February 27, 2014

Practicing the big bang theory

The Disease Called Cruising

17. Gas by the Bucketful

IT WAS DURING the dog-days of an English summer. We were baking in a breathless calm alongside the wall in the harbor of Ramsgate. And we were in trouble. We had gas in our bilges.

The night before, we had brought the 72-foot ketch Thelma II into Ramsgate after a two-week cruise of Brittany. Someone had turned on a gas burner and forgotten to light it.

The gas being heavier than air, had sunk into Thelma’s deep bilges and escaped notice until morning.

We immediately shut off the supply at the bottles, opened every hatch and porthole, and rigged up the windsails to ventilate the boat. But another windless day had dawned and we waited in vain, creeping around the yacht with exaggerated caution, afraid of doing anything that might cause this floating bomb to explode.

We had a bilge blower, an electric fan that worked off the ship’s bank of 12-volt batteries. But neither Gary, the professional skipper, nor I, the mate, could bring ourselves to switch it on.

“They’re supposed to be spark-free,” said Gary, “but . . . “

“Yeah, it only takes one spark,” I said.

We explained the position to the owner and his two guests, who, with unseemly haste, made plans to go ashore for breakfast at a hotel as far away as possible.

“All we can do is pray for wind,” said Gary, “and be very careful not to make any sparks meanwhile. Don’t smoke. Don’t touch any light switches. Don’t turn on a radio. Don’t let metal touch metal.

We had never felt so helpless.

“If it’s in the bilges,” said the owner, stepping onto the quay, “why don’t you use a bilge pump?”

He left us with that thought. In fact we had two hand bilge pumps, besides the electric ones.

Gary shook his head. “Could be metal parts working against each other. I don’t like it.”

But it gave him an idea. “Tell you what,” he said, “We’ll bail it out.  Better than sitting here doing nothing.”

Within 15 minutes the residents of Ramsgate were being treated to a most unusual sight. The crew of the Thelma II would appear on deck, one after another, and solemnly pour seemingly empty buckets into the harbor.

Down below, we dipped our plastic buckets into the bilge and then slowly and carefully made our way on deck. It was difficult, at first, to know when your bucket was empty. You had to keep sniffing, and maybe pour some more. But, in the end, we figured that 30 seconds would do it.

That seemed a very long time, with people staring silently from the dockside. In true British fashion, they were too polite, too reserved, to ask what kind of lunatic ritual we were performing.

After nearly two hours we stuck our noses deep into the bilges, sniffed hard, and declared them gas-free. What little we hadn’t been able to scoop up had probably been sucked into our lungs and processed.

Just in case, we all went ashore while Gary stood at the cockpit controls and flipped the switch for a bilge blower. We saw his hand move. Then he grinned widely. It was working. No big bang.

“All r-i-g-h-t!” We cheered and yelled.

The natives shook their heads doubtfully and pretended to be studying seagulls.

Today’s Thought
Danger, the spur of all great minds.
— Chapman, Bussy d’Ambois

Teeth is very nice to have,

They fills you with content.

If you don’t understand that now

You will when they have went.

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

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