You wouldn’t know Phoenix and Lily hadn’t been raised in the lap of luxury from the way they took to yachting. Sitting on the foredeck as the prow of the Nauti-Dog II cut through the calm waters off St. Petersburg’s coast, the two dogs sunned themselves and enjoyed the occasional mist of salt water. Phoenix and Lily, along with their human parents Dianne Wiles and Nooney Ritacco, were guests courtesy of Nauti-Dog II owners Anne and Tony Baker. The Bakers, who ran the Nauti-Dog Cruise Contest in conjunction with THE NEW BARKER dog magazine, asked entrants to submit a short essay explaining why they should win the prize—a cruise in the temperate Gulf with their canine companions.
While all of the entries were compelling, Dianne’s entry detailing Phoenix and Lily’s rocky beginnings stood out amongst the 40-plus entries as being the most deserving. Watching Phoenix and Lily enjoy the warm December day out on the Gulf, it is unthinkable that these beautiful, fun-loving dogs were once as far from the lap of luxury as one could get—the gutter.
Dianne and Nooney, from Jacksonville, Florida, know all too well the hard-luck beginnings their two dogs survived. Phoenix, a two year-old Black Lab/Bulldog mix, was dubbed “Gutter Dog” by the Department of Animal Control after he was found in a ditch on a hot August day, perilously close to dehydration in the sweltering 100-degree heat. Phoenix looked like “one big scab,” and had ripped out his dewclaw trying to escape.
Dianne found him lying half-dead in a kennel next to the euthanasia room, but like his namesake, Phoenix seemed to rise from the ashes even as death lingered a hairsbreadth away.
As Dianne drew nearer, Phoenix started wagging his tail, slapping it against the stainless steel cage. A volunteer photographer of adoptable dogs with First Coast No More Homeless Pets, Dianne was accustomed to working around animals, and was no stranger to the harsh realities of shelter life. Yet she could not hold back tears once she met the emaciated Phoenix and learned about the hardships he’d endured, including eating sticks and leaves to survive. It would be a year before his weight reached a normal level and all his fur grew back.
Lily, a four year-old Dachshund/Catahoula Leopard Dog mix, is Phoenix’s beloved older sister and Dianne and Nooney’s “first child.” Like Phoenix, Lily’s name signifies her rebirth. She was adopted on Easter, and was thus named for the Easter lily. When Dianne found Lily through an online ad, she discovered that a rescue group had pulled a pregnant Lily from the pound. Since they could not deliver puppies at the pound, Lily and her unborn pups were going to be euthanized. After giving birth, Lily found herself without a home. It was a happy coincidence that Dianne and Nooney were looking to expand their own family around the same time.
Like Dianne and Nooney, yacht owners Tony and Anne harbor a deep-seated love for their “furry children.” Themselves parents of Rat Terriers Calvin, 12, and Chloe, 13, Tony and Anne knew they wanted to do something that could incorporate their entire brood. “Yachting is like our vacation,” Anne said. “We’d rather take our dogs on the boat with us than go anywhere without them. It’s our paradise.”
The Bakers wanted to share their paradise with other dog lovers, and thus began Nauti-Dog Yacht Charters. They customized their yacht for canine passengers by adding a doggie-door and making sure furry guests had plenty of room to roam. The Bakers have found that boating is a very soothing experience for dogs. “It’s therapeutic,” Anne said. “Dogs that were neglected, abused, or nervous—they do great on the boat. They can relax and enjoy it.”
Tony observed the comforting effects of the cruise on Phoenix and Lily. “They’re very, very calm,” Tony said. “They had such a rough start, they deserved the ride.”
When Dianne discovered her entry in the contest had won, she had no idea how Phoenix or Lily would react to being on the boat. “I’m so proud of them,” Dianne said, reflecting on her earlier worries. “I kept thinking, ‘What if Lily tried to jump over the edge of the boat?’ or ‘What if Phoenix was scared?’ But they loved it.”
As the Nauti-Dog II heads back to the marina, a pod of dolphins suddenly appears off the starboard bow. Phoenix and Lily, like the human passengers, quickly move to get a closer look. The dolphins fall back to jump and frolic in the yacht’s wake, as if inviting everyone to come and play. The irrepressible Lily gives a long, warbling howl, and Phoenix wags his tail, a goofy canine grin on his face. Their joy is a powerful reminder of the day’s real luxury—being together to experience it.
Dog friendly cruises on the Nauti-Dog II start at $199 for a group of up to six adults and six dogs. Call 727.458.3513.
First Coast No More Homeless Pets provides low-cost spay/neuter programs in Jacksonville. Call 904.425.0005.