Artwork by Chris Malbon
Although I hardly ever lived ashore, I did visit my wife’s mother’s house in Chicago, where she sent me running to the basement to hastily retrieve strange, almost forgotten household objects. Bilges are like that – you know they’re there, you store stuff in them, and you rarely think about them. when we do think of them, it’s usually in a negative way: because they smell, are oily, or have water in them.
Let’s start with a central and indisputable fact: the holds of a daysailer and a cruise ship have little in common. Example: It is possible to keep the holds of a daysailer soft, but it is almost impossible on board a ship manned by Homo sapiensa notoriously messy species.
The problem starts with the largest organ in our body: the skin. We shed our entire epidermis every two to four weeks. Every hour, your average sailor sheds around 200 million skin cells. Not to mention the hundreds of hairs we lose every day, unless we are stressed we will lose many more.
Don’t worry: we’re not going below the shaggy belt in our discussion. This is a family magazine. Ditto our nasal mucous membranes. Offshore, there is little land, but there is a lot of salt in the air. And, in the tropics, sailors sweat profusely, especially when operating sheet winches and hoisting sails.
My wife, Carolyn, of Sicilian descent, is a gourmet cook. She also cooks offshore every day: bread every other day and delicious treats in between. We are both hedonists in every way. I always grab a cookie, cupcake, brownie, or donut as I dash below. (No buns – I don’t take buns!) A lot of times it’s tough in the middle of the Pacific. My donut and I are tossed around. We bounce off bulkheads, companionway ladders and navigation tables. Sugar and crumbs fly.
Ganesh, our 43ft ketch, has only been docked 24 hours in the past three years when wealthy guests insisted we visit a posh marina so they could take selfies with megayachts astern- plan. (No, they weren’t invited back.)
Anyway, while we rarely touch the shore and have no rats or cockroaches, we bring fresh food to the boat, and so have ants. And these sneaky ants do what ants do: they play nocturnal shell games with our crumbs.
I know, I know…it’s horrible to think about, but it’s a fact of our cruising lives. Yes, we can poison them to death, but not without poisoning ourselves to some degree, which we are not eager to do. I’m a child of the 1960s. I have no brain cells to waste.
Now, I hate to admit it, dear reader, but we regularly coat ourselves with various goop. Sunscreen, for example. Cold cream. Aloe. Talcum powder. Hairspray. Mascara. Lipstick. Same with the boat. We are still spilling chemicals and compounds inside and outside the ship. Hell, Carolyn just spent four days sanding off the million square feet of varnish (well, that’s what the square footage looked like with numb hands) in our aft cabin alone.
We have clothes, sheets, blankets and we all know that fabrics shed.
Have you ever seen an Italian knead bread dough in an 18 foot sea? I have, and it’s a messy affair. Ditto for frying flying fish for breakfast.
Here’s another secret no one has talked about since the days when ships were wooden and men were steel: in the deep, wet, dark bottoms of the schooner. Elizabeth that I grew up on were… real fish. Their fertilized eggs would obviously be sucked through our rotten butt blocks and soft plank ends.
At least the fish knew their place and were silent. This is not the case with crabs. The sound of their nocturnal running terrified me when I was a child.
How many leaks did Elizabeth have? Well, as my dad used to say in the 1950s, “more leaks than the White House.” He liked to joke. Whenever he spotted a spaghetti strainer while shopping, he would wave it around and say out loud, “Reminds me of an old carved plank ship I used to own.”
If all that wasn’t gruesome enough, hanging over an 8-foot section of our hold on Ganesh is a Perkins M92B loaded with salt water, coolant, diesel fuel and lubricating oil, all under pressure at near boiling temperature.
Now, of course, all deep-sea sailors know how to sit in the head. Sitting down is a must. Not sitting down is one of the few things that will make you lose your mind Ganesh immediately. The sitting position is an absolute rule.
