The Rata of Seville

A ravenous rat unites a community while wreaking havoc on board

By Ed Zacko

At our farewell party at the Club Náutico de Sevilla, Spain, I ate something I shouldn’t have, and on returning to Entr’acte, I lay down on a main-cabin settee to await the inevitable consequences. When I awoke thirsty and rose from the settee to fetch a drink, I suddenly sensed I was not alone in the dark wee hours. I stood in the silence and waited. Nothing. When I reached for a cup in the galley, I heard a rustling in the trash bin, then I felt a warm furry body and damp little feet touching mine. I crashed into the head door as my visitor scurried out of sight up and under the galley stove. Through the darkness, I saw his broad backside and tail. A long, skinny tail. A rat’s tail! There was no denying what I saw, and we could not go to sea with a rat on board. Our planned 0800 departure was the first casualty.

Entr’acte was still in her slip at 1000 when our neighbors Antonio and Tonia from Habibi walked by.

Que pase, Eduardo, too much fiesta last night? Relax! Tomorrow is another day,” Antonio said to me in Spanish, rolling every “r” as the Spanish do: rrrrrrr!

“No, Antonio, tenemos una problema muy grande! A rat came on board last night.”

The couple looked quizzically at each other.

“Una rrrrata? You mean un raton, a mouse, no? Oh, they are harmless, such little things.”

“No, Antonio, no raton, una rata, una rata grande! A rat!”

“Rrrata?” Antonio paused, looking down. “Rrrrrrrata!”

Mice seem innocent, they have some redeeming value, but rats . . . Just the word “rat,” no matter how it’s said, sounds disgusting. The Spanish have a way of saying “rat” that manages to incorporate feelings of awe and disgust. They’ll pause, think a moment, then bow their heads as if in shame or prayer. Taking a quick breath and while still looking down — seemingly into hell — they manage to simultaneously inhale and exhale using their diaphragms as if playing a very loud note on a wind instrument and, with a quick shake of the head, a gasping rush of air, out comes that single word: “Rrrrata!” Then silence. I have tried to duplicate it and cannot come close.

And so, the battle was joined. For the next three months we engaged in an all-out war.

First came the traps, big traps and small traps. We found one called Super Cat, which looked like a large plastic bear trap with teeth. We baited several Super Cats with cherries, with peanut butter, and with salmon skin. It was all for naught. For two nights, we lay awake at 0200 and listened as our friend leaped about, apparently having a wonderful time. On the third night we heard scratching and gnawing. He (oh merciful King Neptune, let it be a he and not a she) was feasting on something.

By day four, the entire yacht club was involved. Escobar, the restaurant manager, pulled me aside.

“Don Eduardo, es una rrrata Espanol,” he said. “And a Spanish rat must have Spanish bait. Wait here!”

He returned with a trap that looked like a guillotine and large enough for three rats. Wearing latex gloves to eliminate any human smell, Escobar inserted jamon serrano, queso viejo, and camarones — the three most expensive items on the restaurant menu.

“This never fails! Venga!”

Not only did this trap fail, la Rrrata wouldn’t touch the bait. In fact, he was aboard a boat newly stuffed with provisions for a transatlantic passage to Trinidad and he wouldn’t touch any of it! Oh, he nibbled on a single cracker just enough to ruin the package, and on a single strand of pasta to ruin that box. And he did make a tiny hole in the plastic jar of honey so the contents ran through the locker, across the galley sole, and into the bilge. But no, la Rrrata’s food of choice was Entr’acte, or to be precise, her electrical system. He absolutely loved electrical cable!

At this point, Club Náutico hired an exterminator at their expense. The professional appeared and, rat-like, crawled about the boat, peering with beady eyes into hidden spaces and squeaking merrily as he scattered hundreds of poison pellets throughout our home.

“To kill a rat, one must think like a rat. No problema, en dos o tres dias, muerto! Guarantizado!

