Episode 6: Boating and Fishing – Part 1: Boating

I’m not sure what I like more, fishing or boating. Yes, they do go hand-in-hand, but they are also things I can do separately with equal enjoyment. This is why I invented the world’s first fishing boat for the blind (www.blindfishingboat.com). This light-weight electric talking/beeping fishing boat represents an on-going research platform that I first developed in 2006 as a means of integrating various technologies that would allow me (someone without sight) to independently navigate the boat on the water, and more importantly, return safely.

Boats come in all sizes and shapes. It’s simply wrong to assume that one boat can meet all your boating requirements. Even if the primary purpose is fishing, there are many different styles of boats, each one designed to pursue different types of fishing. I personally have three fishing boats ‒ a kayak, a portable folding boat, and a larger fiberglass boat meant for fishing larger bodies of water. All my boats, with the exception of the kayak, utilize electric thrust for most of each day on the water, but that doesn’t mean I don’t use gas powered propulsion to get out and back. When electric fishing boats can cover the bigger distances efficiently, then maybe that’s all I’ll use, but until then, I use what’s necessary to get the job done and to stay safe.

Guide Dog - Marion

Guide Dog – Marion

I do have my pleasure boat operator’s certificate. I’m legally permitted to operate a watercraft in Canada. This is why I use electric motors, so I can hear what’s going on around me. I never operate my large gas-powered fishing boat, and that’s because I have plenty of fishing buddies more than happy and qualified to helm the boat. The talking depth sounder and audible fish alerts on the sonar provide me with more than sufficient information to understand what lies hidden below the surface. Tactile maps of the lakes I’m fishing and a HumanWare Victor Trek allow me to create GPS “landmarks” on the water and to assist my pilot to return to these prime locations on subsequent fishing adventures.

This series is about guide dogs. Where do they come in?

Well, not all dogs are happy to be on the water. Although, to be honest, I’ve never met a guide dog yet that didn’t want to go fishing. Our goal in introducing CNIB guide dog trainees to boating was to assess their comfort level aboard a boat. We wanted to know not only how they react, but to teach them simple things like “Don’t try walking on water because it doesn’t work” (!), and “Yes, dog, you can fall out of a boat.” These are things I’ve personally witnessed over the years, and which is why I always use a personal flotation device designed specifically for dogs by a Canadian company called Sailus Marine.

Safety around boat launches and on docks is just as important as what happens inside the boat. I’ve witnessed more than one dog fall off a dock, but then again, falling off a dock is something I’ve also done myself. It’s for this reason that I always keep my dog on leash and use a floating hiking pole when walking on docks. I like to know that I can rescue my dog if it should fall off, and where the edge of the dock is without having to feel for it with my foot. A floating hiking pole is also used since, and this may come as a surprise, white canes actually sink like rocks, and not only losing them a financial concern in terms of their replacement value, it’s a significant inconvenience when you had lost your only stick.

Photo of: Lawrence, Andrew, Karen, and Theo with Guide Dogs: Marian, Dunstan and Lewis on the boat out on the lake.

Lawrence, Andrew, Karen, and Theo with Guide Dogs: Marion, Dunstan and Lewis on the boat out on the lake.

Keeping dogs cool on boats is important. I’m talking temperature here. There are days in the summer when I won’t bring my dog on the boat for this very reason. On warm days I always have a bowl for water and a cover that I can use to create a shade area for the dog. Cold rain can also make things uncomfortable. I have great rain gear for me, but I’m still searching for the ideal rain jacket for guide dogs. Brief summer showers aren’t a problem, but if the weather looks bad and the temperature is low, I’ll make other arrangements for my dog to spare them the discomfort. For our tests with these CNIB trainees, we weren’t spending the entire day on the water, so we knew that heat would not be an issue.

Joining us aboard my 21-foot fishing boat that day was Marion, the brindle Lab-Golden mix, Dunstan, the yellow Lab, and Lewis, the black Lab/Golden mix. The humans onboard were Karen and Andrew, my fishing buddy Jason, my son Theo, as well as various videographers and sound technicians who switched back and forth between the front deck of my boat and the camera boat that was following up. We also brought along a drone for nifty aerial shots. We were well within the certified allowable limits for my boat, and we were also on a smaller lake which meant that waves and wind would not be a concern.

The three young guide dog trainees did great. They didn’t seem to be bothered at all when we started up the big Evinrude outboard 250 HP engine. The boat turning and bouncing over waves seemed to cause no obvious stress. They all looked back at the outboard when the motor was started, and we gradually raised the speed of the boat as not to startle the dogs. You always know a dog is comfortable on the boat when they turn their back to the motor to enjoy the wind in their face. It was if they had not just got to stick their head out of the window of the car when driving down a country road, but they were now standing on the roof to take it all in. They clearly loved the feel of the wind on their body, and their ability to look around 360 degrees with unobstructed views.

Who doesn’t love being on a boat!  That said, puppies will be puppies, and when they eventually became bored with boating, they began a full-blown doggy wrestling match on the lower deck of the boat’s cockpit. It was fun to listen to them piling on top of each other as all three of them squirmed about, some on top, and others perfectly happy to be on the bottom of the puppy pile. With this seriously scientific boat test out of the way, it was time to introduce the dogs to my other favourite thing to do on the water, fishing. Coming up in the next episode.