How to Clean the Bilge



You woke up this morning, with a face full of sea air, the sound of obnoxious strange birds screaming and murdering each other on your foredeck, and hardly a scrap of damp blanket left from your significant other and the various pets scattered about....

You woke up this morning, with a face full of sea air, the sound of obnoxious strange birds screaming and murdering each other on your foredeck, and hardly a scrap of damp blanket left from your significant other and the various pets scattered about. 

Today was like any other day, a day of rest, relaxation, lounging about with nothing to do but embellish your last sea adventure – but then, it all changed. You smelled something, didn’t you?

We’ve all been there, you’re not alone. There’s something off, and it’s not just the so-called ‘icebox’ that you use to store beverages. No, it’s something else, something eldritch, terrible, so foul and inky black… it’s your bilge.

It lurks beneath, waiting.

First, however, before you just sally forth to do battle with the ancient evil, you need a sip or three of some incredibly fortifying beverage. You don’t want to face whatever is down there on an empty stomach do you? Coffee can come later, when your significant other wakes up and sees how industrious and helpful you’ve been this fine early morning.

Now that you’re properly fueled up and motivated, let’s get to work. Start by taking a look in each area of the bilge you can access. Simply break every single one of your fingernails trying to pry up those hatches, and then use your handy flashlight to take a look.

Next, reach down into the depths of the blackness, deep down, feel your fingers slide into the oily nightmare, deeper, even deeper still, until you caress the soft muck and mire at the bottom – and retrieve your flashlight.

Next time try to hold on to it a little better.

You may also want something to wipe the oily muck off your hands, or your significant other may decide hands are simply not something you are entitled to any longer. We wouldn’t want that. You should probably find something other than the dish towel, however. It simply won’t do.

Now that you’ve properly hidden the dish towel it in the hamper, and located an actual legitimate rag, we’re ready to get back to work, and by that, we mean get another drink.

You’ve discovered some pretty funky gunk down in there, and no small amount of oil. Don’t panic. The oil is almost certainly from your engine, so at least we’ve solved that mystery! Oil is also incredibly easy to clean up! Simply call your friendly banker and take out a loan to purchase some oil absorbent pads, make sure you get them on sale, because they are rather expensive. Do not attempt to use dish towels, this is very important.

Now that you’ve pulled the other dish towel out of the bilge and hidden it even deeper in the hamper, let’s take careful stock of the situation. Remember the lessons we’ve learned from various ecological disasters throughout history – in each of those situations, they used oil absorbent pads, waterfowl and sea mammals, and quite possibly dish soap, because it takes grease out of your way.

Before you start throwing seagulls and the friendly dock-side sea lion down the floor hatch to soak up all that oil, take a moment here and think. Is this something you absolutely need to do? Surely the oil absorbent pads would be enough, right? You bought enough of them, according to your bank balance – or lack thereof, as the case may be.

You should also reign in that plan to lather your bilge in dish soap as well. According to the small print on the packaging that you missed because you tossed it into the garbage, the pads won’t work if you add an emulsifying agent to the oil. I know that’s a mighty big word – they really should have said ‘dish soap’, but as we all know, marketers and writers are paid by the word, the more clever, the better. They can hardly be blamed for your lack of knowledge of the terms used in chemical engineering.

So now we need to figure out how to clean up all that soap you sprayed around in there. Yes, I know it looked just like the old commercials on TV, with the oil racing off to magically disappear somewhere else other than where you were looking — - but I assure you, the oil is still there, somewhere.

The proper way to approach this mystery is by removing the water in the bilge. Because you’re just the most conscientious person, you were careful to turn off the bilge pump at the switch the moment you discovered oil – so you can’t (and honestly, shouldn’t) just trip the bilge pump to drain the water.

Now that you’ve stopped the bilge pump and turned off the switch like the good steward of our environment that you are, it’s time to locate something to hold oily water. At no time should you even contemplate using the big pot from the galley. Okay, well, at least don’t contemplate it twice.

The proper tool for this job is a bucket, preferably one that is not used for washing clothes. If you have a different bucket handy, that is the one you should use at this time. Place the oily pot, the other dish towel, and anything else you’ve destroyed into the ruined laundry bucket, and place it all somewhere out of sight, or at least not directly in the line of sight of your significant other, who will no doubt be waking up soon, given the incredibly colorful stream of invective you’ve been muttering.

If there’s one thing I know, the only thing you really need in a situation like this some sort of cool beverage. I suspect you might agree with me at this point, covered as you are with oil, grease, foul bilge muck, and no small amount of misery. At this point, a frosty cold one isn’t just recommended, it’s actually required. Trust me.

Now that you’ve chugged away some of that misery, you’re properly motivated. You have the proper bucket handy, a suitable sponge that isn’t the one your significant other might need to clean that nasty oily pot and something soft and disposable to lay on, so the edge of the bilge hatch opening doesn’t permanently deform your sternum. You may want to reconsider your selection of a settee cushion for this, as oil is frightfully hard to clean out of cushions.

Now that you’re all set, let’s get to work. Using the sponge, carefully sop up as much water and oil as you can reach from each area of the bilge, and carefully dribble and drip it all over the side of your face as you reach up over your head for the bucket. It’s important at this point that you do not let any of the bilge water get into your mouth.

If, by some strange stroke of fate, you haven’t heeded this warning, please do your best to get the rancid slop out of your mouth, in a manner that doesn’t involve screaming, crying, swearing, cursing, or screaming. I realize I cautioned against screaming twice, it’s just that you really weren’t listening, and I thought it might be important to remind you.

