You and Your Bilge - Can You Have a Stable Marriage?
By Wayne Spivak
United States Coast Guard Auxiliary

For those of us who are currently married, we know that marriage is the world's most difficult compromise. For those of us who are divorced, we know that marriage was the world's most difficult compromise. For those of us who boat, we also know that our bilge, while extremely important to our vessel is also a compromise, between safety, and environmental protection.

What exactly is a bilge? According to Chapman's 56th Edition, "The term Bilge is also applied to the lower interior areas of the hull of a vessel. Here water that leaks in, or is blown aboard as spray, collects as Bilge Water, to be later pumped overboard by a bilge pump."
Seems like a straight forward definition. A place where excess water collects, that then is pumped overboard. What is missing from this definition, and its volumes, is what else collects in that bilge, and what safety problems could occur because of the collection of water, and other debris.

Take a look at your bilge the next time you are down at your boat. I just looked at mine, and I found the following (in no particular order, and I'm not proud of this, nor have I serviced my boat for the season as of yet…): water, leaves, twigs, dirt, oily residue, muck, paper, and foul smells. How does your stack-up to my bilge? I'd bet, unless it's a new boat, a self-bailing boat or you just cleaned the bilge, rather closely!

Now let's examine each item as it relates to what can go wrong with my vessel, because of the contents in the bilge. I'll leave water to the end of the discussion, whence it will become almost self-explanatory.

Leaves, twigs, and paper: These items can cause the bilge pump strainer to become clogged. A clogged strainer will either greatly impede the flow of bilge water out of the boat, or stop it altogether.

These items also start to decay, and are a breeding ground for bacteria and other organisms. Let us not forget bad smells. A clogged strainer will cause the bilge water to 'stand', which according to our Mosquito Control people, is the ideal breeding ground for guess what, these annoying pests. In my area of the woods, West Nile Virus is a concern, which is spread by Mosquitoes.

Strike one - clogged bilge pump. Strike two - bad smells can cause queasiness and the desire of your crew and guests not to go boating with you; and strike three, its a breeding ground for disease!

Muck and dirt: This term can be defined as

a) A moist sticky mixture, consisting mostly of mud and filth,

b) Dark fertile soil containing decaying vegetable matter or

c) Something filthy or disgusting. Based upon what I found in my bilge, it's a combination of all three. And it is disgusting!

So besides being gross, what else is wrong with having Muck? Well, it too will clog your bilge pump strainer. It is also a breeding ground for bacteria and other nasties. Plus, let's not forget the best of all, it stinks!

Oily residue: This is an environmental accident waiting to happen. It is illegal to release any oil based product into the navigable waters of the US.
This term "any" seems to be a sticking point for many. It's akin to your two year old, who hasn't quite grasped the concept of "no". "Any", means exactly that, any, from the minutest amount of oil to a major oil spill. None, zippo, nada!

Fortunately, I have an oil absorbent pad sitting in my bilge. I suggest that everyone purchase and place these oil absorbent pads into their bilges. These products will suck up any oil or fuel which leaks out of the engine or into the bilge. After awhile, these pads begin to smell and can also clog your strainer, as they become waterlogged. A couple words of caution regarding the use of these products:
1. Because they can obscure the bilge pump and prevent it from doing its job, remember to tie off these absorbent pads with a plastic wire tie so they don't obscure the bilge pump, and

2. Remember to replace these pads on a regular basis, and dispose of them properly (at a hazardous waste disposal; site). To find the closest hazardous waste disposal site in your area, call 1-800-CLEANUP.

Water in the bilge: The last item we found in my bilge was water. As the catalyst for most of the problems I've touched upon, there is another major factor that water in the bilge contributes to, and it's related to the handling and stability of your vessel.

Bilge water is free flowing. It will slosh from the port to starboard, forward and aft as the vessel moves in the water. As it does, based on other factors, such as placement of material (coolers, people, etc) in the boat, seas, wind and the manner in which the boat is being piloted, could cause the boat to broach, which as we should know, would put both your vessel and your crew/guests in a most dangerous predicament.

Excessive amount of water in the bilge may be an indication of another potential problem, such as failure of a thru-hull fitting, the "boot" on your lower unit, stuffing box, etc. These items should be checked at least semi-annually as part of your regular maintenance program.

So, our marriage to our bilge is a compromise. A compromise between safety and some added effort on your part to keep it clean. It's up to you to make this marriage work!

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