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The Mast-Head: An Unbearable Stench

Wed, 06/19/2024 - 12:10

There are few things in this world as repulsive as bilgewater. When people were once more seagoing, the word “bilge” used to describe deliberate nonsense, a.k.a. a crock of it; today it has less resonance. But among those who know, removing the foul stench that emanates from below a boat’s floorboards is a dreaded chore. I should know, I was up to my elbows in it about a week ago.

It is fitting that I chose to name my 1979-era sailboat after the three-headed dog of Greek legend that guarded the gate of hell to prevent the escape of condemned souls. Would that the mythic Cerberus take up station just forward of the tiny galley to keep a lid on my noxious bilge.

During college, I had a job cleaning the public spaces in my fraternity house in exchange for a break on rent. Mopping the dance floor was one thing. Dealing with the mung was quite another. Mung was what we affectionately called the unbearable funk of beer, dirt, and who-knows-what-all that accumulated in the frat basement. I would rather be carried back in time to clear the mung than deal with boat bilge. If bilge were our primordial ooze, we humans would look like the Creature From the Black Lagoon. It is that bad.

One of the advantages of replacing Cerberus’s old diesel is that it will give me access to the underparts of the cramped engine compartment. With improved access, I will be able to attack the bilge with a grease cutter and a scrub brush. When I’m done, the cabin might well be suitable enough for polite company. But first came the task of getting rid of the darkened, slime-covered water.

Something blocked the boat’s pumps, and only a trickle came out of the port at the side. Ladling it into a bucket would take days. Scrambling for a solution, I realized that removing a speed sensor that poked through the hull near the keel would be like pulling the plug in a bathtub. In went my arms.

After a great deal of sloshing around without being able to see what I was doing, I got the sensor out of its tube. In a massive gurgling rush, the bilge began to empty — but the stench was brutal, worse. I was relieved no one else was working in that corner of the boatyard. The three-headed dog looked the other way and the lost souls of bacteria past poured onto the ground and wafted away slowly, as if, confused about what to do next, into the air. I stayed belowdecks and out of sight.


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