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All is Revealed: Shrimp Boat Anatomy, Part 1

The bilge of our shrimp boat, looking cleaner, as photographed on April 12, 2011

“… where leakage is, there also, of necessity, is bilgewater; and where bilgewater is, only the dead can enjoy life; This is on account of the smell.”  – in About All Kinds of Ships by Mark Twain

“The compartment at the bottom of the hull of a ship or boat where water collects and must be pumped out of the vessel.”  – definition of the bilge, as explained by Wikipedia.com

The ‘bilge’ is certainly not specific to shrimp boats, but it has become the most consuming aspect of our own boat restoration process (and therefore blog-worthy). In the context of our experience, traditional definitions do not shed proper light on this piece of the boat anatomy. More than a mere element of marine architecture, it is the forboding space that you enter when you descend below the deck; it is the tangle of engine parts and wires waiting to be reconnected to the rebuilt engine;  it is the configuration of metal plates, bars and braces that forms the structure of the hull and makes human movement through or around the space awkward and painful; it is the body cavity of the boat’s organs, it’s where the mechanical systems that drive the boat reside. And we have now been crawling around the bilge of our boat for nearly 2 months in an effort clean it, fix it, paint it and generally prepare it for the return of our engine (which, when in place, will make it far more difficult to crawl around the bilge). We’re still not finished sorting out our bilge, and our engine is still not in the boat, but we’ve come a long way with this space, and the time is right to invite you into the depths of our boat.

What have we learned? For one thing, cleaning a bilge that has over twenty-five years of spent oil caked onto its structure is an extraordinarily messy, seemingly never-ending job (historically, some boat owners would dump the spent oil into their bilge to prevent their metal boat from rusting). But it’s also a very gratifying job when a glimmer of grease-free surface area emerges. The goal of cleaning our bilge is simple enough: remove the grease from all surfaces of the bilge so that a new coat of paint can stick. Initially, it seemed that an appropriate analogy for the job was just the washing of household dishes. However, the sheer magnitude of the oil and grease quickly exhausted this comparison. Do we powerwash, then scrub, then suck out the water with a  shop vac? or do we scrape and brush with a little water and wipe the surfaces with absorbant oil cloth, and then add more water?? And what is the best product to cut through this grease??? These are a few of the exciting and important questions we had to ask.

What a greasy bilge looks like from above; an example of "purple stuff"; Navigating the tangle of engine-related parts in the bilge; a typical scene from a day of bilge-cleaning; Hitting the jackpot of a super-thick grease deposit after cutting out the engine oil pan

Ultimately, our arsenal became clear, if not the exact order of operations: wipe all visible clusters of grease with oil cloth, apply “Purple Stuff”  aggressively from a garden pump sprayer (“Purple Stuff” is the popular term for industrial de-greaser, which is always purple in color… exact reason is still unknown); scrub with brushes of various bristles– natural, synthetic, wire– depending on level of grime; apply water strategically with garden hose spray-gun, suck out the watery muck with a shop-vac; empty muck from shop-vac into 5-gallon buckets; when the grease is especially thick, use a paint-scraper to scoop up large quantities (see photo of Zach above).

As typically happens in dynamic situations, other findings began to shift the course of what began as a routine cleaning exercise. The drama began to unfold when after weeks of cleaning, more grease continued to appear, and we discovered large deposits of grease trapped under a large fixed oil pan that sits under the engine seat. It seemed to be a faulty design of the bilge, so we decided to cut out this pan and liberate the greasy mess underneath. Our decision not only revealed a thickness of grease of absurd proportions, but below this a virtual lunar landscape of corroded metal forming the bottom of our boat. The grease alone should have prevented the corrosion, were it not filled with 25 years worth of metallic debris– bolts, washers, nuts, even a screw driver– all contributing to galvanic corrosion. Corroded metal would be a problem anywhere on the boat, but to find thin, pock-marked metal in the deepest part of the hull where water would inevitibly collect, was a serious problem. And predictably, the more we scraped at the floor of the hull, the more nickle-size holes started to show (see the previous post for how we dealt with the little geisers that sprung from these holes).

Cutting out the section of the hull to be replaced; The section of the hull, along both sides of the keel, fully removed; Former shrimp boat captain Gary Jones welding the new steel plate into the boat; Taking a break from welding; View from under the boat: One of the two new steel plates that will close up the hull; Welding the new plate from the inside of the hull.

Flash-forward a few days and our boat is now fully hauled-out of the water and our bilge is ready to be surgically fixed. The big dilemma at this point: do we patch a dozen or so small holes individually or is the corrosion expansive enough to warrant replacing large sections of the hull? We opted for the latter, what seemed to us to be the more sustainable option. More work for sure, but also more peace of mind. This decision set in motion the events leading up to now: the surgical removal of two sections of the hull along the keel, each about 18″ x 6′ (no easy feat given the awkwardly tight dimensions of the bilge); the smoothing of the edges around the two large openings now in the hull, to ease the fitting of new steel plate over these openings; the enlisting of former shrimp boat captain Gary Jones to help weld the new steel plate onto the hull, both from inside the bilge and under the boat; and the replacing of the many steel ribs over the new plate that will complete the internal structure of the bilge. And amazingly, this trajectory began with the simple desire to clean the bilge so we could paint it.

We’re still not there yet. But we now have an almost water-tight bilge. And we’ve gotten to know another former shrimper in Gary Jones (he offered to lend us a gps chip that shows much of the sunken debris we’ll probably be snagging our net on when we finally go shrimping). And that job of painting the bilge is now coming up fast on the horizon. The theory goes that with a clean, well-painted bilge, any new leaks from anywhere and of anything (oil, water, diesel, etc…), will be as visible as possible and ease the troubleshooting. We’ll let you know how that goes.


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