IN A REPLY to my last column, Nikolay R., of Toronto, Canada, said he would like to become an energy-self-sufficient boater with oil lamps and a freshwater foot pump. Any ideas, suggestions or recommendations would be highly appreciated, he said, in particular the material from which the lamp is made, and the type of fuel. “From my looking around, I favored vermontlanterns.com
Well, Nikolay, let’s start with oil lamps. On a boat you need an all-brass lamp. Every time I flick through the West Marine or Defender catalogs my eye is stopped by the beautiful brass kerosene lamps. The Dutch firm of Den Haan has been making these anchor and cabin lamps for about 80 years. They are thorough seagoing lamps, fit to make any seaman swoon. They’re tried, they’re tested, and they’re expensive. But if you regard them as investments and family heirlooms you may be able to quiet the objections of your conscience or your wife.
Vermont Lanterns appears to stock a greater variety of Indian-made nautical lanterns at much more reasonable prices. I personally can’t vouch for their quality but they certainly look lovely. In the other catalogs, the firm of Weems & Plath seems to be buying out the old-established manufacturers of nautical lanterns.
You might want to start with one of the less expensive lamps, the kind favored by the Welsh miners, which retails for about $100 to $130, depending on size. I still have one that I used for years both as a cabin light and an anchor light, hanging over the cockpit from the main boom.
Lighting and maintaining oil lamps forms the kind of calming, unhurried ritual that pipe smokers used to enjoy in the days when people actually smoked pipes. It takes you back to an age when ambiance and reliability was favored over speed and convenience, and lantern light was good for the soul.
You will find your own favorite ways of filling the fuel reservoir and trimming the excess carbon from the wick. You will discover your favorite fuel — either expensive and characterless lamp oil in small bottles, or robust, energetic, water-clear, K-1 kerosene by the gallon. People with finicky noses say kerosene lamps smell. They are the same people who turn green when confronted with tarred hemp and scream about second-hand cigarette smoke. They are not true sailors. Ignore them.
Lamp oil is not supposed to smell at all. Clear kerosene is not supposed to smell much. If it does smell, it’s one of those smells that immediately invokes a wonderful mental image of peace and order, a vision of a snug warm cabin glowing gold in a peaceful anchorage, of a glass of wine with dear friends and good company. That’s what you pay for when you buy and maintain an oil lamp. It’s something you’ll never be able to buy with the flick of an electric light switch.
PS: Warm the chimney glass slowly with a low flame for a minute or two after lighting, before turning it up to full blast. This is the voice of bitter experience.
Man is the animal that has made friends with the fire.
— Henry van Dyke, Fisherman’s Luck
Boaters’ Rules of Thumb #21
Boom sizes. For a simple, round, aluminum boom, the diameter should be one-forty-fifth of the overall length. The wall thickness should be one-twenty-sixth of the diameter. Yes, you’ll probably need the calculator.
“Waiter, is this the tea I ordered?”
“What does it taste like, madam?”
“Ah, right, then it must be tea, madam. If it tastes like kerosene it’s coffee.”