For the next week, la Rrrata chewed on one wire after another. Each morning, one more electronic device fell victim. First was the GPS, then the VHF, then the SSB. At 0500 one day, the bilge pump activated. I opened the engine-room door and wanted to cry. A smorgasbord of wire, insulation, and wire bits floated in water that had gushed from a hole in the sink-drain hose. What stopped my heart was the frayed hose from the engine intake. I closed all the seacocks and returned to bed.

Next came the Rat Glue. “This glue is so sticky nothing gets away from it.”

We placed two traps baited with greasy salmon skin on top of pieces of cardboard smeared with Rat Glue, and placed more Rat-Glue-smeared cardboard pieces on the stovetop, on the sink, on the head, in the trash bin, on the settees, and all along the sole. Our cabin was a minefield of Rat Glue.

At 0200, a loud bang! One of the Super Cats! I carefully approached the overturned trap . . . empty! La Rrrata had escaped with the bait.

I stepped backward . . . onto Rat Glue. #%&*@!!!! I reached down, carefully trying to find, in the dark, a glue-free spot on the cardboard that I could grab to pull my bare foot free. Then my hand stuck fast and I couldn’t move. I pulled hard, and stringy tendrils of glue followed. A small wave caused Entr’acte to roll just enough for me to lose my balance and I flopped down onto the settee. My foot was stuck, my hand and legs were covered in glue, and now my butt was stuck to another piece of cardboard . . . my butt, because I was stark naked.

“Did we get him?” Ellen called from her bunk. I was too angry to scream.

At 0330, she and I were both in the cockpit, naked and covered with Rat Glue. It spread faster than we could clean it up. The slightest touch left behind a stringy trail that had no end. We quickly learned that neither water, soap, alcohol, nor acetone will remove it. We had no gasoline and the toluene was buried under our clean bunk, which we were smart enough not to touch. Dry rubbing with a towel eventually and painfully brought things under control and Ellen returned to her bunk. I was right behind her, but stopped for a quick visit to the head.

“Ellen! I have a problem!”

There was still some glue on my hand and fingers. I was now in a real pickle, well and truly “stuck on myself.” Back in the cockpit, both of us still naked, Ellen, scissors in hand, prepared to perform surgery on the family jewels.

“Lean back, rest your feet on the lifeline, and hold the light.”

As she began to cut, we were suddenly bathed in the bright glare of a spotlight. We froze.

“Damn, it’s the police!”

“No, it’s the security lighting. We have to work fast!”

The only time the security light comes on is when the main gate opens to admit the men and women rowers for their dawn workouts. Any minute, our dock would be crawling with jocks. As Ellen operated, the glue migrated to her, and we became attached to each other in a most embarrassing way. We could hear la Rrrata, to whom Michel, of a neighboring French boat, had given the name Little Rochefort, leaping and cavorting down below.

A few nights later, I awoke to find water covering the cabin sole. Not only had Little Rochefort eaten through the hose to the starboard water tank, but he had taken out the electric bilge pump as well. This was serious.

Someone suggested we plant a rubber snake under the galley stove to scare him away. Klaus of Woodwind was horrified.

“No, no, there is no life essence in a rubber snake. You are wasting your time! This is what you must do. Remove the hose from a seacock. In the dead of night, start the engine. With the engine running, open the seacock, allow the boat to fill with water, and set off an alarm. In the dark with all the noise and the sound of water, the rat will think the boat is sinking and abandon ship!”

“What do you mean the rat will think the boat is sinking? Klaus, the boat will be sinking! And don’t forget, we have no electric bilge pump and it’s 20 feet to the bottom.”

Klaus stood by the manual pump while Ellen and I searched all of Seville for a rubber snake, una serpiente de goma. All we could find was a fully articulated wooden snake, complete with tongue. We bought it.

We returned to Entr’acte to find a note from the French yacht Maestro pinned to our lifeline.

“Sun Tsu in The Art of War mention the effect of the element of surprise. What have no taste or smell? Electricity. Your rat like electricity, so we give to him!”

Accompanying the note was a drawing of a 220-volt electric trap.

“It ees simple, non? We take a plate of stainless steel and connect it to electricity. For bait, we use somesing wiv a very high moisture content like ze French Camembert, no? Ze rat he have ze rear legs on ze plate. When ees tongue just touch ze bait, tak! Il est mort! Voilà! Très simple, non?

