June 23, 2009

The dreaded taste test

I FOUND OLD WOTSISNAME deep in conversation with Sam Psmythe (silent P, as in bath) on the marina dock the other day. OW had a problem, and Sam, as usual, had the answer. But it wasn’t an answer OW wanted to hear.

OW’s sailboat, like many others, has a drip pan under the engine. From time to time it fills with water. It drives OW mad, because he can’t tell where the water is coming from.

“Could be the cockpit lockers,” said Sam. “Rain water. They always leak. Or it might be the stuffing box on the propeller shaft. Salt water. That’s supposed to leak a drop now and then.”

“But my drip pan holds half a gallon,” OW protested. “That’s a whole bunch of drips.”

“Maybe it’s dripping too fast. Maybe it needs adjustment.” Then Sam had a brainwave. “Is it fresh water or salt water?” he asked.

OW scratched his left ear and thought about it. “Dunno,” he said finally. “How would I tell?”

“You taste it, of course,” said Sam triumphantly. “There’s no other way. Stick a finger in it. Lick your finger. Taste it.”

OW, who is not particularly finicky in respect to hygiene, tidiness, or anything else he associates with poofters and deviants, went a little pale. He scratched his ear some more. “Got to be a better way,” he said.

Sam laughed immoderately. He loves to needle OW. “Chicken!” he cried.

OW muttered something about his head holding tank, which shares a common bulkhead with the drip tray, but Sam went off down the walkway, chortling to himself.

This problem isn’t unique to OW, of course. Sooner or later every serious sailor is going to want to know whether the water in the bilge is rain water or sea water. And sooner or later he is going to have to screw up his courage and lick the damn stuff, followed by a large tot of rum to kill both taste and germs.

As OW said, there must be a better way. How do chemists distinguish between fresh and salt water? Is there some sort of litmus test? Obviously, salt water has a higher specific gravity than fresh water, so if you floated eggs or peas or beans or something fairly close in density to water they might sink in fresh and float in salt. What if you marked an ice cube’s flotation line in fresh water and then placed it in the bilge. Wouldn’t it float higher in salt? Or is the difference too small to be noticeable?

Then again, salt water conducts electricity better than fresh water, so maybe you could just hook up your battery and test the flow of amps. Dammit, there has to be a better way than placing in our mouths that foul-smelling gunk we call bilge water.

If there are any inventors out there looking for work, here’s a project that would provide you with a steady income. Just a simple test, please. Salt or no salt, that’s all we need to know. We, and the ladies who have to kiss us, would all be truly grateful, and we’d probably be prepared to pay quite a lot.

Today’s Thought
There can be no disputing about tastes. (De gustibus non est disputandum.)
—Jeremy Taylor, Reflections upon Ridicule

“I’d like to see General Bloggs, please.”
“Sorry, sir, but General Bloggs is ill today.”
“What made him ill?”
“Nothing in particular, sir, just things in General.”


Anonymous said...

To test for salt, boil a pan of water dry. If salt, then salt will remain. True or false? :-)

John Vigor said...

Brilliant. I knew we had a genius out there. Your idea will make OW very happy.

Anonymous said...

What about using a hydrometer and just measure the specific gravity? The one I got for making beer was only $7. If its rain it'll be around 1.000 and if its seawater it'll be around 1.025, quite a difference. (the measurement range is typically 1.000-1.120ish)