Issue: February 2007
OFF THE CHARTS: Burning Down the Boat

by WendyMitman Clarke

One of the things I like most about older boats is the very fact that they're older. Well-seasoned. Have a few miles on them. And with miles, one assumes, comes experience.You could argue that this is classic midlife sentiment, a kind of self-assuring justification for wrinkles and scars. Whatever. The fact is that older boats have a character and depth that's just plainlacking in a shiny new thing that's still off-gassing vinylester and bling.

Of course, with older boats come older systems. Things do wear out (tell it to my knees). How and when they wear out, now that makes life with an older boat so much fun.

The night of the Eastport Yacht Club Lights Parade was cold and clear, perfect for a small gathering aboard our new older boat to watch the festivities. We had the hot cider, we had the rum, we had the baked brie. All we needed was a little heat in the cabin and we were good to go.

One of the first things you'll notice in the forward cabin of our boat is a diesel heater. It's the approximate size and shape of R2D2, but it's actually quite handsome, Danish-made, with a cook-top surface surrounded by a well-turned stainless steel fiddle. "What a cool stove!" everybody says when they see it. That's what we said too--before we tried to light it for the first time a week before the lights parade. The instructions were a little vague, but the gist was this: You open the fuel valve and turn the regulator to "pilot." Then you open the lid, toss in a lit match, and pray. (The instructions didn't actually mention praying, but I figured it couldn't hurt.)

It took us awhile to find out how the previous owners had pumped fuel into the stove's little tank--because, go figure, they had labled the pump switch "bait well." Once Johnny figured this out, he quickly learned that the fuel line was clogged. An afternoon spent taking everything apart, cleaning it and reassembling was followed by several unsuccessful yet exciting attempts at blastoff.

Next step: the internet, of course. I e-mailed a friend who uses one of these stoves and asked how he lit it. (They're quite popular among the long-term cruising set who travel to, say, the Weddell Sea. I'm willing to bet Ernest Shackleton had one on Endurance. Come to think of it, maybe he had our stove.) My friend's suggestion: add more fuel to the fire. He accomplishes this, he says, by filling an oilcan with methylated spirits and creating a miniature flamethrower, to heat up the diesel. Then he does the match toss. Perfectly reasonable thing to do on one's boat, light one inferno with another. Why hadn't we thought of that?

On the very evening of the lights parade, armed with said spirits, Johnny again tackled the stove. Twice he managed to get it lit, and twice it snuffed itself out. It wasn't the fuel line, so it must have been the firebox itself. It looked pretty rusty and sooty in there; another thorough cleaning ensued. By now the brie was on the table, the cider was hot, the guests were to arrive any minute.

"Here goes," Johnny said, tossing another match into the box. This time, by George, it lit. Not unlike Mount St. Helens. "Are there supposed to be flames coming out from there?" I asked, pointing to the space beneath the heater. Johnny grabbed the fire extinguisher, and with an abrupt "Pfoooft!" the fire was out. The entire cabin was dusted with fine white fire extinguisher powder, Johnny was as filthy as a London chimney sweep, the billowing diesel smoke would have swelled any trucker's heart . . . and the guests arrived. The party commenced regardless, of course. No need to let a little two-alarmer spoil our fun. We discovered later that the bottom of the firebox had rusted through; the poor thing was just worn out.

And see, this is just what I'm talking about with an older boat. Imagine how ordinary the evening would have been if we'd been on a new boat with a new heating system that required nothing but the flip of a switch. No pyrotechnics at all. Where's the fun in that?