June 4, 2015

Beware the Russian spirit lamp

MANY OF US have had interesting experiences with cooking stoves on small yachts. Some of those experiences have involved the loss of eyebrows, mustaches, and the hair on the back of the hands. And mostly, those experiences have involved alcohol or kerosene stoves.

The first such experience recorded in the history of yachting, as far as I know, took place in 1869, when a man named Empson Edward Middleton became the first person to sail singlehanded around England.

Middleton was eccentric in several ways and always tried to eat ashore in a hotel or boarding house each evening, but on those occasions when he was stuck at anchor at some roadstead, and needed to cook his own supper, he had a kind of primitive stove in a side locker in the cockpit of his 23-foot gaff-rigged yawl.

Here, from his book, The Cruise of The Kate, is his description of that stove, which, I gather, ran on spirit, or alcohol:

“The lamp used was that usually known as the Russian spirit lamp; and having tested its utility as fully as possible, I have no hesitation in saying that it is an excessively dangerous article to have on board for constant use.

“Its manner of burning is most eccentric: sometimes it will throw up a perfect hurricane of fire, which can be hear roaring at a considerable distance; at others, though trimmed in precisely the same way, it will burn in an enormous sluggish column of flame, which rolls out into the well [cockpit —jv] with the lurch of the boat, threatening to set fire to everything.

“Now and then it varies the entertainment by becoming a fountain, shooting the spirit up from inside, which falls into the tin case, creating a perfect mass of fire outside the lamp, necessitating an instant attention with a teacup full of salt water.

“Again, the fire is such that it persists in coming out at the handle in spite of extra washers and the tightest screwing, creating a great difficulty in putting the lamp out. But the worst feature arises from the fact of the spirit being shaken out of the cuts in the bottom (which are intended to allow a free current of air), compelling constant attention to the furnace if there is any bubble on, [I believe he means bobble, small wavelets in the anchorage. — jv] because the whole chamber will be a mass of flame in an instant, and must be put out.

“I have taken the trouble to mention these peculiarities, for they cease to be dangers when known and properly met. I cannot recommend the lamp, and know of nothing to take its place; but let the engineer be careful that he burns spirit which water will extinguish.”

Well, the Russian lamp sounds like a fearsome beast that makes the later products of Messrs. Primus, Optimus, and Origo seem quite tame by comparison. I don’t think there are any perfectly safe stoves for small yachts, unless you count electric stoves, which are not often found in boats of the size I can afford. They all need to be handled with care, especially at sea. But I’m rather glad the Russian spirit lamp is no longer with us. Cooking on small boats is taxing enough without all that excitement.

Today’s Thought
I am building a fire, and every day I train, I add more fuel. At just the right moment, I light the match.
— Mia Hamm, U.S. national soccer player

“I see your husband has given up smoking.”
“That’s right.”
“Must have taken an awful lot of willpower.”
“I have an awful lot of willpower.”

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

1 comment:

biglilwave said...

Anything with the word "Russian" in it doesn't instill a lot of confidence in me, unless it's Vodka. I bought a "Russian" watch one time that claimed to be water proof to 50m and it was a wind up as well. It turned out not to be water proof and it only kept correct time twice a day. I should have spent my 20 dollars on a bottle of Vodka.