June 15, 2016

Gertruda's smelly bilge

I SOMETIMES WONDER if Gertruda ever managed to stop her bilge from  smelling. Gertruda is Danish. She wrote to me some time ago. “My bilge smells,” she said, “I keep it clean and wash it out regularly but it always smells. Is there an answer?”

I gave Gertruda an answer but I never heard from her again. Maybe I upset her. Judge for yourself. Here’s what I told her:

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

“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.”

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1 comment:

Mike K said...

I'm not surprised you lost Gertruda. After that one I'm thinking of throwing in the towel too.