Bilge Rat

The King James Version of the bible says that “Six days you shall work, but on the seventh day you shall rest.” However, at sea, things are different: 

“Six days thou shalt labor and do all thou art able, and on the seventh, holystone the decks and scrape the cable.” – Dana’s Philadelphia Catechism. 

My father quoted me this as we’d head off to perform some extra job he had on a Sunday, and I was not surprised when my father-in-law mentioned it to me years later. While my father had been engine room, and my father in law bridge working the ship and doing ships work, all were twenty-four a day, seven days a week priorities. I came to understand this when I went to sea. I realized but did not appreciate it.

I had the reasonable expectation of having escaped this never-ending cycle of toil on becoming both a civilian and having swallowed the anchor.

The first hint that life wouldn’t be late Sunday mornings in the rack came on my first long weekend at my new wife’s family home. Located on Maine’s mid-coast, it was a speck of a town that boasted all of 490 year-round residents.

I first heard my wife say: “Wes, Daddy could use a little help on the boat….” I saw it as a once in awhile bonding ritual. Daddy was the Cap’n, a retired master Merchant Mariner uneasy ashore.

The little bonding rituals started taking up free time every time we came up from Boston and entire months when we were in “residence.” At first, it was little things, “Wes, Daddy needs you to go to the lumberyard with him.” 

Then it escalated. The Cap’n needed me to scrape the hull and put on the bottom paint. The Cap’n had a repair job and needed help. At last, the Cap’n had an old dragger that he was fixing up, and its hull needed to be chipped. But, without a doubt, the worst proved to be: “Wes, can you help Daddy clean out the bilges on the boat?” It turned out that Daddy didn’t need help; he assigned the job to me.

Like you, I have limited my time in bilges to the bare minimum. By way of reek, their reputation proceeds them. But that’s only on your average boat. There were forty or so years of accumulated oil, assorted gunk, probably fish guts, and who knew what else on this beast.

Having never cleansed a bilge, I sought advice: First, hose it down with detergent; make sure the drain cocks are open. After the first time hose it out again. 

Now make sure all the limber holes were cleaned out. Hose it out again. A limber hole is an opening in a ship’s frame to allow all the gunk, junk, and scum to flow through. The filth sits between the frames if they are blocked instead of getting flushed out. After all this, the Cap’n determined that the bilge was much improved. But, it was not up to his standards. I better steam clean it. 

I had used a steam cleaner in Boot Camp on punishment duty. So, I was set to clean the galley’s garbage cans with a steam cleaner. Whatever infraction you may have done, you’ll never do it again after doing that. It was mid-winter in Great Lakes Training Station. There were no hazmat suits; you steamed the smelly cans out in your work uniform and peacoat. Afterward, you were not welcome in the barracks because the odor clung to you like a fog of cess.

I sought out the yard sup, and he provided a steam cleaner on a cart, set it up, and got it going. His one bit of advice: “Wes, just watch out for blowback.” Not wanting to appear to be a rank newbie, I knowingly smiled and started my job. A few minutes into the job, I poked the tip of the cleaner into a recess and let it flow. I instantly learned what he meant by blowback when a fog of forty-year-old bilge cess covered me from head to toe. It was primarily oily residue with high notes of fish gurry mixed with lower tones from a leaky marine toilet and a heady scent of the fragrance from the detergent I had used in my earlier cleaning. I immediately bent over and lost my lunch. I now had more to clean up. 

Hearing me retch the yard sup, and the Cap’n came to inspect my job. They said nothing.  

I finished the job with much higher caution and remembered to close drain cocks.

It was good that I had ridden over to the yard on my bicycle. No one would have allowed me in their car. When I got home, my wife summarily handed me a change of clothes, a fresh Fels Naptha soap bar, and a bucket. I made my way to the hose and repeatedly soaped up.

Recently, many public personalities have had their careers checked as photos of them emerged wearing black or brown faces. Nobody thought to snap a shot of me in my streaky, blotchy face. Not that I have a public profile worth ruining. It was days before I was clean. I could not blame anyone on the first night I spent on a porch; I was up half the night with my odor.

I’ve since learned that my experience was not unique. If I had asked the sup what was meant by the blowback, I could have avoided most of my mess. So maybe it’s true what’s said about men not liking to ask for directions. 

It is advised that you clean your bilge regularly. Rather than letting things go to extremes. These days, many safe products will help you do it. Hazmat suits help, and please do not call on me to assist.

Bristol 27

A friend owned a Bristol 27. A boat that could be comfortable for two on extended cruising but wasn’t something two people could liveaboard. Yet most of the year he, and his wife did. Whisper provided compact and sublime living space. She wrote copy for cruising magazines and guides. He was a retired mariner who’d never swallow the anchor.

But ashore, they’d tumble every October. That was how I met them. 

I had been finishing an interview next door when I noticed their “garden”; a collection of plastic clothes hampers with bags of topsoil plopped into them. Out of this unlikely potting grew a profusion of tomatoes, lettuce, and other crops. Being interested in gardens, I stopped to speak to them. Soon, we were discussing tomatoes and peppers over coffee. They shipped the hampers aboard the Bristol during the summer as an onboard garden. As soon as boating came up, the conversation grew to include Coastal Maine, boatyards, builders, and favorite designs.

Next spring, I worked alongside them as their deadline for cruising season neared, and I joined them for the shakedown cruise of the season. It began with a lovely clear day and a brisk southwesterly breeze. We were just east of Sequin when things picked up, and the sailing became an exhilarating experience. Then the crashes and sounds of breaking crockery started. Being the nonessential crew member, I was sent below to deal with the crisis.

Ashore, I had noticed that they were not the best organized of housekeepers, but that didn’t bother me. Their shoreside establishment was to them more housing between cruises than a home. But when I went below on Whisper that day, I discovered that their shoreside habits came along with them while cruising. A box of dishes had fallen from the chart table and shattered. As I swept up the shards, the boat suddenly heeled in a puff of wind, and I tumbled over, landing on broken dishes. That set the standard for the cruise. Getting from my forward berth to the marine toilet at night required running an obstacle course of supplies for the cruising season. Preparing breakfast at the tiny galley was a challenge because the stove seemed buried with unpacked food boxes. That was the cruise in a nutshell.

The article that she wrote contained none of this. There was a photo of the skipper at the wheel, then one of her studying a chart. And one of me on the foredeck with the spinnaker pole. No mention made of havoc below. Reading the article a second time, I inserted commentary that I felt added realism to the experience. But that sort of thing doesn’t sell magazines.

I went on day sailing expeditions with them afterward. But no cruises. We’d plan excursions at the mooring, but I noticed that little ever was stowed below. 

There’s a saying among sailors about everything being “shipshape, and in Bristol fashion.” Whisper added a new meaning to that saying.

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