April 7, 2015

Bailing gas from the bilges

I WAS STOPPED IN MY TRACKS the other day when I read an account by a circumnavigator of how he used kerosene for cooking on his boat. I thought I was the only one left in the world who thought that was a good idea.

I grew up in the Dark Ages when every cruising boat used kerosene. The British and Colonial ones used paraffin, admittedly, but it was the same stuff under a different name, a slightly more refined form of diesel fuel.  It was used in lamps and Primus stoves and you had to pre-heat the kerosene burner with denatured alcohol. The Brits and Colonials pre-heated it with methylated spirits, but once again, it was the same stuff under a different name. They’re funny that way.

Anyway it was a lot of fuss and bother, and sometimes a lot of fun when the burner flared up because the pre-heating hadn’t been going on long enough. Few galley cooks had eyebrows in those days.

I still have a kerosene Primus stove, as a matter of fact. It’s in the garage, ostensibly for emergency use, but really for the pleasure of taking it out of its box once a year and trying to light the bloody thing. Nevertheless, I am neither hidebound nor stupid, so I readily admit that gas is the most convenient stuff to cook with on a boat. It has problems, though. Butane and propane are heavier than air and they’re highly explosive.

I remember smelling gas when I woke up one morning on a 72-foot ketch in Ramsgate, England. It was during the dog days of summer, dead calm. We fixed the gas leak and tip-toed around softly so as to cause no sparks, and waited for a breeze to ventilate the bilges.

We had a 12-volt bilge blower, but neither Gary, the skipper, nor I, the mate, wanted to risk switching it on.

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

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

Eventually, after considering everything, we decided to bail the gas out. Soon the residents of Ramsgate were treated to a strange spectacle. After dipping their buckets into the bilges, the crew of Thelma II would appear on deck one after another and solemnly pour seemingly empty buckets into the harbor. In true British fashion, the locals were too polite to enquire about this astonishing ritual, which must have rivaled even English Morris Dancing for sheer lunacy.

After 45 minutes we figured it was good enough. We all went ashore except for Gary, who bravely flipped the switch for the blower. We saw his hand move. There was no explosion. He grinned widely.

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

The locals shook their heads and pretended to be watching seagulls.

Today’s Thought
I adore life but I don’t fear death. I just prefer to die as late as possible.
—(the late) Georges Simenon, International Herald Tribune

“Waiter, there’s a fly in my soup.”
"Sorry, sir, the chef used to be a tailor.”

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



Alden Smith said...

On my 30 foot yacht I have a two burner kerosene / meths pre - heating primus stove. I love it, I hate the idea of gas.

I like the ritual of pre - heating, has never been a problem in 40 years of sailing, never, ever lost my eyebrows! Its just a case of taking the time to light it correctly.

The only problem now is that primus parts have been very hard and expensive to get. BUT in a recent edition of the English Magazine 'Classic Boat' there was an article (or advertisement) about a company that is now producing new improved burners for primus stoves - I am in the process of buying one now!

Classic boats forever! I say, including their Primus Stoves.

John Vigor said...

Well, good for you, Alden. And yes, the ritual is intriguing. Eric Hiscock said he used to start slavering like Pavlov's dog when he smelled Susan burning meths to light the stove down below.


John V.

Anonymous said...

I never forget anything...

John Vigor said...

Lucky you, Anonymous. I wish I could say the same.

John V.