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Cats' Adventures & Travels 10

High Sea

Ship's cat Pwe with Miles Smeeton, aboard Tzu Hang

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Tzu Hang being fitted out in Melbourne, 1956

In 1956 Miles Smeeton and his wife Beryl were in Melbourne, Australia, for the summer Olympics of that year, having left Canada in September the previous year and sailed via Hawaii. They were on their 46-foot (about 14 metres) ketch Tzu Hang, crafted from teak and made in Hong Kong in 1938. On board also was ship's cat Pwe, a blue-eyed Siamese female; her name derives from the Burmese for 'dance'. Pwe had been taken on to replace earlier Siamese, Winnie and Cully, that had died. She was not supposed to go ashore, owing to quarantine regulations, but loved to sneak onto the quay when no one was looking and try to catch sparrows. Melbourne sparrows were too quick for her, however.

There had been a ship's dog, too, but she had been flown back to Britain with the Smeetons' daughter Clio. The Smeetons themselves planned to sail Tzu Hang back to Britain, halfway round the world, but taking the unusual and — for a small sailing vessel — dangerous route around Cape Horn. They set off on Boxing Day, 26 December 1956, in the company of a friend and fellow sailor, John Guzzwell.

A cat's life aboard

Pwe on the lookout from Tzu Hang, Melbourne harbour Pwe was quite used to the ocean life; she was at home on the sea, never became seasick, and seemed to consider that she was mistress of the boat and in charge of its humans. There was plenty of cat food on board, and as a special treat she loved bacon rind — as long as it was fried! She had a large, blue plastic bowl (to match the colour of her eyes) filled with sand as a litter-box; it was emptied overboard daily and if Beryl forgot to do the task, the cat would complain bitterly. Pwe disliked being left below on her own, but as long as the weather was not too cold, too wet or too windy (she was quite particular!), she would join the crew on deck by jumping up from the chartroom table. When the engine was running, or had been recently, its wooden access cover was a favourite resting spot, as it became comfortably warm. She would chatter in frustration at the albatrosses that settled on the surface of the southern oceans, but of course couldn't reach them. She didn't seem to like porpoises much.


Pwe's world nearly came to an end one night when an enormous freak wave engulfed the boat during a storm, 'pitchpoling' it (turning it through a somersault end over end), half-filling it with water and smashing most of the masts and rigging. The interior fittings were significantly damaged and many of the stores rendered unusable. Beryl, who had been at the wheel when the wave struck, was swept overboard, but she had been attached by a line and was soon rescued, although she had a painful shoulder injury.

The situation was dire, but as the weather cleared the water was bailed out, everything possible was salvaged, and emergency repairs made. It was fortunate that John was a skilled and resourceful carpenter. Eventually the boat was jury-rigged and able to proceed again slowly — but continuing the planned voyage was obviously impossible and they headed for Chile, where proper repairs might be effected. That was almost 1500 miles (2400 km) away and it took 37 days to reach.

Pwe's distress

John Guzzwell fishes for Pwe's dinner aboard Tzu Hang Pwe was bedraggled and complaining; even after most of the water had been bailed out she was listless and miserable, refusing to eat. All her warmth, comfort and security had vanished, and the crew feared that she was going to give up. Gradually she rallied, though, and dried out; one day she even wanted to play, so they knew she was on the mend. When she finally ventured up on deck she seemed horrified by the changes to the boat and made her opinions known vociferously. By the time they were approaching Chile, some three months later, she was much better, putting on weight and thriving on a diet of freshly caught fish.

A spell on land

The blue-eyed cat fascinated employees at the dockyard where Tzu Hang was to be repaired. Pwe had to be moved off the boat during the repairs, along with the crew, first to a house close to the dockyard, and then to a bigger one near the town of Concepcion. The second house had a large resident ginger tomcat, who ferociously defended his guest against all comers, no doubt hoping for her favours — but not understanding that she was spayed! The maids of the house were enchanted by the cat con los ojos azules.

