Thursday, October 21, 2010

Boat Farts: Being a Treatise on the Role of the Passive Senses in Seamanship

I recently viewed a humorous U-tube spot on the role of gaseous effluvia as an indication of relationship phase. Goofy- yes, but much truth is spoke in jest.

This got me thinking about how similar one’s relationship with the boat-home is to a human relationship. There is, in fact, a branch of marine services known as ship husbandry. It has nothing to do with marriage, except that it is about an individual getting to know a ship as well as if it were a spouse. I sometimes muse on this field when I hear of places where living aboard a boat full time is restricted or outright banned. There was a not distant time when constant human presence was required on many commercial vessels.

But I digress. The topic at hand is that of how time and familiarity grant a subconscious monitoring system of our vessels through the passive senses of sound and smell. Feel is an equally valid sense, though probably too broadly defined for me to cover here.

I will start with smell. I do this at least in part as a result of a very “fresh” experience with an O.P.B. (other person’s boat.)

There is no more potent player in the olfactory indicator game than the black water or sanitary system on a boat. On a recent delivery, a failed hose connection in this system resulted in a nose-hair searing night before the bilges could be opened and the defect repaired. This would be on the “why my composting toilet is my friend” list. In a less “in your face” example, the exhalation of the holding tank vent can indicate to the experienced nose, exactly how close one is to a pump-out need. The compost head equivalent is that the more one feels in proximity to a newly plowed field on approach to the vent, the nearer it is time to empty the chamber into the post-composter and start a new batch.

Stepping up a half notch from the gutter, the gray or waste wash water system is next in line as a nasal assault weapon. I use the leg from a pair of nylons as a filter on each of the drain inlets to my waste water sump tank. I can’t quantify, but I know it’s an effective way to catch most of the run off that my pump would choke on, and consequently, most of the nitrogen source that would grow into odoriferous sludge in the tank. But over time, the filters get clogged and need to be replaced. When the water pumped out has any detectable odor, I can be sure the “filters” are full and it’s time to put on a good disguise and hit the ladies’ lingerie section at Wallyworld.

And now, exiting the poop-deck, I will bring the discussion into more civilized surroundings. Almost. The bilge is a great receiver of smell sources known and unknown. I once did battle for months with a bilge sludge that looked and smelled like petroleum slime. It was a classic case of mistaken identity, false prosecution, and the domino effect all in one. I scrubbed and vacuumed countless times. I wrapped the engine in diapers like a new born’s bottom. Not a drip could be found, but still the stinky sludge grew like a Purdue chicken on double steroids. The problem persisted until one morning in Marigot, St. Martin, I discovered numerous empty Coke cans in the bottom tier of the drink mixers locker. These, in turn were corroded through by pinhole a leak in the anchor washdown hose running through that locker. The sludge-like goo was growing on the Coke-a-Cola syrup. So you see, my friends, what mixeth well with rum makes for nasty bilge stink too. For the sake of my personal bilges, I’ve switched my staple sundowner from the Cuba-Libre to rum and tonic. The quinine helps keep the malaria at bay too.

Engine antifreeze is environmentally bad stuff. Even the Low and non-tox stuff has a very distinct sweet smell. This is good in that it makes itself known quickly when it is not where it’s supposed to be. It’s bad when you tear apart your cooling system looking for the leak only to discover it’s a pin-hole in the spare jug in the sail locker. Incidentally, that one has caused me to pack all my bottles of spare fluids and spray cans in ziplocks with absorptive material in the bag.

Finally, the galley has it’s own passive indicator. I cook with propane. Yes- it can be dangerous. Yes- I have an electronic sniffer gadget to make noise if it leaks. And yes, I do occasionally test said gadget with butane lighter gas to make sure it’s working. But on a more routine basis, I have become sensitized to the smell of burned propane to the point that I can detect the end of the one cylinder in my system a day or two in advance. For some reason, the odor making component added to propane is most concentrated just before the tank is empty. The burned gas odor is noticeably stronger with this last blast of gas.

