Some of you were following along on social media as we duked it out with our recent boat guest. Here is the whole story, as printed in 48 North last month.
Chepe recently moved in with us. We did not invite Chepe to move in; we were not looking for a third crewmember. But we did leave the companionway open one night, which I suppose in Chepe’s skewed view of reality looks a whole lot like an invitation. It was immediately clear why Chepe is a terrible houseguest. He stayed up all night partying and making noise. He ate anything in sight, and even once I hid all our food, he rummaging through my cabinets. He was dirty and ungracious. He had terrible hygiene. We quickly decided that Chepe had to go.
There was no reasoning with Chepe, however, because Chepe was a rat. After he didn’t respond to my subtle hints and polite requests to go find a new home, things escalated quickly. Soon it was full-fledged warfare: Becca’s homemade poison, clever traps, and opposable thumbs against Chepe’s savvy nose, impressive agility and will to survive.
When I first noticed the hole through the bag and two hot dog buns, I thought Chepe was a mouse. OK, I thought, we can handle this. We’d had mice try to take up residence on Halcyon before, though I had to admit this time was a bit more complicated. We were anchored off the coast of Nicaragua and a 1.5-hour bus ride from the nearest mousetraps. And we had just provisioned for a season without supermarkets, loading up the fridge and squirreling dried and canned food away in lockers and cubbies all over the boat.
But I wasn’t worried. I asked Google how to make homemade mouse poison. I found a recipe using ingredients I already had: mix sugar, flour and baking soda in equal parts, then place it in a shallow container near where the mouse has been. The mouse is attracted by the sugar and eats it all up. Mice can’t fart (or burp), so when the baking soda reacts with the acid in their stomach… you get dead mice. How simple! That Google sure is smart.
I hummed as I mixed up my cheap and effective homemade mouse poison (also harmless for kids and pets!) and mounded it near the empty coconut milk tetrapak Chepe had been shredding the previous evening. To be safe, I also dropped some peanut butter on chopsticks draped across a sink full of water, in case the silly little mouse chose that route instead. I went to bed confident I’d wake up to undisturbed vegetables and a very bloated or very drowned mouse.
Instead, I woke up to the pile of baking soda concoction spread about, the chopsticks knocked into the sink, a new hole through our hanging produce net, half an apple missing and teeth marks around the entire rim of an empty Tupperware container. I quickly deduced two things from this scene: 1. Chepe was taunting me and 2. Chepe was not a mouse.
A mouse could have lived in the gaping hole Chepe chewed in that apple. And the bite marks in the Tupperware made it clear those were some big teeth. We did not have a cute little fury and rather dumb mouse settling in, we had a big gross shrewd RAT with a vengeance. The battle had begun.
Every time I opened a cabinet, I found something else Chepe had destroyed. A pack of seaweed, a bottle of vegetable oil, a tetrapak of chicken broth, a gallon of engine oil, a box of pasta, a Tupperware of flour, a container of milk, a bottle of boat soap, a bag of crackers. Each discovery of demolition added fuel to my fury. I mixed roach poison with peanut butter and smeared it on Tupperware (Chepe seemed to have a propensity for Tupperware, having already disposed of 3 containers). I piled the baking soda concoction in corners all over the galley. I arranged a trail of cheerios leading up to the edge of a fork, balanced precariously over a bucket of bleach water. I turned our galley into a game of mousetrap. Except the mouse was a rat. With a vengeance.
I was lying in bed that night thinking through my battle plans when I was suddenly struck by an urgent question: Do rats fart? Half of my combat strategy depended on Chepe’s inability to pass gas. What if those piles of sugary baking soda are really just an unsatisfying midnight snack for rats, delicious but full of empty calories? More questions came tumbling into mind. How much roach poison does it take to kill a rat? How high can rats jump? How long can they swim? I had neglected the number one rule to a successful battle campaign: know thy enemy! It was time for some serious research, and I knew just where to turn. I grabbed my phone and franticly asked Google: “Do rats frat”? Luckily, Google knows me well and kindly corrected me. “Did you mean, do rats fart?”
They do, it turns out. So baking soda doesn’t kill them. And roach poison doesn’t either, though it may eventually give them testicular cancer. Rats can jump two feet vertically and four feet horizontally. They can fit through a hole the size of a quarter. Some species can swim a mile, tread water for three days, and hold their breath for three minutes. In the US, there are as many rats as people. They reach sexual maturity in two months, and can reproduce every three weeks. In a safe environment, two rats could become 900 in a single year (yes, that’s terrifying). Their teeth grow fast, up to five inches per year, and never stop growing. To keep those gnashers under control, rats chew on pretty much everything, including cinder blocks, aluminum sheeting, glass and lead. Those gnarly fangs are harder than iron, which I suppose is why Chepe chewed through my plastic Tupperware container like it was a stick of butter in the tropics.
My goal was to evict Chepe before our guests arrived, but he proved a worthy adversary and we were still duking it out when friends from Seattle joined us for the week. I was frazzled, and likely looked somewhat strung out as I jammed boxes of pasta into the oven and packed bags of cereal into the fridge. Then we went sailing, which was a refreshing respite from the Rat Battle.
That night I pulled every food item not housed in a glass jar or aluminum can out of the cabinets and piled it into a duffel bag. This bounty included, as testament to our overly well-stocked boat: 17 plastic jars of peanut butter, 24 boxes of almond milk, 12 bags of chips, 12 tetrapaks of tomato sauce and a gallon of olive oil. John hung the bag, now weighing nearly 60 pounds, from a strap he rigged on the mast (inside the boat, though we did discuss sending it to the top of the mast instead). Finally armed with industrial strength poison and commercial traps, we laced the cabinets and rigged the galley until it looked like a rat torture chamber.
If Chepe’s strategy was to bide his time and wear me down, it was working. I was frustrated and exhausted from moving and shoving and reorganizing all of our food every day. Despite my opposable thumbs and Google’s indispensible knowledge, Chepe was prevailing.
And then – he wasn’t. After seven nights of warfare — from offering baking soda treats to industrial strength rattraps, from storing a pineapple with the plates to suspending anything edible from the mast — it was over. I was victorious, but it was an empty victory. I did not lure Chepe into one of the six traps I had set. I did not trick Chepe into thinking rat poison was a tasty treat. No, it seems Chepe was in control until the end, when he simply got up and left.
I’d like to think he was offended I impeded his nightly feast, that he had a bellyache from too much baking soda and sugar, that he was scared of the big metal traps, that he got seasick when we went sailing. Whether he was insulted or nauseous or terrified or bored, what is important is that he doesn’t live here anymore. And so I have declared myself the valiant victor of the Rat Battle. I have washed my hands (and every surface of the boat) of Chepe’s shenanigans, spent 45 minutes trying to remember where I hid the spaghetti, and chalked the whole thing up to an unpleasant but educational encounter. How else would I have learned that rats can fart?