“Michel, I really like the Il est mort part, but what about the risk of fire?”

“Edouard, zat ees ze beauty of my plan. Ze electricite on ze dock has defense, ze breaker, so we know when he die because when ze tongue she touch ze bait, ze defense she pop and ze lights zey go out immediatement before ze fire can begin.”

“What lights?”

Tout le club! Poof! Ze plate ees so large e must step on it.

Très simple, non?

So here we were, in the restaurant, plotting to electrocute a rat. We began with a multimeter, measuring the electrical conductivity of an assortment of cheeses, fruits, and meats provided by the restaurant. The winner? A peach. Oh baby, do peaches conduct!

We worked all day with gloved hands to keep our human smell from contaminating the trap. I could just imagine Little Rochefort peeking out from his hiding place and laughing at all of us. Somehow, we managed to assemble and install our trap without electrocuting ourselves, which, given Entr’acte’s small cabin, was a challenge. We carefully exited the main cabin and closed the doors. Between all the poison, Rat Glue, Super Cats, and electricity, our main cabin was now a truly lethal place.

A Frenchman in pajamas on a dock at 0200 is a sight to behold. All night, Michel paced up and down while we sat on the dock, all of us waiting anxiously for the lights to go out. It was agonizing, as we could hear scratching, the patter of little feet, and Little Rochefort chewing on everything — everything except that peach.

Another morning dawned after another sleepless night.

“You must gas him! Run a tube from a car’s exhaust pipe to the boat.”

“No way, that will stink up the whole boat!”

One evening, the club threw a party (in Spain there is always a party). A live band played, accompanied by the obligatory smoke machine. I had an inspiration, and set out the next morning to rent a smoke machine. It was a holiday (in Spain there is always a holiday) and everything was closed.

That afternoon, the comodoro told us that the club was going to pay for a second exterminator. This became an argument of honor on both sides.

“Don Eduardo, we cannot have rrratas at Club Náutico! It is our rrrrata and our responsibility.”

“Don Paco, no! I will pay. I am the captain. It is my yacht and therefore my rat and my responsibility.”

“No! The club will pay, and that is final!”

Back on Entr’acte, Ellen asked me for the ditty bag so she could finish a minor canvas repair. I opened the bookcase and, in broad daylight, there he was! As his rump descended along the engine exhaust hose into the bilge, I noticed two very important things. First, his color. He was brown, not gray. Second, the length of his tail. If it’s true that the length of a rat’s tail is equal to its body length, he was one big rat. To this day I regret that my reflexes were not fast enough to grab the tail and flip him out through the hatch.

“Oh, so he is brown, not like those gray river rats. My daughter, she has a pet like this. You call it a gobel, no?”

“No, Antonio, Gobel was an American TV star. You mean gerbil, and this one is not harmless!”

The exterminator arrived carrying only a very small paper bag. As he climbed on board, I took the bag and started to reach inside. He slapped my hand, hard.

“No! Poison, muy toxico. Mira!

He put on a pair of rubber gloves and removed from the bag a small plastic packet on which was printed the silhouette of an anatomically correct black bull (in Spain everything eventually arrives at the bull). The bag bore a warning in large letters: CONTENTES SUFFICIENTE POR UNA TORO 850KG.

No toca! Muy, muy peligroso!

He next produced two large tomatoes, cut them into very small pieces, and mixed them with the entire contents of the packet.

“Smear this over everything he eats or touches and everywhere he steps. When he licks his feet to clean himself, he will die!”

I diligently coated every wire and hose in the engine room, the engine, fuel tank, lockers, cans . . . everywhere with the Salad of Death.

Dos o tres diaz, morto! Me guarantia!

Oh please, let it be so!

All night long, Ellen and I waited. As the scratching and chewing began anew, it was like being inside a submarine during a depth-charge attack. All we could think was, “Die! Die!” He could be fried, crushed, decapitated, and stuck by that damn glue (and I knew firsthand how that one goes). But alas, the lights of the club remained lit as Little Rochefort partied on.