I am not alone in this case. There’s a famous yacht racing skipper in San Francisco Bay who, when a male sailor goes down, warns him with the commercial end of a sharp fish gaff if he thinks to stand up, to swinging and potentially drenching the entire compartment in yellow as the boat rolls.
Damn, yachting is a complicated sport.
But all of that debris, trash, trash, dust, dirt, dribbling, and hair ends up in the bilge pump, often suffocating it into submission. In addition, a hold at sea often contains oily, dirty water that is thrown with great force under berths and other storage areas. yuck.
In the days of wooden boats, the chines were deep because the keel had to be supported. Nowadays, because many production builders have realized that supporting their removable keels is really only a viable option for the most expensive yachts, bilges have become as shallow as their naval architects.
This brings us to the subject of wedge chains and fore-end holes. On wooden boats, each frame (there are no ribs on a boat, damn it!) ended in a transverse “floor” timber that spanned the hold, attached the frames, supported the garboard and held the keel in place. Thus, a “hold” was not so much one hold as several holds. If you weren’t careful, they wouldn’t flow. It was common during the sinking (I was sinking several times) for the compartment with the pump to be dry while all the others were overflowing with water.
Thus, flexible holes were drilled in these “flooring wood” to allow water to flow. Why the name? I don’t know for sure, but you had to be flexible enough to clean them in the gust of wind while sinking.
Therefore, on Elizabeth, if you started sinking and the compartment the bilge pump was in was dry, you just leaned over and pulled the spring loaded bilge chain. Instantly, the soft holes would be cleared.
Now here’s what happens when a modern boat sinks: Everyone is having fun in the cockpit and the boards start to float. At the same time, a million other things begin to float: clothes, foodstuffs, plastics, fabrics. Finally, someone looks below and says, “Oh, my God!”
The captain, of course, does the worst thing possible – as a rule, he turns on his high-capacity 1,500-gallon-per-hour bilge pump, which stops within minutes because long-lost skivvies have been sucked into it. .
Here is the truth: If your boat is taking on water and you are pumping it out as fast as it is coming in, you are leak. You might even have a leak massively— but in this situation, the status quo is maintained. However, once you leak faster than you can pump the water, well, you’re shipwreck.
And then it’s time to panic. A common way to panic is for a crew member to jump below and break their ankle on an unseen object under a wet floor surfing in the distance. Another is for the skipper to glide over oily surfaces.
While locating the leak is extremely simple on board Ganesh because it is equipped with a bilge alarm that sounds if it takes on more than a few gallons, most ships do not have such an early warning system. Once the boards float and the bilge sump floods, it’s nearly impossible to find the leak, let alone stop it.
Do not forget : Anything that floats in the boat will float. You won’t be wading through water so much as through logbooks, pillows, old wedding photos, smashed acetone bottles, sweaty couscous boxes and old clothes.
We met two guys in South America who developed instant post-traumatic stress disorder in exactly this situation when one said to the other as he sank off Colombia, “We’re going to die; what could be worse?” just as the half-full tank burst to the surface inside the waterlogged vessel, hit the forward bulkhead, split open and discharged its contents.
“You had to sayright?!” yelled the other shipmate.
Oh, you never get bored offshore. You really haven’t lived until you’ve shouted your latitude/longitude into the VHF radio as your main battery banks go underwater.
And to think we haven’t even touched on the topic of stuffing boxes. There are two types: the one that drips, drips, drips a sailor in the psychiatric ward, and the modern, more expensive type that sinks the ship within minutes of something falling on its ever-ready-to-gut bellows.
Are any of your faucets frozen open? Are you sure? Why not, in an emergency, grab one by the handle and break its through-hull, just to be sure? Speed turbines are other fun bilge gadgets that have enlivened many offshore passages.
One thing I love is meeting a new boater who proudly tells me his hold is empty. I smile at myself thinking, No it’s not; it is filled with terror. You don’t know that yet.
Fatty and Carolyn are currently in Langkawi, Malaysia, painting their bums. (Did it go well?)