A quick sip or three later, that nasty taste is out of your mouth, and we’re ready to continue. Fall forward as gently as you can, while avoiding the open hatch, and continue to sop out the remaining water. As the water level drops, you will no doubt notice the oil returning from the farthest reaches of the bilge, from under tanks, batteries, old rusting cans of chili, or whatever else you’ve forgotten you shoved down there. At this point, a judicious and proper application of oil absorbent pads is called for. Try to use them in a manner in which they are designed, to soak up oil. They do not work all that well to soak up blood, sweat, or tears.

Now that you’ve removed the water, and have appropriate measures in place to absorb any oil, let’s take a look at what might be causing oil to get into the bilge. The obvious suspect here is your engine. A quick check of the dipstick should tell the truth of it. Is it low? Empty? Remember, a little bit of oil goes a long way, so it might not be too low. Let’s shove some of your precious few remaining oil absorbent pads under the engine, and see what we can find.

Do you have a fitting down there to help you remove old oil from the engine? Because you’re a conscientious and wise engineer, you’re probably well familiar with this fitting, because you check and change your oil religiously, according to the gospel of the manual as is right and proper. On the off chance you may have missed a few maintenance cycles this decade, now would be a perfect time to take a break, get another one of those essential beverages and the engine manual, and reacquaint yourself with the proper ‘care and feeding’ of your trusty Iron Jenny.

I forgot to mention the manual is full of words, and your eyes are probably not working all that well by this point, quite possibly from a little too much overindulgence this early in the morning, or, from bilge water. No worry, let’s just squint a bit at the pictures, nod knowingly, and say ‘Hmm’ a lot. That’s really all anyone does, even the professionals.

Now that you’ve finished that incredibly satisfying beverage and tossed the manual somewhere safe that isn’t referred to as ‘the bilge’, let’s just reach on up underneath the engine and see what feels wet. Maybe it’s the fitting, maybe it’s the drain plug (if any). If you feel a hole where the drain plug used to be, well, that’s the problem. You might also run a finger along any gaskets, to see if they’ve blown out – a sure sign of this would be a rain of oil running out like a natural disaster along your reaching fingers.

Let’s just safely assume you’ve discovered the leak, and are well on your way to identifying a proper course of action to remediate and correct the issue. That’s a mighty safe assumption, so let’s go ahead and relax a bit. You have the issue well in hand at this point, you might as well crack open another one, because we’re not quite done yet and your significant other is starting to snore a little bit less.

Now that the oil is happily soaking into the pads, let’s get that bucket again – oh wait, you haven’t emptied it yet? The thing is, we’ve gone to such great lengths to protect our environment, you can’t just dump that bucket overboard. You should try to first sop up any oil floating on the surface. If that doesn’t work, pour the water into some sort of disposable receptacle that doesn’t look anything like the pitcher, or actually, anything from the galley. That should be pretty well established by now, simply by looking at the ever-growing pile of fouled-up cookware and dish towels you have scattered about.

In many places, you can find waste oil receptacles wherever fuel is sold – in other places, you’ll need to haul it on down to the recycle center to dispose of it properly. It also goes without saying at this point that you have almost certainly had six too many to be able to drive anywhere, so you can just set the jugs with oily bilge juices aside for a bit, and you might as well crack another one, because you know what? This is hard work.

Next, we want to get on back down into the bilge, with that handy five-gallon bucket you borrowed from a location we’ll refer to as ‘not your boat’. What we want to do now, is work our way through the bilge from stem to stern, scooping up the sludge and goo from the deepest parts of each section.

Mind the eyes again, and above all, resist the urge to use a spatula or any other long-handled scooping or scraping implement for the task. Yes, I understand the galley is just chock full of a myriad of incredibly useful utensils that seem (at this point) to be perfectly engineered for the task at hand, but trust me, your significant other will find even more interesting and painful places to shove those implements, and you don’t want that.

Or maybe you do. I guess in our modern world, there’s really nothing wrong with that. Who am I  to judge?

Another thing we need to be super careful of is to avoid placing any of the bilge sludge or muck into your mouth, nose, eyes, or ears. It will taste the precise opposite of wonderful, and you will absolutely love it not one bit, guaranteed. Trust me on this one. No amount of refreshing adult beverage would make that palatable, or suitable for placement in your nose.

Now that you’ve rinsed your mouth out, let’s continue working our way through each section of the bilge. Once you’ve cleaned out the funky mung, wipe down the surfaces with a biodegradable degreaser of your choice. The specific brand you use is not important, I am quite sure there are many options to choose from – you might even be able to make your own.

Finished? Take a moment to shine the flashlight around in the nooks and crannies, looking for anything that looks out of place or needs attention. Make sure you grunt appreciatively at the various bits you don’t understand, just so they don’t realize they have you at a disadvantage. Look for anything corroded, rotten, leaking, drippy, wet, peeling, on fire, or otherwise ‘not normal’. Make a note of each deficiency, for later.

Your bilge is now clean, it’s shiny – you have everything well in hand. You can clean up all this mess later, right after you reward yourself with another incredibly cold, super refreshing and fortifying beverage, and maybe just a quick little power nap.

As you drift into a well-deserved unconsciousness, just imagine how happy your significant other is going to be. Who could worry or care about scattered empties, oily cookware, cooking implements, dish towels, settee cushions, buckets, bags, and other assorted befouled family heirlooms, when there is such a shiny clean bilge underfoot? 


©2016 Dain White. All Rights Reserved.

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