I didn’t remember falling asleep, but we woke suddenly to a hellacious racket on the dock. I poked my head out to see, running in our direction at full tilt, four firefighters in full combat gear, including air tanks on their backs, towing a wagon filled with large tanks.

My God! Fire! That damn electric trap must have started a fire! “ABANDON SHIP! Ellen, get up, hurry!”

We both catapulted ourselves out of the aft cabin to land on the dock just as the firefighters came to a stop at . . . Entr’acte! The leader removed his oxygen mask and we recognized Alejandro, the husband of a friend we sat with at the fiesta the previous Sunday.

“Don Eduardo, I am sorry we took so long to come but we were in Germany on a training exercise. Carina told me of your emergency and we have a solution that I know will work.” Alejandro pointed to the large tanks. “We’ll close up your boat and pump in carbon dioxide. This gas will displace the oxygen and la rrrata will flee or die. Go to the bar and take a café. This will be a good training exercise for my new men.”

By now, everyone in the club had gathered around the bombieros. “Ya-tay Entrrrrract-ay, ole!” Our hearts still pounding from the fire scare, we just stood there laughing.

I wish that I could report that our little friend came staggering into the open, coughing and gagging as he jumped ship, but it didn’t happen that way. Instead, we worked throughout the summer heat to get Entr’acte back in order. We repaired the entire electrical system, systematically unloaded and reloaded all our stores, and thoroughly cleaned and disinfected every nook and cranny, all the while searching for the body. But we never heard or saw the rat, nor did we find or smell the body.

Entr’acte was once again poised to depart for the South Pacific, but at dinner on the eve of departure, Ellen was quiet.

“What’s wrong?”

“I don’t know how to say this, but I’m just not ready to leave here. These past weeks have been so much fun. We’ve met so many new friends, and after everything that’s happened, it seems so wrong to go running off.”

“You call what just happened fun? What was fun? The sleepless nights, the mess, the 0200 Rat Glue haircut under the spotlight?”

The sudden silence crumbled into laughter so uncontrolable that we were crying.

Then Antonio and Tonia from Habibi appeared with a bottle of champagne and a card containing a crude photo of me dressed as a matador.

“Don Eduardo, we salute you. You fought your bull valiantly. Forevermore, Club Náutico will remember you as El Rrratador, Don Eduardo, el Ratito de la Maestranza de Sevilla. You are now a titled Spanish Don.”

Epilogue

Five years later, somewhere in Fiji, Entr’acte is making close to 7 knots running before a stiff trade wind, the engine running to charge our batteries, when the oil-pres- sure alarm sounds madly. We’d blown an oil line. The seas are smooth behind the barrier reef, but we have only about an hour before we hit open water and the ocean swells. We have a spare oil line. If I work fast, I should be able to install it within our window, allowing us the security of the engine when we run the pass into the next atoll.

The engine room is covered with hot black oil. I squeeze, stretch, rotate, and manage to get a wrench on the line. Entr’acte rolls to a gust. The wrench slips and clatters into the bilge as something hits me on the face and ends up in my mouth. It’s soft. And chewy.

“Hmmm.”

It’s a piece of dried tomato, a vestige of the ensalada de muerte. A drop of hot engine oil hits my glasses. I stop and lie there, remembering, and laughing.

“Oh Little Rochefort, whatever became of you? You changed our lives for the better in ways that can never be explained. I sincerely hope that you are living a long and happy life . . . somewhere else!”

Ed Zacko is a Good Old Boat contributing editor. Ed, the drummer, and Ellen, the violinist, met in the orchestra pit of a Broadway musical. They built their Nor’Sea 27, Entr’acte, from a bare hull, and since 1980 have made four transatlantic and one transpacific crossing. After spending a couple of summers in southern Spain, Ed and Ellen shipped themselves and Entr’acte to Phoenix, where they have refitted Entr’acte while keeping up a busy concert schedule in the Southwest US. They recently completed their latest project, a children’s book, The Adventures of Mike the Moose: The Boys Find the World.

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