboring boats.
He took himself and his responsibilities very, very seriously.