July 7, 2009

The fire that just won’t go out

This is where you’ll find a new Mainly About Boats column by John Vigor every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. You can also browse among more than 100 archived columns over on the right.

LONG AGO I READ in one of Eric Hiscock’s fine cruising books that he always started salivating at the smell of burning stove alcohol. It was a signal, relayed to his brain by his nose, that his good wife, Susan, was down below preparing supper while he slaved away at the helm in mid-ocean. I hate to compare the venerable Hiscock with Pavlov’s dog, but I’m sure you can see the similarities.

Denatured alcohol, or methylated spirits as it is known in the rest of the English-speaking world, was used in those days, the middle of the 20th century, to preheat the burners on pressurized kerosene (paraffin) stoves such as the Primus and the Optimus. These pump-up stoves served sailors well for many years, but for the past decade or two a tinge of wimpishness has crept into small-boat galleys. Modern sailors brought up in a culture of instant gratification and enforced safety, where personal risk taking is often illegal, started complaining about the flare-ups that occur when you don’t wait long enough for the burner to get hot enough. Eyebrows and beards were singed. Galley curtains were lost. Fires were not unheard of.

So the manufacturers of boat stoves, responding to the plaintive whines of those untutored and unskilled in the ancient art of lighting a stove, turned away from kerosene and started producing pressurized alcohol stoves instead — much to the delight of the distillers of denatured alcohol whose product is two or three times as expensive as kerosene, despite the fact that it produces less heating energy by volume. The rationale behind this move, gladly accepted by gullible seacooks lacking eyebrows and galley curtains, was that you can put out an alcohol fire with water. That is not always the case, of course. It all depends. Sometimes throwing water on an alcohol fire just swishes the fire to a new location, floating on top of the water, where it can set something else ablaze.

But even with alcohol stoves there was a catch. They still had to be pre-heated, and pre-heated by a generation lacking in pre-heating skills. Flare-ups continued to occur. In some cases they were even more dangerous than kerosene flare-ups. When partially heated kerosene flares up it burns with a lovely orange-yellow flame framed by black, sooty smoke. You can’t miss the fact that it’s flaring up. But partially heated alcohol burns with an almost invisible flame. If you’re not particularly observant, especially in bright daylight, an alcohol flare-up will set your galley overhead ablaze before you’re even aware of it.

So the stove manufacturers put on their thinking caps again and came up with the latest thing in stoves, the non-pressurized alcohol stove. It’s really no more than a glorified version of Sterno’s Canned Heat at about 500 times the price. It takes longer to cook things but it satisfies the craving for safety among those too cowardly to expose themselves to pressurized alcohol or (heaven forfend!) propane gas.

But that’s not the end of the story. As an old kerosene Primus lover and the present owner of a pressurized alcohol stove, I am delighted to report that flare-ups occur among non-pressurized alcohol stoves, too. A letter to the editors of Good Old Boat magazine complains about wind swirling the flame under the stovetop, superheating the metal top and the surrounding wooden counter edging. The editors responded: “We have had our Origo non-pressurized alcohol stove go critical as well. Oddly enough, it always happens to us when the fuel canister is very nearly empty.”

So maybe one of these days the circle will be complete and we’ll get back to pressurized kerosene stoves again. Maybe people will relearn the lost virtue of patience, of waiting an extra minute or two while the burner gets hot. If they want lessons, I can teach them.

Today’s Thought
A ship in harbor is safe, but that is not what ships are built for.
—John A. Shedd, Salt from My Attic

“And what is your name, my good man?”
“James, madam.”
“I’m not accustomed to calling my chauffeurs by their first names. What is your last name?”
“Darling, madam.”
“Very well, drive on, James.”


Oded Kishony said...

Hi John,

Can you recommend a pocket compass or at least what features you think are necessary?

Oded Kishony

John Vigor said...

Oded, here's a site that lists the best hand bearing compasses. They have all the features needed by small-boat sailors:


As usual, you get what you pay for. Weems and Plath are probably the Rolls Royce of hand bearing compasses, but Suunto, Vion, and Plastimo also have excellent reputations for quality.


John V.