It all began when I was eight. The bilge pump on our wooden skiff was running nonstop, and my mother had been pointing this out for some time before my father finally peeked under the hatch and saw water slopping around just inches below the battery.
As there was no manual bilge pump, I was unceremoniously lowered down knee-deep into the oily mess and given a bucket. I then filled said bucket with murky bilge water, passed it up to my father, and soon enough, the human and automatic pumps together dropped the water level enough that we could diagnose the problem: a leaky stuffing box. I stank of oil and old bait for some time afterward, despite my mother’s best efforts with soaps and scents.
By the time I was 11, we had acquired a 36-foot steel-hulled craft. To me it seemed gargantuan, especially when it came time to scrape and paint her bottom, a job that required applying two coats of primer, followed by a barrier coat and some antifouling.
Still, bottom painting hardly compared to scraping and painting the inside of the hull—a task complicated by the fact that the crawl space between the cabin sole and bilge stringers was just big enough for a skinny 11-year-old. I would slide through the access hatch headfirst wearing a heavy old sweater to cushion my chest against the quarter-inch steel stringers. Armed with a flashlight, dust pan, brush and scraper, I would then scratch away the rust patches that had formed over the previous season.
Afterward, when I was done scraping, my father would hand me a can of bright silver paint and a small brush and I would struggle to paint the bilge without becoming either too claustrophobic or too nauseated from the fumes, which included the aroma of rancid soap and sweat, thanks to a leaking shower-drain hose. (In time, my family produced a small electric fan to help relieve my lightheadedness.) I would always start aft and then work my way forward so as not to mar the freshly painted surfaces. On returning to the point of ingress, I would cap the paint, and hand up my materials, after which I would be extracted, legs first, back up into the cabin.
Our next boat was fiberglass: an Irwin 34. I was relieved not to have to paint the bilge any longer, but for some reason there was always water down there. I suspected leaky through-hull gate valves were to blame, but whatever the cause, the result was a lovely bloom of year-round mold. Bottles of wine stored in the bilge always smelled fusty when I pulled them out, but I did my best to convince our guests that this just meant they were properly aged, like good wine from a proper wine cellar.
After that came an Ericson 32, with bilges that were covered with nickel- to quarter-sized black dots, which I took to be mold. Although an ambrosial scent emanated from these dots, it also masked the other errant odors that boats are often prey to, so I left them undisturbed. Guests sleeping aboard inevitably woke up sneezing, but I snored on unperturbed. No doubt the silver-paint treatments of my youth had rendered everything else perfumatory.
The culmination of my experience with bilges came when I was asked to join a team inspecting an old sulfur ship for possible purchase. I was given a pair of heavy gloves and a hard hat with a light, and then led down a steel ladder into the darkest, dankest space I’ve ever seen. There was, once again, only enough space to crawl under the massive tanks, around their steel supports and over the massive hull stringers. The stench of rust combined with sulfur, fetid water, vermin droppings and urine created a truly malodorous olfactory cocktail. Worse yet was the sound of little feet scampering just out of sight all around us, combined with the disorienting creaks and groans of the ship’s tired hull. The thought of getting lost in the Stygian blackness was almost unbearable. I could hardly wait to return topsides to the light of day.
The bilges I have known have taken me on many an unforgettable excursion. Their levels of unpleasantness may vary, but like any necessary evil, they are never subtle. Perhaps these bilges exist to keep us grounded, to remind us that every now and again you have to delve into the darkness to appreciate the light. Or perhaps they are just Poseidon’s way of reminding us who is boss.
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Phil Saracin and his wife, Valerie, enjoy sailing their Beneteau First 285 on Lake Murray, South Carolina