Sound is my other favorite passive sense onboard. In fact, I will often make a game of guessing exactly what a sound is for a while before I actively go hunt it down. I also believe that the premonition of impending danger that so often warns sailors before a collision has to do with sound transferred into the drum-like interior of the boat through the water. I have known this experience and would almost classify the prop noise as felt more than heard as it was more a pressure pulse felt in the ear.

Engine monitoring is a good example. The ear desensitizes to white noise after a while, but can remain quite alert to changes in that noise even in sleep. Once on a delivery I awoke after sensing a change in engine RPM and went on deck to see if there was a problem. I was assured no one had touched the throttle. I was just voicing a thought about checking the fuel filter vacuum gauges when the engine slowed and stopped. Clogged fuel filter. On Charis, I do not have fuel filter gauges, but I know at the first drop in RPM that it’s time to switch filters.

My mainsail cover is old and the snaps are getting loose. In strong wind it flaps a bit, but if I listen carefully, I can tell when that flapping includes a snap that has released. This vigilance comes from the hard lesson of sanding and varnishing on the boom after the loose snap ends gouged it badly.

Sometimes they stump you for days. A loose headsail sheet got me this way recently. It was just loose enough to flap its turning block from side to side, yet smart enough to cease to do so every time I put my kindle down to go find the noise source. I was no speed reader that day.

I have a fail safe in my anchor roller system based on noise. If it starts to blow hard enough to decrease the anchor or mooring line catenary’s angle, the line will begin to snag on the big plow. The clanging noise below is impossible to sleep through and can only be cured by properly inverting the anchors to prevent chafe.

Halyard clanging is a hot topic of contention. I do my best to control it, but with external halyards, it seems it can never be entirely eliminated. The game, though, is to get to where you can tell which halyard is in motion, and by that and the frequency, from which quarter the wind is blowing and how hard.

The wind turbine is another audible wind indicator. I wish it were silent, but since it is not, I have simply learned to associate noise amplitude and pitch with a wind speed and power production level. Must be time to replace it soon and try to learn this trick all over again.

That’s what happened with the old Jabsco reciprocating water pump. I swear I could just about predict when the tanks were about to run dry based on a subconscious counter of the number of pump pulses heard or seen by the flicker of the cabin lights. My new variable speed wobbler-plate pump is far to stealthy for me to have any premonition of empty tanks.

And could someone please tell me why mooring pick up floats are always cylindrical? Flat sided ones would float just as well and would not roll side to side on the deck just above my head in strong winds. Come to think of it, I might just market such a thing myself. It would certainly be nice to eliminate that particular "thunk, thunk" wake up call.

I realize that some of this might come across as impossible sounding (pun intended.) But the thing to remember is that Charis and I have been fairly inseparable for 20 years now. This, in a boat as in a relationship, must have evolved my involuntary senses along pathways that even I can’t understand. It’s scary in a way, but comforting in many ways. More than anything, this is the reason I advocate cruising in a familiar boat over a big or new boat. Obviously this idea carries further limitations, but all things within reason.

As a teaser to a later treatise on the role of the sense of feel in seamanship, I will mention 2 examples. First, noted expert on primitive navigation techniques, David Lewis, reported that Polynesian pilots would sit astride the cross beams of their catamarans to sense the ocean swell motion with their most sensitive parts. True or false I cannot confirm, except to say that they were invariably male. And lastly in an unabashed brag, I once steered a heavy displacement sloop on a reach with hull speed in excess of apparent wind speed for over an hour in my sleep. My watch mate will swear to it without coercion. Wind on my cheeks and wheel against my hand were my only conscious functions, apparently. But then that’s my favorite state awake too, so no surprise there.

Take the time to develop your instincts, then let instinct be your most valuable seamanship skill.