Sea Savvy - The good ol’ days, may they never come again

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I miss the good old days of boating —

I miss the good old days of boating — like when the high-tech way to change your oil was to get a drill pump and connect it to an electric drill. There was only one thing for sure when you used one of these: You either changed your oil naked or ruined every stitch of clothing you were wearing.

These pumps were a marvel of design flaw. They had two hoses and an impeller in a little plastic case. All you had to do was hold one hose in the oil dipstick hole and one in the waste container. And you had to hold that container in place so it wouldn’t fall over and dump the old oil in the bilge. And hold on to the electric drill and squeeze the trigger. And hold on to the pump body. I know my math is weak, but that always turned out to require at least five hands for me.

So I used native seaman’s ingenuity. Among trying other things less mentionable, I tried holding the hose in the dipstick hole with my toes and the pump body with my knees. This left the remaining foot available to wedge the old oil container against a bulkhead and to form the third leg of a tripod upon which I balanced my body beside the engine, the first two legs being each of my cheeks sitting on a battery box. One hand held the drill and the other held the discharge hose — a hose for which I held utmost respect.

The problem with this method — and just about every other method I used — was that the hand or knees or whatever it was that was supposed to be holding the pump body invariably slipped. So then I had a pump twirling round and round, just as fast as my electric drill would spin it, trailing two long arms of hose, each trailing, in ever expanding concentric spirals, two long streams of black motor oil. And the music didn’t stop there. As each droplet of oil got farther from the end of the hose, and as each droplet collided with anything and everything, it expanded exponentially.

Of course, you’re sitting there thinking (and I know you are), Well why the heck didn’t you just release the trigger on the drill? Well I did … eventually. I’m only human, which means that when you see those exponentially expanding streams of oil, the first thing you think to do is grab for the hose. Or the pump body. Or anything but letting go of the trigger — not that it made much difference anyway, because the damage was done in the first 1,000th of a second.

There were several inventions from time to time designed to fasten the pump to the drill, but I never found one that was reliable. It was like trying to invent something to keep flies off sugar. Nature just wasn’t on your side.

I had a friend who was changing his oil with just such a drill pump. He had a sailboat with the engine stuffed down under the cockpit, and he had to take everything out of the lazarette just to get to the engine dipstick hole. Then he had to kneel down in the compartment and reach under the cockpit sole to do the deed. As suggested above, there was only one way to do it: naked.

And so it passed that he was sitting there thusly clad, down in his lazarette one sunny afternoon, in a popular cruising harbor in the Bahamas. He was engaged in the act, carefully holding with various parts of his body the hoses, the drill, the oil waste bucket and the pump. As you do when you perform this deed, he was expecting all sorts of trouble. But he wasn’t expecting a parade.

So you can imagine his surprise when some 30 dinghies came alongside, each filled with costumed cruisers — celebrating Mardi Gras, of course. And why not? There was nothing else of importance to do. So they were going from boat to boat throwing beads and other trinkets, trying to tempt more people to join the floating party.

The beads and baubles tumbling into my friend’s bilge through the open hatch were another surprise for which he was unprepared. Instinctively he jumped up, treating the revelers to a sight perhaps not equaled even on Bourbon Street in New Orleans: a naked, oil-soaked, bearded man with a mess of hoses and beads whirling around him, spraying oil like a Texas gusher on a rampage.

As the oil from the overturned waste container spread around his bare feet on its trip to join the baubles in the bilge, his surprise turned to anger, and the conversation that ensued is best not repeated here, notwithstanding the fact that you could hear it over half the harbor.

***

Those were the good ol’ days. They were so much more fun. When I change the oil today, I disengage a valve lock, turn the valve and flip a switch. The oil flows through my X-Change-R into a waiting bucket, and in less than five minutes the job is done. What a drag!

There are other things that I miss about those good ol’ days, like the fun of doing business in the Bahamas. In the good ol’ days we didn’t have sat phones and cell phones — at least not as we know them now. When I needed to take care of some business on the telephone I’d first have to find an island that had one. You could tell because the islands with a phone usually had a little pink building on a high hill with a tower of sorts. I’d anchor off the island, launch my dinghy, go in to a dock or beach, walk up the hill, and start the process.

