July 27, 2010

The smelly little fellas

A WOMAN READER IN DENMARK asks for my help. “My bilge smells,” she says, “I keep it clean and wash it out regularly but it always smells. Is there an answer?”

Well, Gertruda, this is something most sailors don’t talk about in public. It’s one of those little secrets: most sailboat bilges smell. It’s the micro-organisms, you see — the really little fellas. The really feisty little bugs.

You actually need a microscope to see what’s going on in your bilge. There are literally billions of crude forms of life down there, all too small for the human eye to see, and all enjoying a non-stop, uninhibited, riotous party.

You might well think that your efforts at cleaning the bilge would rob them of their food, that they would just dry up and fade away, but alas, the mere presence of human beings is sustenance enough for them, especially as they’re not particularly fussy about their diet.

We purposely don’t think about this much, but human beings are self-shucking. Every time a human body moves it sheds millions of tiny particles of old skin. It’s called scurf — little dry scales that pop off as new skin grows underneath. As far as the little fellas are concerned, we are walking clouds of wholesome food that eventually float down to the bilge. It’s followed closely by those minute particle of skin, feathers, and flesh that we call dander.

All this is like steak and potatoes to the little fellas but they get plenty of dessert, too. Sweat and dirt from human body parts flow into the bilge after showers. Slimy water from the ice-box drains into the bilge. There are delicious drips of diesel fuel and engine oil. There is spilled beer that starts yummy yeast plants growing, bits of gloriously rotted hamburger, marvelous mixed grills from under your toenails, tasty gobs of fish bait that got stuck to your shoes, and a host of other toothsome morsels — thanks to gravity, it all ends up in the bilge. And if you mix in a little water, you have a real witches’ brew.

Now, I know this is a delicate subject, Gertruda, but none of these little fellas uses underarm deodorant. None of them knows where the bathroom is. None of them cares. They just do it right where they are. None of them uses mouthwash and all have halitosis. They constantly burp and pass wind. No wonder the bilge smells.

Gertruda, the only way to prevent odors is to keep the bilge perfectly dry. In drought mode, the little fellas hibernate and don’t cause any trouble. The problem is that it’s not possible to keep the bilge absolutely dry on most boats. There’s always a little moisture down there somewhere. So the bilge will always smell, and in polite company nobody will mention it. And that includes you, Gertruda, okay?

Today’s Thought
All the perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten this little hand.
— Shakespeare, Macbeth. Act v, sc. 1

Boaters’ Rules of Thumb #75
Extinguishing fire. Fire at sea is a fearsome thing. Here are three basic ways to put out a fire:
--Starve it of oxygen;
--Remove the material it’s feeding on; or
--Cool the burning material below its combustion point.
As a general rule always aim an extinguisher at the base of the fire, not at the top or middle of the flames. It also makes sense to keep extinguishers near, but not exactly at, places where fire is most likely to break out, such as the galley and the engine.

“Anything to declare, Mr. MacTavish?”
“Och, I dinna think so. It’s all clothing.”
“Aha — and what’s this bottle of whisky, then?”
“Hoots mon, that’s ma nightcap.”


DeeP said...

Love your blog John, I look forward to having a chuckle at the end of each one. Thankyou. Keep it up.
Heres one I heard today from the old folks home where I work.
A bloke walked into his Psychiatrist naked and wrapped in glad wrap, the psych looked him up and down and said, "I can clearly see your nuts".

oztayls said...

There are a couple of things Gertruda could try:

The first is to add a couple of tablespoons of household bleach to the bilge water every week or so.

The other is diesel bug killer at the recommended rate. This is the stuff that is added to the diesel fuel tank to prevent "diesel bug". Those very same nasty micro critters that make their homes in bilges also occupy the water layer inside diesel fuel tanks.

Unknown said...

Hey John,

Are you referring to the head on some boats which stink to holy heaven? Whew, I was on a boat that was a real "treat" last weekend!

I was on another boat the next day and wow...what a surprise...no stench!

That captain keeps a gallon jug of fresh water sitting in the sink to be used for flushing the head. (looks odd, yeah)

He learned it was the salt water "critters" that live inside his tank that caused the smell, so he no longer allows salt water access to the head!