Rats go balmy over pumpkin seeds

To the editor: Our 43-foot steel yacht, Jackella, is also our home and has been for more than a dozen years. So it came as a shock to return onboard after an interval of several weeks and find other occupants in residence.

The evidence was apparent immediately. The corners of a mattress had been chewed off, a plastic water pipe to the sink in the heads had been eaten right through, the insulation on some wiring had been nibbled and the wires laid bare, and bits of paper and chewed foam were scattered all over the floor.

But the most shocking evidence of all was the rat droppings on my wife Lella’s frilly pillow. To rub salt into her wounds, the nose of her teddy bear, left behind to guard her bunk in her absence, had been eaten off.

We had heard about the damage rats can do on a boat. Recently, friends had left their yacht unattended for the winter in a marina in Turkey. In their case, the rats trashed the boat: the furnishings, the woodwork, the wiring and the plumbing were entirely destroyed; even books and photographs were chewed up. The repair bill came to thousands, which, fortunately, the insurance company paid.

Our problem was that the rats — we assumed there were two and that they had come aboard to nest and to breed — were still with us. This was very soon confirmed, when we were awoken around midnight by a furious scratching and a scuttling movement from somewhere in the bilge below our bunks.

But now that we were back onboard, would they move out? By day they kept silent, but on our second night, our sleep was disturbed again. I got up, took a powerful flashlight and peered round, stick in hand.

Between the steel hull and the inner paneling, Jackella is insulated against condensation with polystyrene foam. We had already found a lot of it chewed to small pieces under the toilet. It was from an inaccessible area in this foam, between Lella’s bunk and the heads, that we heard the noise. When I tapped around with my stick it stopped, but as soon as I got back into my bunk it started up again.

We soon discovered that it is impossible to sleep with rats scratching and chewing your boat to pieces. It is too worrying. I imagined them chewing an outlet hose on our 265-gallon water tank (it was then half full) and flooding the bilge, eating hoses or wires on the engine, or nibbling through the galley sink outlet and sinking the yacht.

Instead of trying to sleep, we held a predawn conference. Trapping might be the answer; poisoning carried the risk of their dying in an inaccessible part of the bilge or in the foam, and rotting away and producing a stench that would make the yacht uninhabitable.

A cat might work. From the marina office we phoned the Hobart home for stray cats. We explained that we just wanted to borrow one for a few days, until the rats were caught or the smell of the cat decided them to move ashore. The home would be very pleased to give us a cat, but not as a loan. If we had a cat from them, we would have to keep it.

Instead, we borrowed two large traps of the wooden-based, spring-loaded mousetrap variety — the ones that are difficult to set without it snapping back on your fingers. The best bait to put on the nasty little spike at the business end, we were told, was peanut butter. Lella set off for the local store.

I rather fancied myself as a trapper. As a boy I had at one time supplemented my two-pence-a-week pocket money by trapping moles and selling the skins for four pence each.

So I felt quite confident that the days of Erik and Erika — as we had named our companions — were numbered. In opening up the sole between our bunks, I found that the whole bilge stank of rats’ urine. So the sooner I got rid of them, the better.

That night, as we listened to the impudent scratching somewhere below, we hoped for the sound of a trap being sprung. No such luck. In the morning, both traps were untouched, yet there were new droppings nearby. And there was more chewed foam under the toilet.

The locals in the marina were sympathetic. One of them loaned us a cage trap. We baited it with cheese and bits of bacon. It was quite bulky and couldn’t be put in the bilge, but I had noticed that Erik or Erika had nibbled an apple, so I put the trap in the saloon next to the bowl of fruit.

The next morning, I began to doubt my skill as a trapper: The cage had caught nothing.

I decided to risk buying a poison that, judging from the warnings on the box, was lethal even to humans if they touched it. That night, wearing rubber gloves, I placed small trays of the blue tablets in strategic positions in Jackella’s nether regions.

By now the date of our planned Christmas cruise was approaching, but the thought of taking Erik and Erika with us was unthinkable.

I phoned the Tasmanian Maritime Quarantine Office. I was told to contact the professor who specialized in rodentology at the University of Tasmania. He told me that we had what was termed a ship’s rat, a special breed that live on commercial vessels, that are very difficult to get rid of, that can go weeks without water and that the only way to kill ours would be to de-fumigate the whole yacht, in which case they would most certainly die in the bilge.

By now, everyone in the marina was sympathetic to our problem. Every greeting opened with the hope that Erik and Erika were dead, or had gone missing. Out of this interest came the suggestion that we should get in touch with a local freelance pest officer.

His name was Paul. He was a mine of useful information. He told me that in no way should we use poison and have them die in the boat.

Traps were the answer, but we needed a different and more effective brand, available at the local supermarket. A good bait to use was small bits of juicy tomato — rats are always thirsty. The best bait of all is pumpkin seeds, “Rats go balmy over pumpkin seeds,” he said.

Rats are very cautious, sensitive, shy and selective. “Don’t expect overnight results,” he warned me; they need a few days to get used to the traps, which must always be put in exactly the same place and in the same position relative to their surroundings. They have an acute sense of smell, so wear gloves when baiting and handling traps; and they don’t like to be seen, so put the traps in dark places. It all takes time, he said. An organized de-ratting program can take three weeks.

Lella and I made for the supermarket. We bought two traps and a pumpkin. The talk with Paul had raised our morale enormously; we knew now we would win. Paul thought the two rats — if there were only two — onboard were young ones. The parents would have nested and gone ashore. So we changed their names to Eriksson (son of Erik) and Daisy, his sister.

Two nights later, almost as soon as we had settled into our bunks, we heard the sharp, metallic click of a trap being sprung. Lella shot bolt upright in her bunk and snapped her light on. “Oh, my God! It was the trap, wasn’t it? Oh, poor thing … It’s dead, isn’t it? Do something …”

In the morning, when I examined the corpse, it was young Daisy; and a few nights later, her brother Eriksson was eliminated. Both were healthy-looking, with sleek and glossy coats; both were young, about 5 inches long with a tail of the same length. Both had paws that looked like tiny hands. It was with those and their teeth that they had been doing so much damage.

Our ordeal was over. We have faced several hazards in our time: storms, groundings, dragging anchors and gear failure; but having rats onboard was as harrowing as any. Be warned.

By Ocean Navigator