A pussycat went to sea

A pussycat in Staithes, near Whitby, preferring to stay on dry land, unlike Unsinkable Sam. Picture by Alastair Smith

It has been long understood that certain animals have an uncanny ability to predict the weather, and none more so than cats. In his column from 4th April 1981 my dad mentions overhearing a lady discussing the behaviour of her feline. It had been sitting in front of the fireplace with its back to the flames and she said that meant that a storm was coming. Dad confirms she was right because not long afterwards, gales, snow and heavy rain swept the country.

For many centuries, sailors have had a reputation for being superstitious and in the days when you could not foresee how the weather would behave on your perilous journey ahead, then you would use whatever means were available to try to predict it. Cats’ sensitivity to weather changes was one of the reasons that they were chosen to travel aboard these ancient vessels.

As well as its duty to protect food stores and minimise disease by catching rodents, cats were also meant to bring good luck for the voyage. They were treated like members of the crew, given their own rations, living quarters and a bunk. The crew would get to know their behaviour very well, so that if they started acting out of character, they would take it very seriously indeed. If a cat tried to leap overboard, or repeatedly pawed at its face, then again, they knew bad weather was approaching and could therefore take preparatory action. If they were in dock and a nursing cat began to carry her kittens ashore, that was a very bad omen, and some seamen would refuse to sail at all.

Many centuries ago, there was the belief that a cat had magic powers, and could cause a storm by twitching its tail, but later sailors realised that the tail twitching was not causing the bad weather but rather was a sign that it was on the way. 

What we now know is that cats are very sensitive to changes in air pressure, so when warm and cool air collide, which is how a storm develops, then the moist warm air is forced upwards, while the cooler less dense air is forced down towards the earth’s surface. As a cat senses these pressure changes, it will often try to look for somewhere to hide, a natural survival tactic. It can also be seen repeatedly cleaning its face and ears with its paws, which eases the discomfort it feels due to these changes, and its general apprehension is evident in a constantly twitching tail.

Cats were carried on ships until relatively recently, the tradition ending only 1975 when they were banned by the Royal Navy for ‘health and safety’ reasons. One of the most famous ships’ cats was World War II’s ‘Unsinkable Sam’, so-called due to his uncanny ability to survive. The veracity of his story has been questioned, but it’s a nice one to tell anyway.

According to the tale, he started out as mascot for the German battleship Bismarck, but after it was sunk in May 1941, he was rescued from the sea by the crew of the British destroyer HMS Cossack. The crew named the black and white puss ‘Oscar’ from the letter ‘O’ in the International Code of Signals, which means ‘Man Overboard’.

He sailed with HMS Cossack for the next few months until the boat, which was escorting a convoy from Gibraltar to Great Britain, was torpedoed and sunk by a German submarine in October 1941. The cat was rescued alongside the surviving crew by HMS Ark Royal, and it was then that he was given the nickname ‘Unsinkable Sam’. But his time aboard the Ark Royal was short, as it too was torpedoed by a German U-boat the following month. Attempts were made to tow it to Gibraltar, but it was taking on too much water and eventually sank 30 miles from the shore. 

Sam was found unharmed and clinging to a plank, and ultimately taken back to land. After surviving the destruction of three ships, the Navy decided to retire him from ocean-going service, and he served in the Governor of Gibraltar’s office for a time, before being taken back to the Belfast ‘Home for Sailors’ where he saw out the remainder of his days.

He died in 1955 and his portrait can be seen in the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich.

Contact me, and read more, at countrymansdaughter.com. Follow me on Twitter @countrymansdaug

This column appeared in the Darlington & Stockton Times on 9th April and the Gazette & Herald on 7th April 2021

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