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A Unique Way to Try to Stay Warm at Sea

Any sailor will tell you when you’re out at sea necessity becomes the mother of invention… at least you try anyway! One of the more bizarre scenes I experienced on our return journey from Thailand in 1974 was what happened as we were trying to stay warm while crossing the North Pacific Ocean in mid-winter.


Early one morning before dawn it snowed, then as the weather cleared it became bitterly cold and the temperature dropped to below freezing. We all pitched in and bent to the task of chipping ice off the deck and rigging. Killian said that the added weight of the ice might prove too heavy for the already overburdened Nepenthe. I got out Bowditch and read the section on ‘Deck Ice’. It was clear. It was a common reason for boats to break apart and sink due to the added weight. There were pictures of the damage this had caused to other vessels which hastened us to get rid of it immediately.


“We’ve got to have some heat,” said Willie, rubbing his hands together after an hour of prying up the last chunks of the deck ice. He, Joe and I were huddled in the main cabin drinking hot coffee and Swiss Miss hot chocolate and attempting vainly to try and get warm again. Killian was at the helm.



“God, I’d love to be in front of a fireplace right now with a hot brandy and a big fire blazing,” Joe said. His breath was visible as he spoke.


“Don’t forget my Swedish blonde!” Willie added.


It was then that Willie came up with a novel idea to heat the boat. He grabbed a cooking pot and climbed the companionway ladder. Squeezing by Killian, he went to the lazarette hatch, opened it and retrieved a one gallon fuel can of diesel fuel out of the storage area. He unscrewed the cap and poured about three inches of the oily liquid into the pot.


“What’s that for?” Killian asked.


“Oh, nuthin,” Willie answered, basically ignoring him and went below, leaving the canvas hatchway cover unzipped. He added a couple of tablespoons of stove alcohol to the diesel fuel and to Joe’s and my astonishment, lit a match and dropped it into the pot as if he were in the process of creating a flambé.

A fire burned upon the surface of the diesel fuel. There was indeed a very small amount of heat produced from Willie’s concoction, but most of all there was thick black smoke filling the cabin.



“You imbecile! Now look at what you’ve done!” I cried as Willie wiped the black smudges from his face.


“Jesus Christ!” exclaimed Killian. “What did you do?”


With black smoke billowing out of the open hatchway cover, it looked like a World War II newsreel of a torpedoed tanker. Killian could hear violent coughing down below as I hurriedly emerged from the smoke and threw the burning smudge pot over the side. Both Joe and Willie were laughing and coughing simultaneously as they hurried topside to fresh air, both in virtually mime-like, smudged blackface like in a Three Stooges slapstick-like comedy scene.


90° to Zamboanga, Section 3, Chapter 21, page 236

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