Usually there were only one or two phones in the little pink building, and everybody on the island wanted to use them. This was complicated by the fact that the phones didn’t work much of the time. When they were working, you’d give the number you wanted to call to the “operator,” who was a lady sitting behind a desk. You’d then get in line, which usually meant standing or sitting on the floor in the crowded little room.

Waiting in line could be a lot of fun because the phones weren’t in booths. They were just hanging (sometimes barely) on the wall. So everybody could hear everything being said by the person who was lucky enough to be using the phone. It didn’t matter whether they were talking sweet nothings to a love down island, giving credit card or bank account numbers to a suit in the States, or telling some doctor where they hurt — it was all fair game and good listening. Until the line went dead.

And the lines went dead often in those days. There were really only two things you could count on about making phone calls in the Bahamas: that the lines would go dead during the call and that this would happen at the most critical part of the conversation. Then the operator would have to place the call again, while the caller (and everybody in the room) waited with bated breath to see how much money he or she had in the bank, or how much fun the lover down island had had the night before.

Bated breath was a real problem under the circumstances, because usually the operator wasn’t able to get a connection any time soon, so everybody just sat or moseyed about wondering how long it would take. But this was good because whoever was standing there holding on to the phone got lots of good advice about what to say next when the lines came up and how to handle his or her business, no matter what it was.

Finally, my turn would come and the tables were reversed. The operator would say, “Tom, your party is on the line,” and I would thread my way, stepping across knees and around people to the vacant phone. When I got there, it would ring. If anyone was asleep and about to miss any part of my conversation, the ring always woke them up. I learned early on not to whisper. Then everybody in the room knew it was going to be good. Not only were you guaranteed that everybody would hear every word, you were nearly suffocated as the crowd closed around so they could hear.

The flip side off all this was that your “party” was generally some suit sitting in a fine office back in the States, surrounded by a bank of modern phones and with no idea how to help me without looking something up and calling me back. And the suit also had no idea about what “I’ll give you a call back in a few minutes” really meant in the Bahamas. First of all, it meant that everyone was disappointed because they didn’t hear it all; second, it meant that you had to tell them when to call and explain that they might need to set aside a three- or four-hour window for trying to get through; and third, it meant that your phone call day was never going to end — until the operator began her 2-1/2-hour lunch break, which quite frequently turned into a supper break and nighttime go-to-sleep break, in which case you’d come back tomorrow and start all over again.

Those were the good ol’ days. Now I just cruise along until I see an island with a cell tower. If it’s standing relatively straight up instead of leaning relatively far over, I use my Bahamas cell phone. I don’t get to hear everybody else’s problems, I don’t get the benefit of everybody else’s advice about my problems, and I don’t get to take a day off from fixing the engine or writing articles or fishing. I just punch some keys and away I go. And the suit can call me back easily to tell me that, no, I don’t have any money left in the bank.

***

In the good ol’ days there was one thing aboard that would shatter even the friendliest of conversations and ruin even the nicest evenings, not to mention friendships and cruises. The problem would begin with a perfectly innocent question from a guest: “Uh, where’s the bathroom?” This meant only one thing to the poor slob (me) who owned the boat. It meant that I’d probably end up spending hours of crawling around the bowl, up to my elbows in stuff I’d rather not mention. (Actually, I’d love to mention it, but this magazine has something they call “standards of decency.”)

The first response that came to mind was always, “We don’t have one.” The guest would look puzzled and ask, “Well, what do you do? What do you want me to do?”

The next response that came to mind was, “Go home.” But this often was impractical without a very long swim. So we’d show the guest the place of the throne and spend about 15 minutes in a briefing. In those days most heads came with lists of what not to put in. I was always afraid to post the list because most guests seemed to put in exactly the things the lists said to avoid.

