January 20, 2011

The nose remembers

I WAS PASSING BY Old Wotsisname’s boat the other day when the smell of burning alcohol fuel came wafting out of his cabin. I was immediately transported back many years to a host of beautiful sunsets in the South Atlantic.

This kind of thing happens to me a lot. The world of boats is filled with specific smells that remind me strongly of past adventures.

We were running before the southeast trades all those years ago, and sunset was the time when my wife June lit the kerosene stove for supper while I was on watch in the cockpit.

If you’ve ever made a long passage on a small sailboat, you’ll appreciate how important mealtimes become in the daily scheme of things. June first had to pre-heat the kerosene burner with denatured alcohol, and it wasn’t long before the smell of burning stove alcohol had me salivating in anticipation of that much-anticipated meal, just like Pavlov’s dog.

Today, the smell takes me back to rolling, deep-blue swells and white crests fringed with the orange of the setting sun, and my sweet little boat surging buoyantly ahead under twin staysails toward the tiny island of St. Helena.

And then, on the other hand, there’s rubber glue. The sharp, eye-watering fumes remind me of the time in my teen years when I tried to repair an old wooden racing dinghy with Pliobond slathered over the inside to seal the leaky seams. It didn’t work. The boat sank and I had to swim for my life. Rubber glue still gives me the shivers.

I had a much better experience when I visited Portland Island in British Columbia a few years back. We moored stern-to the shore in the little anchorage and settled back in the cockpit for a rest. It was a hot day, one in a long spell of fine weather, and everything was bone dry, including the pine trees all around us. We sniffed deeply and savored the rich resinous odor of warm pine branches while a small otter perched on the rocky shore nearby and crunched away at his newly caught lunch.

There are many other evocative smells connected to boats, including those of newly applied varnish and (another of my favorites) tarred twine, but one I hope never to experience again is gas in the bilge. I was the mate aboard a 72-foot ketch when we woke up in a little English harbor to find our bilges reeking of cooking gas. We had a bilge blower, but we weren’t sure it wouldn’t spark if we turned it on, so three of us bailed the gas out of the bilges with plastic buckets. To the astonishment of the local onlookers, we solemnly poured our buckets of invisible gas overboard one by one, and went back for more. They must have thought we were mad. It took quite a while but it worked. We fixed the leak and we didn’t explode. But now every time I smell gas I go straight back to Thelma II and Ramsgate.

There’s another smell I hope never to smell again, too. The only time it ever happened was when we got caught in a bad gale off the Cape of Storms at the bottom of Africa. We were lying a-hull in 50 knots or so and I was on watch in the cockpit. Every time a plunging breaker came crashing down against the side of the boat I crouched over, and little puffs of acrid warm air spurted up from inside my oilskins. It was the rank smell of fear. I’ve never smelled it again and I never want to.

Luckily, there are many much nicer smells that have accompanied my sailing experiences, including the wonderful aroma of my wife’s freshly washed hair on the pillow next to mine in the V-berth. I am also somewhat attached to the rather strange and pungent smell of wet spinnaker nylon, and very much attached to the crisp smell of new wood shavings in the workshop, and the smell of blue wood smoke curling lazily out of a cabintop Charlie Noble on a frosty morning.

People who have been at sea for a long time, and whose olfactory senses have therefore been deprived of stimulation, swear they can smell land before it comes over the horizon. That has never happened to me, perhaps because I find the sea itself has a smell if you sniff hard enough. It’s a faint version of the smell that lightning leaves in the air, a kind of fresh, invigorating ozone smell that bursts out of those millions of tiny hissing bubbles in the wake.

But I do remember the smell of the tropical island of Fernando de Noronha, 200 miles off the coast of Brazil. We came up to it from leeward in mid-morning when the burning sun had begun its work. I can’t begin to describe how sweet it smelled when we got within a mile or so. The wind wafted toward us the scent of wet, warm, fecund earth mixed with gusts of sweet frangipani and other fragrant tropical flowers whose names and faces we could only guess at. For sailors coming in from the deep sea it was Nature’s pouncet-box, a heavenly welcome, and one that my nose will never forget.

Today’s Thought
They that smell least, smell best.
Unknown, New Help to Discourse (1669)

Boaters’ Rules of Thumb, #149
When does a suitably shaped hull begin to plane? The rule of thumb is that planing starts when the speed in miles per hour, divided by the square root of the waterline length in feet, equals 2 or more. Thus, a 25-foot waterline hull theoretically begins planing at 10 miles an hour.

“Every night when I switch off the light I see little green and yellow flashing lights before my eyes.”
“Good grief, have you seen a doctor?”
“No, just little green and yellow flashing lights.”

(Drop by every Monday, Wednesday, Friday, for a new Mainly about Boats column.)

1 comment:

Aaron Headly said...

Off topic:

NPR profiled a band named Tennis this morning, and I chuckled when the name of their first album was mentioned - Cape Dory.

Turns out that the two leads in the band (husband & wife) spent an entire summer on a CD30 before recording the record. (No word on whether it was a sloop or a ketch.)