It took many months of delays and frustrations before Tzu Hang was fit to go to sea again and resume the voyage. It was thought the cat wouldn't want to leave her comfortable house — indeed, she screamed all the way when picked up in her basket, yelling even more loudly in the launch on the way out to the yacht. But as soon as she was back on board her home, Pwe sat and purred and purred.

History repeats itself

Almost unbelievably, a second disaster struck, quite similar to the first, causing the boat to somersault again. Damage was slightly less severe than the first time — just as well, as John the carpenter had left to return to Australia — but they were left disabled, engineless, and with no means of accurately finding their position. This time Pwe, although wet and cross, did not seem to be in shock; indeed, she seemed comparatively happy on the boat as long as she was given plenty of love and attention. But to continue with the voyage as planned was clearly out of the question, and the Smeetons had no choice but to limp slowly back to land once again — and again it was a 1500-mile journey. This time they reached Valparaiso, from where Tzu Hang was ultimately freighted back to Britain.

Further voyages

Pwe with Beryl Smeeton, Malta, 1961 Pwe with Miles and Beryl Smeeton in the saloon of Tzu Hang This was far from the end of Pwe's seafaring adventures. Over the coming years she accompanied the Smeetons on numerous other voyages, such that Miles remarked once, 'Pwe must be the saltiest cat on record.' During her lifetime she sailed with them for the astonishing total of some 130,000 miles altogether (208,000 km), circling the globe one and a half times and sharing numerous adventures with them. She survived a three-month overland journey through the African bush; made landfall at a hundred ports around the world; and even survived falling overboard a thousand miles (1600 km) from the nearest land, being rescued by Beryl, who dived in after her. On a 1961 trip they were in the Indian Ocean, where she caught flying fish that landed on deck — 'for her, life in the tropics was one long meal,' remarked Miles. He once told a reporter, 'That cat is like my wife; she wouldn't mind if we never saw land.' Late in 1968 the couple did finally succeed in rounding Cape Horn under sail, from east to west; clearly once had not been enough for them (see book title below). Presumably Pwe accompanied them on that trip, too.

End of story

Pwe with Beryl, Miles and daughter Clio, 1965, Victoria, BC

Details of the unsuccessful attempts on Cape Horn in Tzu Hang are recorded in Miles Smeeton's book Once is Enough (published by Rupert Hart-Davis, London 1959, no ISBN). Other information has been gleaned from Miles Clark's book High Endeavours (Grafton Books, 1991, ISBN 0 246 13563 8), which records the lives and adventures of Miles and Beryl. The last mention of Pwe in the first book is that she became 'stout and placid' in quarantine; probably that was in Canada, as the Smeetons had taken Canadian citizenship and residency. The photograph (right) was taken in Victoria, British Columbia, in 1965 upon their arrival from a voyage to Alaska. Certainly by 1970 the cat was settled with the Smeetons in Alberta, Canada, and still catching mice at the age of about 16. A few years later, in 1975 and while Miles was away from home, Pwe fell painfully ill. The kindest thing was to put her to sleep; with tears streaming down her cheeks, Beryl held her for the last time. So ended the career of a truly remarkable seafaring cat. Her companions Miles and Beryl Smeeton died in 1979 and 1988 respectively.

Note: part of John Guzzwell's account of the first capsizing of the Tzu Hang while he was aboard was published in a 2007 issue of Good Old Boat magazine. This was available as a PDF document at Guzzwell's website which now (2017) appears to be no more, but there's a copy of the PDF at the Internet Archive. It includes a fleeting reference to Pwe: see the second and third text pages (marked as pp 45-46).

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Our featured feline at the head of the page is Socks, pictured in 2003 surveying his 'estate' in the early morning sunshine. Affectionately known as Soxy, he blossomed from a thin and hungry stray into a substantial and handsome cat who loved life and company, and his gentle ways endeared him to many friends. He is now no longer with us, but you can read more from his human companion here.

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