First we had to assure the guest, “I know the bowl is small, but it’ll fit just fine.” Then we’d have to talk about the things that couldn’t go into it. Next, things would really get awkward, as we’d discuss the things that could go in and how much. Finally, we’d launch into how to operate the head. After explaining this came the fun part. We’d go into excruciating detail about what would happen if the unfortunate guest failed in any respects to do it exactly right.

Usually the end result of all this briefing was that the guest found that he didn’t have to go anymore, or couldn’t go even if he still had to go. But some guests have body works that remain undaunted no matter what.

So we would sit outside in the saloon, trying not to listen. It was always obvious to the guest that everyone else on the boat was trying not to listen, because all chatter and all other noise ceased as soon as the door closed. What we were listening for wasn’t really personal.

First, it was just for the sound of toilet paper rolling on the spool. The more the rolling and the more the rips, the more we worried. I mean, think about it. What were we supposed to do? Jump up and run to the door and yell, “OK, that’s enough. You’ve exceeded the paper limit.” Then we listened for the noises of the pump. Usually it would begin with a smooth, easy, normal pumping sound, but far too often that sound would become more laborious and the strokes slower. Then came other sounds, not the least of which was the sound of rapid, forceful squirting of water and the participant’s muttering of “Oh ___,” unless it was a lady, in which case we’d generally hear sobbing.

Then would come the ultimate lie that all boat owners had to master. I don’t know why we did it, because everyone knew without doubt that it was a lie, but I admit that I did it. I’d try to pretend that I was a gentleman and say something graceful like, “Oh, it’s OK, don’t worry about it. I love taking apart heads and hoses and looking for hours to find the clog.”

If you had a macerator head in those days, you were really lucky. You could ask the offending guest to help you flip a coin. That method was as good as any as you tried to decide which was worse: disassembling the macerator to see if the problem lay therein (it’s really fun to clean out and rebuild macerators) or pulling apart the hose system, hoping that job would be easier and you’d find the problem.

Those were the good ol’ days. In modern times I’ve been using the Raritan PH II, which is, in my opinion, about as reliable as they come when it comes to handling what they’re supposed to handle. And they’re very easy to fix. But there are other models too. All you do is push a button, listen to a whoosh or whir, and the job’s done.

Take, for example, Raritan’s Atlantes Freedom. The company says it gives freedom from the problems of yesteryear and freedom from small bowls (no, not bowels, bowls). It has a “Power Shred Discharge Pump” that Raritan says is “virtually” clog free. (Use of the word “virtually” apparently is to cover the situation where some people manage to drop metallic items into the bowl, leaving rise to the question of why they ate them in the first place.)

But when someone eats and later discards a stainless steel nut that you accidentally dropped into the bowl of peanuts, you can unbolt the Atlantes Freedom from the deck, push it forward and look through a clear plastic window on the macerator body. You can actually look inside and see what’s in the macerator and make an intelligent decision as to whether you want to simply remove the plate and deal with it or jump overboard and swim ashore. Of course, other companies have other modern and efficient ways of handling this age-old boating problem, and I open my lid to them all for bringing us out of the dark ages when things were “so much better.”

***

Another thing I really miss is our old alcohol stove. These are much improved today, but I fondly remember ours from the good ol’ days. It was built into the counter, right next to the sink, on a 27-foot sailboat we cruised in the ’60s. For some reason I’m having a difficult time remembering exactly how we lit it, although I remember we used matches — long matches — and I remember we always sort of hoped it wouldn’t light. I also remember that the one not doing the lighting would always be standing on the companionway steps holding a fire extinguisher. The idea was that alcohol stoves were safer than propane stoves and cleaner than kerosene models. They were safer because alcohol evaporates and drifts upward, rather than collecting in the bilge and causing explosions.

Despite this, we managed to have explosions of a sort or, at best, “significant conflagrations” almost every time we lit the thing. I frequently wondered if it wouldn’t have been better to just go ahead and have the explosion in the bilge. That way I wouldn’t burn my eyelashes and hair every day.

But the safety experts were, in the final analysis, right. Indeed, it was better to have the rapid combustion on the countertop. That way we could see it better and extinguish it better. And it blew out the companionway rather than out the bottom. I also think that’s why alcohol stoves were reputed to be so clean. Every time we lit ours, the resulting significant conflagration would burn off all the dirt on the counter and grease on the dishes. Unfortunately, since it was next to the only sink on the boat, it also was next to where we brushed our teeth. The taste of charred toothbrush bristle still lingers fondly in my mind.

***

Which reminds me of another fond memory from the good ol’ days. It’s that of brushing my teeth and washing my face with one hand while pumping cold water with the other. In the good ol’ days, many boats, even 27- to 30-footers, didn’t have pressure water systems. You had to pump a little handle to squirt the fresh water up from the tank and into the sink. Pumping with one hand while washing your face with the other was about as natural as scratching your nose with your elbow.

One benefit of these pumps at the sink was that they would save water. The only outlet for our 30-gallon tank was at that sink by the stove, which was the dishwashing sink, face-washing sink and tooth-brushing sink. It was a very versatile sink, except that you couldn’t take a shower in it. To do that, we would heat water in plastic bags. I would paint them black and leave them up on deck in the sun. One of us would pour while the other crouched in the cockpit chasing around the downcoming splashes of water with a wash rag. I’d have to prop up cockpit cushions around the coaming when Mel had her turn, because she was always afraid somebody would see, even though the closest boat was a mile away.

Today, we make our own water from the sea and our boat has two house-type showers plus a Raritan hot-water tank that heats water with electricity. But I have to admit, I still miss the cockpit showers. Some of my fondest memories involved the times that I needed to stand up to dry and I couldn’t because my wife wouldn’t let me. So I’d slither backward down the companionway on all fours and back into the alcohol stove.

***

Yes, the creature comforts in the good ol’ days were really great. But the proudest memory I have of those times was that we all used to navigate like the true, hoary seamen of old that we were. We were masters of our own destinies, and we knew where we were going and how to navigate properly to get there. It’s just not the same today.

I still miss my Esso map. The first trip I took up Chesapeake Bay I used one for my chart. Just one map covered the whole Bay, complete with nice little drawings of buoys and lighthouses. I once figured out how to fold it back up after I’d used it. I had it made — never mind that I never seemed to end up where I thought I was going. (I had a shallow, flat-bottom outboard skiff then, so accidentally spending the night in the marsh didn’t matter so much.)

Today, I have modern paper charts in book form by Maptech. Just turn the pages as you go. The book fits handily most anywhere around the steering station; I don’t have to lay them in the wet bilge like I did with my Esso map. I also use a Standard Horizon CP300i chart plotter loaded with C-MAP Max charts. One little chip has charts for the whole East Coast and the Bahamas. And you don’t have to fold anything back up. A little blip tells me where I am, which saves the embarrassment of calling for a bridge that I went through two hours ago. It always tells me where I should point the boat to get where my wife wants me to go.

She read the directions as soon as we got it and hasn’t let me see them yet. So there’s never any doubt about my deviating from her chosen course. And you know that makes it all a whole lot easier these days. She’s got a lot more sense than to spend the night in 2 inches of water in a marsh somewhere.

***

The good ol’ days have come and gone for me. Obviously, I like much of the “neat stuff” that modern times have given us. But I can’t help wondering what it’ll be like when my today has become the good ol’ days. From what I’m reading, each boat may be required to have equipment that tells the government where you are and where you’re heading at all times. More boats will have joystick controls, so, instead of learning seamanship and boat handling, new boat owners will just need to be able to play computer games — and pray that it all works.

Many of us won’t be able to go down to the marina to piddle about and work on our boats anymore because most boats will be sitting in computer-operated racks in high-rise dry storage where no work is allowed except by establishment employees.

Today — right now, that is — is a great time to enjoy your boat. And it’s not hard to realize this when your stern clears the jetties on a pretty morning and you throw down the throttle and feel the wind on your face. You smell the salt air and watch the gulls wheeling over the sea — and you know how good they feel — and you know that they’ve felt this way for thousands of years.

Tom Neale is technical editor for Soundings and lives aboard a Gulfstar 53 motorsailer. You can buy his book, “All in the Same Boat,” at

www.tomneale.com.